Friday of Week 2 of Easter – Gospel

Commentary on John 6:1-15

Today we begin the great chapter 6 of John with its strong Eucharistic overtones.  We are bypassing chapters 4 (the Samaritan Woman) and chapter 5, which was read earlier. The stage is set by the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, a story we find in all four Gospels but which, in John, has some characteristics of its own.

As Jesus crosses the Sea of Tiberias, large crowds follow him along the shore.  This lake was more commonly known as the Sea of Galilee.  Its Roman name came from the new town of Tiberias, named after the emperor and founded about AD 20, during Jesus’ lifetime.

The crowd’s motive in pursuing Jesus was because of the “signs that he was doing for the sick.”  The implication is that they were not following Jesus for his own sake or because of his teaching.  They were not really disciples but, to some extent, people looking for something just for themselves.  It is possible for us to come to Jesus in that frame of mind too, our prayers full of ‘Give me this and give me that’, but with little real commitment to the mission of the Kingdom.

Jesus goes up the mountain and sits down with his disciples.  There are echoes here of Moses on Mt Sinai; Jesus is the new Moses and his disciples are the nucleus of God’s new people.  It is also close to Passover, a time soon to be linked with the new Passover in the death and resurrection of Jesus and with the Eucharist, which is the new Passover meal.  The whole of the chapter is linked to this.

Seeing the vast crowds approaching, Jesus teasingly asks Philip, always presented as being somewhat simple and naive:

Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?

As Philip came from Bethsaida (John 1:44), which was nearby, it was logical to ask him as a ‘local boy’. If Philip had any insight into who Jesus really was, he might have given a different answer.  As it was he sees no solution:

Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.

Then Andrew, Peter’s brother and sometimes seen as a companion of Philip (see John 1), mentions a small boy who has five barley loaves and a couple of dried fish.  Barley bread was the food of the poor.  Obviously, that would not go very far.  But of course, it is all that Jesus needs.

The British priest and author, Monsignor Ronald Knox, makes much of this small boy who was picked out of the crowd and was being asked to give up his precious lunch. The boy played a crucial role; it was his tiny contribution which made it possible for the whole crowd to be filled and satisfied. 

It is typical of Jesus to make use of someone, a very insignificant person, in the doing of his work.  This is something which happens all the time.  How many times have I been chosen to be an instrument of God’s work?  How many times have I failed to recognise some person I regarded as being of no importance who was in fact bringing me something from God?  How often have I not recognised God’s presence in what needed to be done?

Jesus now gets all the people (5,000 men not counting women and children) to sit down on the grass: 

In meadows of green grass the Lord lets me lie…[He] prepares a table before me. (Ps 23:2,5)

Then, in a ritual reminiscent of the Eucharist, Jesus:

…took the loaves, and when he had given thanks he distributed them to those who were seated.

All had enough and more than enough to satisfy their hunger, and the disciples are instructed to gather up all that is left over. After doing so, 12 baskets were filled. The Jews regarded bread as a gift of God and it was required that any scraps that fell to the ground should be picked up. These were collected in small wicker baskets which were carried as part of one’s daily attire. Twelve represents a number of completeness and abundance – an indication of just how much there was from the original five loaves that the little boy offered.

The boy provided the offering, but the Lord gave the increase.  Such is always the case.  The 12 baskets may also represent the Twelve, the ones who actually did the distributing of the Lord’s largesse – still the role of the Church today.

The crowd became excited at the sign they had witnessed and was saying:

This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.

Recall that John the Baptist was also asked if he was the ‘prophet’ (John 1:21).

As we will see in the rest of the chapter, the sign was pointing to Jesus and the food for eternal life which he will give.  But the people were thinking of the ‘Prophet’ mentioned in Deuteronomy (18:15) who would be like Moses.  Through Moses, God had provided food (manna) and water (from the rock) for the people in the desert. The Prophet they were expecting would do more or less the same.

Jesus, realising that they wanted to make him their leader, fled to the mountains alone.  This is an example of one of those temptations experienced by Jesus when fasting in the desert:

…the devil…showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matt 4:8-9)

Jesus had come to win over the people to himself as Messiah and Lord and here was a glorious opportunity when the people were, literally, eating out of his hand.  But Jesus knew that this was not the way he was to become king, nor was he to be the kind of king that these people wanted him to be…so he fled.  The time for establishing his own kind of kingship would come later on.

We, too, sometimes can be tempted to take steps which seem, at first sight, to bring people to Christ but, on reflection, they may be short-sighted and lead to results which are far from the Gospel vision.  They tend to lead people to ourselves rather than to God.

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