Service and the Multiplication of Loaves

Today’s reading is one of the accounts of the multiplication of loaves (Jn 6:1-15). Jesus is being followed by many people because of his healing of the sick, and the people are hungry. Jesus asks Phillip to find the people some food. Phillip replies that there is no way that they have sufficient funds to buy food for so many people. Andrew then says that a boy has five barley loaves and two fishes to contribute, and Jesus takes  what they have and multiplies it so that it is plentiful. There are twelve baskets full of fragments left over after all have eaten.

At the end of each spring semester, I have a lot of goodbyes to say to students who are finishing a class with me,  graduating, or otherwise moving along. This semester, many of my students are also finishing up service work that they have committed to for the past year, and saying goodbye to their own clients, students, guests, at various non-profits around the city. They wonder and ponder what the effect of their actions will be long term on people who are still homeless, or living in poverty, or perhaps still struggling with addictions, or adjusting to life as a recent immigrant. The students will be returning to their home cities and states soon but their students’ and clients’ lives go on.

There is something analogous here to the loaves and fishes story. Two of the disciples respond a bit differently from one another. Phillip wonders if what they have could ever be enough for the need that is present, while Andrew offers what they have. In fact, Andrew doesn’t even offer from his own resources alone, but seeks out other resources to assist the crowd; it’s already a cooperative venture when he offers the loaves and fishes to Jesus. Andrew must know that this amount of food will not be “enough” but he has faith that it is still worth offering. And Jesus multiplies the loaves.

In service work (and in teaching), each one of us offers relatively little but as part of larger communities that effect is multiplicative. Each student’s individual service work matters, and can have profound effects. Still, the larger effect is from the hundreds of students each year who offer their time and their selves to the city in a cooperative way. For me, it is also important to have faith that whatever we start can multiply in ways beyond our own imagination. As an educator, I plant the seeds but don’t myself get to see the effects of teaching a class. Instead, I must trust that my work will come to fruition in some way, through God’s efforts than my own.

In the multiplication of loaves story, there is an invitation to cooperation and friendship with God, and also a kind of letting go of ourselves and of our work and placing it into God’s hands.