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Five loaves

/ 05:22 AM April 27, 2018

Perhaps one of the most appreciated biblical parables is the story of the five loaves and two pieces of fish used to feed a crowd of 5,000 by Jesus and his disciples. The gospel writers were not very gender-sensitive, pointing out that the 5,000 did not count the women and children.

The story appears in all of the four gospels in the New Testament, with John providing a bit more detail, specifying it was dried fish. Yes, daing! There is a similar parable involving seven loaves used to feed 4,000 people, but this appears only in Mark and Matthew.

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Some biblical scholars quibble about whether there were loaves or baskets of the stuff, but even five baskets of bread to feed 5,000 would have been impressive.

Generosity and faith

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And, of course, we would be missing the whole point here of generosity and faith. Jesus’ disciples fret about feeding so many people, but Jesus assures them there will be enough, in effect asking his followers to have more faith. Sometimes lost in the retelling of this parable is the element of generosity, of the young man who comes forward with what he has.

I used the parable in class in 2013, after Supertyphoon “Yolanda” struck Eastern Visayas, with Tacloban City particularly devastated. At the University of the Philippines Diliman, we suddenly found ourselves having to tend to more than 200 of UP Tacloban’s displaced students.

Several times, meeting with the students from Tacloban, as well as our own students and faculty, I would cite the parable of the five loaves to explain that our resources were limited but that we were welcoming the students with open arms, open hearts, and a lot of faith in the generosity of other people.

And it did work out. The students managed to not only enroll in our classes but to also stay in our dorms, and to receive psychosocial counseling and support.

I thought again of the five loaves when the matter of free tuition and fees arose last August. The new law for free tuition and fees signed by President Duterte was to be implemented only in the next schoolyear—2018-2019—in state universities and colleges, but UP, banking on the Commission on Higher Education’s free tuition program, but with students still having to pay fees for laboratories, library, athletics, etc., decided to bite the bullet and dispense with those fees as well.

It was a bold move, and did make me think of the five loaves again. If you’re wondering, we have been reimbursed for the income lost from free tuition during the first semester but are still, metaphorically speaking, living off five loaves for the fees, as well as the second-semester expenses. With the new schoolyear, 2018-2019, we will breathe easier since the law Mr. Duterte signed last year comes into full effect.

Sharing and sacrifice

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Last month I attended a memorial Mass at the grade school chapel of Xavier School San Juan and was thrilled to know it was called the Chapel of the Five Loaves. It was a family affair, so when I was asked to speak, I could not help but take up the metaphor of the five loaves again, referring to my children as my five loaves.

The parable takes on new meanings when we think of parenting in terms of that parable. Parenting involves generosity, sharing and sacrifice. The biblical parable is dramatic: The story ends with Jesus telling his followers to take up the fragments and to share these with others so nothing would be wasted. It’s a well-crafted story, starting with scarcity yet with an ending suggesting a surplus. That would not have been possible without the multitudes scrimping on their share, wanting to be sure that others would get their own.

In contrast, I’m thinking now of how, in parties and in public events, people practically run berserk, shoving aside women and children, sometimes the elderly, trying to get more than the regular quota or filling up their plates with more than they can eat. Patay gutom is the term we use: It’s like everyone’s afraid of not getting a share of the food… and starving to death.

The parable of the five loaves reminds us that we need faith in the goodness of people to be able to share, but sometimes we take a leap of faith, going a step further by sacrificing our own allotment to be sure there will be enough for all.

Educators constantly take leaps of faith, too. We make no claims about our graduates all becoming achievers and saints and millionaires, or, if some people would have it, all of the above. To use bread and bread-making as metaphors, the students come to us “premixed,” the yeast coming from their parents. We add more “ingredients” and, more importantly, we provide the warmth, the right nurturing, so the yeast will rise.

Even with parenting, where the genes (or yeast) usually come from the parents, we go on a best-effort basis, but parents sometimes expect the world of their children, expecting them to live up to their genes.

Being an adoptive parent, I’m often asked if I don’t worry about where the children came from (meaning: Do I know enough about their genetic background?). And I answer: How sure can we ever be about our own genes?

Bread of truth

So we go about our daily lives raising our children the best we can. If parenting and educating seem so difficult, it’s because the children come to us “gift-wrapped,” in different sizes and shapes, different personalities. We should appreciate these gifts, rejoice in the way each of them are so unique, and make sure that someday, when they go out into the world, they will make a difference feeding people’s bodies, minds and spirit.

A postscript: Bread is so important in many cultures, and this includes bread that is unleavened, or prepared without yeast. Unleavened bread takes on religious significance in Christianity and Judaism. In St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he exhorts people not to use old bread “leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

Food for thought as we parents and educators prepare our loaves of bread.

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TAGS: biblical parables, five loaves, Gospel, Jesus
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