Three Loaves of Bread

Etching by Jan Luyken illustrating Luke 11:5-8 in the Bowyer Bible, Bolton, England.

27th Week in Ordinary Time, Thursday (Year II)

Luke 11:5-13

Jesus said to his disciples: “Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him,’ and he says in reply from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.’ I tell you, if he does not get up to give him the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.”

Be not afraid! Drop timidity, faintheartedness, and inhibition and pray to the Father with confidence and expectation.

The Greek word for “persistence” is actually “shamelessness” (anaideia). From the divine perspective, do the children of God treat him like a miser too sparing to lend? Or do they approach the throne of His Majesty ashamed to make their needs known? Shame is related to fear and is wary of being judged. Adam’s original relationship to the Father in Eden was “shameless” and utterly unaware of himself as divided from his Maker. He approached the Father with the total abandon of a young child.

In the hypothetical situation, the petitioner is compared to a person in the awkward situation of having to wake up a friend in the middle of the night to borrow three loaves of bread for a guest who just arrived. The resistance put up by the friend is a rhetorical device to magnify the  generosity of God. In actuality, “The rules of hospitality in the first century required that the entire community assist in entertaining a midnight guest.”1 Verses 5-7 “should be regarded as one continuous rhetorical question.”2 The situation is “unthinkable” under the rules of Oriental hospitality.

For modern readers who are far removed from the historical and cultural circumstances of this Gospel, the device may seem odd. Yet to Luke’s audience, it communicated by hyperbole the lavish generosity and hospitality of God. 

Speaking of rhetoric, readers and listeners naturally bring to the text the conditioning of their own times. When St. Augustine read the line about the three loaves, he interjected, “Perhaps this number symbolizes the Trinity of one substance.”3 St. Ambrose wrote, “What are those three loaves if not the nourishment of the heavenly mystery?”

The patristic mind gravitated to numerology and saw signs of divinity everywhere. Their mystical speculations about numbers often digressed from exegesis of the text proper, but revealed the milieu in which they thought and lived. Their world brimmed with signs and symbols of Christian revelation. In parables and biblical events, representations of representations multiplied in the patristic imagination—evidence of their prayerful and devotional disposition when reading Scripture.

Our era is more matter-of-fact. Modern commentators read “three loaves of bread” and consider it “the equivalent of a meal for one person… there is no need to seek any meaning in the number three.”

We can appreciate the insights of both ancient and modern commentators as the pilgrim Church traverses the centuries toward final union and communion in the Trinity. Words, signs and symbols do not terminate in themselves but facilitate our transformation into the wordless Word, Jesus Christ.

“And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

Luke changed Matthew’s “good things” (7:11) to “the Holy Spirit.” As the author of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke shows a developed consciousness of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. The Spirit’s personal anointing of each disciple at Pentecost revealed his role as sanctifier of unique persons in the Womb of the Father. Each person is an icon of Christ with an identity unlike any other. The fire of divine love forges, molds, and shapes wholly distinct persons in the image of the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity.

The gift of the Spirit infinitely surpasses earthly goods like the fish and egg of the illustration. The Father is ready and willing to pour out his Spirit on those who ask, seek, and knock.

In our current state of ecclesiological fragmentation, it is sobering to realize the centrality of Christian unity in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in history.

Joseph A. Fitzmyer writes:

“Moreover, it becomes plain in Acts that the Spirit is given only when the Twelve are present or a member or delegate of the Twelve is on the scene. Thus Luke depicts the Spirit-guided Christian community. The reconstitution of the Twelve (1:15-26) is the necessary preparation for the outpouring of the Spirit (2:1-4). This also explains why, though Philip (not one of the Twelve, but one of the Seven appointed to serve tables [6:2-6]) evangelizes Samaria and baptizes there (8:5-13), Peter and John have to be sent before the people in Samaria receive the Spirit (8:17). Similarly, it is only when Paul, indirectly a delegate of the Twelve (see 11:22, 25-26; 13:2-4), arrives in Ephesus that ‘some disciples’ (i.e. neophyte Christians) are baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus and receive the Spirit through the laying on of Paul’s hands (19:1-6). The only exception to this bestowal of the Spirit is the case of Saul himself, who is baptized by Ananias and receives the Spirit through the laying on of his hands (9:17-18). This obvious exception is made at this point in Luke’s narrative to manifest the extraordinary grace shown to Paul, who thus becomes the ‘chosen instrument’ (or vessel of election) to carry Jesus’ name to Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel (9:15)—the hero of the second part of Acts.”6

Does the asking, seeking, and knocking Church pray for that unity which will bring healing to our divisions by the Holy Spirit? Would Samaria (the world outside the Church) believe in Christ and receive the Spirit if Peter (the West) and John (the East) return to full unity as St. John Paul II envisioned in his encyclical, Ut Unum Sint?

The future is a blank slate for those who walk in faith, but Christ has told us all that we need to flourish as his Body:

“Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are” (John 17:11).

In patristic fashion, the Church has received the world as her guest at midnight, knocks on the Father’s door, and receives the three loaves of the Trinity and the Eucharist to feed the hungry. 

May we heed the voice of the Good Shepherd and ask “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21).


1 Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Luke, Arthur A. Just Jr., editor, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor, Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2003, p. 184. 

2 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985, p. 911.

3 St. Augustine, Letter 130.

4 St. Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 7.87.

5 Fitzmyer, p. 911.

6 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX), Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1981, p. 231.

1 thought on “Three Loaves of Bread

  1. fdan

    Of the many points in Ut Unum Sint (accessed from your post) that stand out for me, I share this one: When Christians pray together, the goal of unity seems closer. Thank you for your post and the many spiritually-inviting words, shamelessness, Oriental hospitality, forging fires, knocking on the Father’s door, the three loaves and more. I make of each one a meditation. Thank you.


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