Sunday of Week 17 of Ordinary Time (Year B)


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 (“One does not live by 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
This Sunday, we were due to read Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5,000 people by Jesus; 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 the nine mile distance (12 km) to see Jesus? John says they:

…kept following him because they saw the signs that he 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 perhaps suggests this second interpretation.)

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. Teaching the people is not mentioned by John, but is mentioned by the other evangelists. 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. Further, just as Moses gave the Jewish people God’s teaching in the form of the Law and God later fed them with manna, so God, in Jesus, the new Moses, will feed both spiritually and materially those who come to him.

Passover
Again, almost as an aside, John mentions that the “Passover, the festival of the Jews, 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 he:

…took the loaves, and when he had given thanks [Greek, eucharistesas] he distributed them to those who were seated…

A small insignificant boy
But before Jesus 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. Jesus asks him:

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

Says Philip in response:

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

(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. Elisha asks God:

How can I set this before a hundred people?

God responds:

Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord: They shall eat and have some left.

Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says:

…give, and it will be given to you…[it] will be put into your lap…

Then Andrew breaks in:

There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?

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, distributes them to the people.

Using what is 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.

The late Msgr Ronald Knox suggested 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. 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 provide it that is lacking.

Our sacramental Eucharist
So, the Eucharist 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 a great deal of grass in the place”. This is an echo of the famous Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures…

Partners with Jesus
There is another detail worth noting here. In the Synoptic Gospels, 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. They collect 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 (see the book of Revelation). It reflects also the experience of Elisha, who had wondered how far 20 barley loaves would go. He has been told by God:

They shall eat and have some left.

And indeed, that 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, saying:

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

They want to make him their ‘King Messiah’.

And Jesus’ response:

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

He secluded himself from everyone. 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 just happened. They saw only 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 when the devil:

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

Jesus’ mission was to inaugurate the Kingdom and 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 only 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 walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called…

Two signs of such a life are:

  1. A mutually supporting and outreaching love expressed through selflessness, gentleness and tolerant patience.
  2. 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.

Paul continues, saying there is:

…one body and one Spirit…

It animates all of us and binds us together.

…one hope…

There is a firm expectation that God’s Kingdom will be realised and our happiness assured even now.

…one Lord…

And he shows us the Way to follow.

…one faith…

In this, 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.

…one baptism…

We have all, whatever our origin, become brothers and sisters 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.

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*Each year of the three-year cycle for ‘Sundays in Ordinary Time’ is devoted to one evangelist: Matthew in Year A, Mark in Year B, and Luke in Year C. John’s Gospel, however, is spread out through different parts of the year. These five Sundays are the only Sundays in Ordinary Time where John’s Gospel is used.

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