The multiplication of the loaves not only prefigures the institution of the Blessed Eucharist on Holy Thursday. The miracle also draws attention to the ambivalent nature of hunger.
Ordinary hunger often gets in our way, and hunger gnaws at us every day. It can disrupt schedules and lives. Daily meals cost us time and treasure and reduce time on the job. The satiated person remains satisfied only for a few hours or overnight until ever-increasing hunger pangs remind him of the need for more nourishment. So many of us gobble fast food merely to kill hunger—like topping off a gas tank. We may wonder whether it is more efficient to inhibit the hunger impulse rather than feed it.
But when the body loses its capacity for hunger, something is wrong. A sick person may loathe food because his body is temporarily unable to digest it. A dying person loses the physical appetite for nourishment as the body breaks down and finally fails. Ordinary hunger is inescapably healthy and a sign of our desire and capacity for life.
Good food and a healthy appetite please a healthy person. Mothers who prepare meals for their families or fathers who grill hamburgers on the deck for the kids cultivate enjoyable family relationships. A family with many ordinary mouths to feed is a healthy and usually a happy—if not boisterous—family.
Communal meals provide a forum for routine problem-solving and enrich families with the exchange of ideas. Occasional restaurant dining has similar effects and employs many workers. The cycle of generosity and dependence in response to hunger spawns gratitude and affection and provides a solid foundation for our families, communities, and culture. So a mechanical, miraculous, or pharmaceutical elimination of the everyday appetite for food would undermine healthy lives and communities.
In the Gospel account of the miracle, Jesus is the first to notice the plight of hungry people. While He doesn’t miraculously remove the desire for food, He shows us how to solve the hunger problem. He directs the disciples to begin distributing the short supply of loaves and fishes. Trust in Him, and there will be plenty of food for the multitudes.
Jesus also tells His disciples to gather up the fragments to avoid waste. Without unhealthy compulsions, encouraging children not to waste food teaches them the value of God’s gifts and the dignity of work. During the summer growing season, many people share their abundance of home-grown tomatoes and other produce with friends and neighbors. In efforts to avoid waste, we look for those in need. The awareness fortifies generosity and helps direct our works of mercy.
A “waste not, want not” ethic undermines the corrosive entitlement mentality. We can begin to solve “world hunger” with generosity that starts with healthy frugality. With our cooperation with God, a little know-how, good sense, and modern technology, we can till the land and fish the seas to feed the world from God’s abundance.
But our endeavors to “feed the world” often fail to acknowledge God’s plenty and our duty as His good stewards. Godless ideologies like socialism, nationalistic extremes, and unbridled capitalism sever our dependence on God and distort the Godly purposes of human hunger and the need for a compassionate response. We develop a distorted view of humanity that reduces human beings—especially babies—to locusts. We become mere functionaries of self-interest rather than agents of God’s generosity. The compassionate objective of eliminating starvation becomes the “politics of hunger” through crass self-interest, greed, and power politics.
Our country has had an ugly legacy promoting population control to “combat world hunger.” In 1974, the National Security Council—under Henry Kissinger’s direction—released the infamous (originally classified) National Security Study Memorandum 200: Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for U.S. Security and Overseas Interests (NSSM200). President Ford adopted it as official U.S. policy: “The great necessity is to convince the masses of the population that it is to their individual and national interest to have, on average, only three and then only two children.”
The conspiracy had consequences. International food aid flowed into Africa in the 1980s. Many refused to consume the yellow corn that came in sacks marked USAID. “They feared that the grain—different in color than pale Ugandan corn—must have birth control additives, since ‘everyone knew’ the Americans ‘don’t want us to have children.’”
It is grimly fascinating to note how Godless ideologies converge in self-destructive national population and family policies. Today, the dropping fertility rate in the US is comparable to that of Communist China, and Americans have the same economic problems that come with self-inflicted collapsing demographics. But eliminating populations will never eradicate the hunger of those who survive.
Rather than eliminating the urge for hunger, Jesus enlists the disciples to assist Him in miraculously feeding the multitudes. The people respond with awe and gratitude (cf. Jn. 6:1-15). A few scenes later in the Gospel, Jesus reveals the reason for the multiplication of the loaves: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (Jn. 6:35). The miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes did not permanently extinguish hunger but directs it to its ultimate purpose. Jesus alone satisfies the hungry heart.
Jesus reveals the Sacrament of His love at the Last Supper. He directs and transforms our hungry hearts to desire Communion with Him, and we respond with gratitude and love. He longs to share His meal with us! (Lk. 22:15) The more, the merrier! Every form of hunger enkindles us to seek—and abundantly receive and share—the love of Jesus. Indeed, the desire for nourishment is sacramental, an outward sign of our love for life and others. In a spiritual sense, hunger is the desire to be satisfied and to be at peace. The cycle of hunger and nourishment is the basis of all life and healthy communal living in love.
A church with many ordinary hungry mouths to feed with the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine is a healthy Church.
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