The homilist where I was said that, for many today, the concept of a miracle works opposite from the way it once did. Nowadays, he said, people hear the miracle story, and it puts them off. Instead of being an attractive feature of Jesus, it becomes an offputting thing. But, he said, there is a way to read this story, which avoids all that. See, he said, maybe the disciples start sharing, and then others do, and after all, they probably had all their own picnic. Then, he said, what Jesus did was really the miracle of turning their stinginess into generosity.
Now, of course, I agree that turning stinginess into generosity can be miraculous! Daniel Harrington, author of the Sacra Pagina commentary on Matthew, refers to the homilist's interpretation as the "embarassingly shallow...explanation [that] suggests that Jesus urged the crowd to share among themselves the food that individuals had brought along." First off, in Matthew's text, the disciples ask Jesus to let the crowd go and buy food. Are we to understand that they disciples were ignorant of everyone's provisions tucked in their garments for snacking, while we, two millenia later, can figure it out?
But of course the deeper problem lies elsewhere. If God is real, then the supernatural is possible. Whether the supernatural actually occurs depends then on the will of God. The notion that somehow God does miracles with people's emotions or psychology, but not miracles with their larder or tumor, is the weakest kind of God-in-a-box, God-of-the-gaps thinking. If the idea is that God is real, but doesn't interfere, then I submit that miraculous interference with people's emotions or psychology is a far more manipulative God than interference with larder and tumor. But the homilist's particular "embarassing shallow" interpretation manages to make there be no miracle at all, just one man's example of sharing inspiring others to do the same. Inspirational yes, but not a miracle at all; turning stinginess into generosity this way is a nice thing, a good thing, and not miraculous as anyone understands the word.
And worst of all, the text in Matthew doesn't even say anything about miracles. If one is worried about miracles, surely the healing stories, the raising of Lazarus, and the Resurrection itself, are the places to scratch one's head, and not the multiplication of loaves and fishes. If really the point is to figure out explanations which are unproblematic to an attitude of unbelief, then please, leave the loaves and fishes alone, and get to the point of the hard cases.
But the story isn't a miracle story; it doesn't raise the question. It does not represent the feeding of the crowd as some kind of authentication of Jesus or his message. But what it does do is raise the question of a God whose generosity both depends on human action, and exceeds "all that we can ask or imagine." If Matthew meant to give the message the homilist wanted him to say, he could certainly have done so. We already have that text, anyway, in 2 Corinthians 9. Generosity of one inspired by the generosity of others is a good thing. The story from Matthew, however, seems to be about the generosity of God.
The disciples see the need, and ask Jesus to release the people to buy something to eat. It seems generous; too much religion is making them hungry, and they really do need the food. Jesus, it seems, is demanding them stay and listen, and really, the sun is setting and it's time for the sermon to come to a close. Please, Jesus, remember they need to eat.
"You give them something to eat." Jesus acknowledges the issue, the concern, and there is nothing wrong with the disciples caring about this need, and Jesus' response is that the disciples should feed them themselves. Sending people away to fend for themselves seems fine to the disciples. But Jesus expects the disciples not merely to make room for them to solve their own problem; Jesus expects the disciples to do something.
"But we don't have enough." The disciples have thought through the problem. There isn't enough. (Note here how the homilist's explanation sucks the joy out of the story, by implying that the disciples are mistaken about how much food is available.) Careful analysis has yielded only one solution: sending the people away to get food. A decision has to be made: more teaching, or dinner.
"Bring them here to me." The food comes to Jesus. It is brought to him, who acknowledges it as a gift from God and begins handing it out. And now, with God involved, with Jesus in cooperation with his disciples, there is enough. The point is not "ooh, cool magic trick"; the point is that with God all things are possible and, to boot, that this in no way lets us off the hook for the interests of our neighbors: You give them something to eat.
The point is that the way "out" of the scarcity myth (that is, the big lie that there is not enough and never will be) does not lie in enough people "doing the right thing"; it lies in people trusting in the grace of God to make even an inadequate attempt sufficient, indeed, more than sufficient, with enough for all and more to boot. And this message (good news, indeed) is directly contrary to a limitation of what God is going to be allowed to do in our petty theologies.