Commentary on 2 Kings 4:42-44; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15
God takes care of his people. That is the message coming across loud and clear in today’s readings. He feeds them not only with material food ("not on bread alone…") but with everything they need for a fully human life lived in close union with God, the Source and Goal of all life.
In search of Jesus
We were due to read Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5,000 people by Jesus but instead we are reading the version from the Gospel of John which serves as an introduction for a long discourse on Jesus as the Bread of Life. And, in fact, we will be staying with the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel for the next five Sundays (17th to 21st Sundays inclusive).*
Like Mark, John begins by telling us that Jesus crossed over to the opposite shore of the Lake of Galilee and that he was followed by a large crowd. He does not mention (as we saw last week) Jesus wanting to bring his disciples to a quiet place after all their work of teaching and healing where they could reflect away from the crowds.
However, as we know from Mark, the crowds had gone before them on foot. What made people walk nine miles (12 km) to see Jesus? John says it was because "they saw the signs that Jesus was doing for the sick". This is likely an expression of the deep hunger and longing of people for healing and wholeness in their lives. At the same time, it could also be interpreted in a purely selfish and curious sense, the way people will flock in crowds after hearing about some "miraculous" event. (The end of today’s Gospel suggests this second reading.)
We will not be any better than the crowd, if we only see in this story a miraculous multiplication of a few loaves of bread and some fish. All gospel stories are steeped in symbolism and this is especially true of John.
Like Moses, but also different
We are told first that Jesus "went up the mountain". This is not just a factual detail. In that symbolism we mentioned, it reminds us of Moses on the mountain bringing God’s Law to the people.
Here, however, there is a great difference: Jesus is no mere intermediary; he speaks in his own right, with the same authority as his Father. As we saw last week, Mark has Jesus teaching the people first. Here in John the teaching, which we shall see in the coming weeks, flows out of the multiplication experience. And, while Moses went up the mountain alone, Jesus brought his disciples with him. They were partners in his work and they would continue that work after his resurrection.
And just as Moses gave the Jewish people God’s teaching in the form of the Law and later fed them with manna, so God, in Jesus, the new Moses, will feed both spiritually and materially those who come to him.
Teaching the people is not mentioned by John but is mentioned by the other evangelists. And just as Moses gave the Jewish people God’s teaching in the form of the Law and later fed them with manna, so God, in Jesus, the new Moses, will feed both spiritually and materially those who come to him.
Again, almost as an aside, John mentions that "now the Passover festival was near". The Passover is the great feast when the Jews each year celebrate their liberation from slavery in Egypt and God’s leading them into freedom as his chosen people. Today’s scene is an anticipation of the new Passover where Jesus will be the central figure and where Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection will be our liberation from sin and death. Just before his death, Jesus gave to his disciples – and the Church – the Eucharist, the great ongoing sign of his Passover. The actions of Jesus in today’s story anticipate that Last Supper scene as Jesus "took the break, gave thanks (eucharistesas, ), and distributed it to them all."
A small insignificant boy Before he does this there are some important overtures. There is the dialogue with Philip, who always comes as across as rather naive and simple. He asks the questions that we would like to ask but are often ashamed to. He represents those who perhaps see life in too literal terms. "Where will we get food for all these people?" Jesus asks him. "Two hundred denarii would not be enough for each to have a little," says Philip. (A denarius was the equivalent of one day’s pay for a labourer.)
This reflects the dialogue with the prophet Elisha in the First Reading when he was told to feed the people from 20 barley loaves. "How can I serve this to a hundred men?" he asks God. "Give it to the people to eat," is the simple answer. "Give and it shall be given to you, overflowing into your lap," the Gospel says in another place.
Then Andrew breaks in. "There is a small boy here with five loaves and two fish." And, echoing the words of Elisha, "But what use is that among so many?" The late Msgr Ronald Knox builds the whole story around this small boy. Presumably, the boy brought the food for himself and his immediate family. The next thing we know is that Jesus has taken those loaves and fish, and, after blessing them, begins to distribute them.
Using what was available
It is important to observe that Jesus did not feed the people with nothing. He started with something that was already available. What Jesus did was made possible because that little boy was willing to share what he had with others, including the many strangers around him.
Some say the "miracle" that took place was that the boy’s generosity resulted in many others generously sharing what each had brought with the strangers around them. It does require a kind of miracle to break through people’s self-centredness and their concern for their own security. Look no further than your own bank account. The little boy broke the ice. But we can also see that God gives life through what is already available to us. People are dying of hunger and malnutrition in our world, not because of a lack of food but because of poor distribution. The food is there; it is the will to share it or the means to produce it that is lacking.
Our sacramental Eucharist
So, the Eucharist that we are celebrating today, is also about giving, about loving and about sharing. The bread which has been offered by all is blessed at the consecration, then broken and divided and given out to all.
The Eucharist only works when we consciously celebrate it in this way and when it is genuinely a sign of what is going on in our daily lives. St Paul has some very harsh words for Christians who want to celebrate the Eucharist but refuse to help the needy members of their community.
Before they eat, the people are instructed to sit down and we are told that "there was plenty of grass there". This is an echo of the famous Psalm 22(23): "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures…"
Partners with Jesus
There is another detail worth noting here. In the Synoptics, it is the disciples who are told to distribute the bread and fish among the people. That is a sign of their future mission to bring Christ to the world. But here in John, it is Jesus himself who distributes: John is soon going to record Jesus’ words about his being the Living Bread which gives life to the world. Even though there are intermediaries, it is always Jesus himself who comes to us in Word and Eucharist. John wants to emphasise that Jesus is the source of all nourishment, spiritual and material.
In the end, what happened? After 5,000 people had eaten and had their fill, there was still so much left over. Twelve hampers of uneaten food, not signifying waste but a sign of the liberality with which God caters to our needs, both spiritual and material. Twelve is a number of completion and fullness (cf. the book of Revelation).
It reflects also the experience of Elisha who had wondered how far 20 barley loaves would go. He had been told by God, "They will eat and have some left over" as indeed was the case.
The Messiah King
The immediate reaction of the people is one of excitement. They see in Jesus a wonder-worker, a man of power. "This really is the Prophet, the expected Messiah, who is to come into the world!" They want to make him their King, Messiah.
Jesus’ response is to flee into the hills. Why do this if they are calling him the Messiah? Isn’t that what he is? The reason is – as will be explained in next Sunday’s Gospel – that they have missed the real meaning of what happened. They only saw a miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish. They saw the miracle; they missed the message.
Some commentators see in this reaction of Jesus a playing out of one of the three temptations in the desert: "Fall down and worship me and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world, I will put the whole world in your hands." Jesus’ mission was to inaugurate the Kingdom, bring all people under the lordship of God. Surely here, with the people literally eating out of his hand, was a golden opportunity to have them follow their King? Thanks, but no thanks, says Jesus. The only King they will see will be the one hanging in shame and nakedness, a convicted criminal among criminals, on a cross. Where will these crowds be then?
No, the real teaching here is that Jesus is the true source of nourishment for our lives. If we want to share that nourishment we have, as he tells us elsewhere, to "listen to him". We have to be prepared to enter totally with him into the paschal mystery of his love-centred life, his self-giving in suffering, and death as a way to life. Jesus will only acknowledge his title of King when we follow him on that basis.
Signs of nourishment
How can we know that we are being nourished by God? We get some pointers in today’s Second Reading. Paul writes as a prisoner and, like thousands of Christian prisoners since, is denied the Eucharist. He asks us to live our lives in a way which is "worthy of the calling in which you have been called".
Two signs of such a life are:
a. A mutually supporting and outreaching love expressed through selflessness, gentleness and tolerant patience.
b. Each one doing their utmost to preserve a unity that comes through the Spirit by the bond of peace. We are not a collection of individuals separately trying to please God and thus win a heavenly reward in the future. We form one Body, the Body of Christ, one community which people should be able to see is bound by love and caring. The Eucharist is the sign of that Body.
- There is one Spirit animating all of us and binding us together.
- There is one hope, the firm expectation that God’s Kingdom will be realised and our happiness assured even now.
- There is one faith, by which we are all committed in our total trust in God’s love and care for us. That love and that care are normally channelled through the love and care that people show for each other.
- There is one Lord, who shows us the Way to follow.
- There is one Baptism, by which we have all, whatever our origin, become brothers and sister in one caring fellowship, in one new family.
Such unity cannot be achieved by ourselves alone. We need the help of Jesus our Lord as the Bread of Life, who comes to nourish and feed us in all kinds of ways.