17th Sunday Ordinary Time, 7-29-18
2 Kings 4:42-44; Ps: 145:10-11, 15-18; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15
This Sunday starts a series of 5 readings taken from the Gospel of John. This is year B, when we expect to read from Mark, so why are we in John for 5 weeks? It’s no great theological issue, just practicality. Mark is the shortest of the Gospels, and there simply isn’t enough of Mark to read all year. So John supplements our readings.
But the Church hasn’t simply found 5 random readings from John. All of them come from the 6th chapter of John, which has been called the “The Discourse (discussion) of The Bread of Life.” And it starts with the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, a story we have probably all have heard. A large crowd followed Jesus to hear his teaching and see the healing of the sick, so Jesus went up on a mountain, where the sound of his voice could be best heard.
Of course, the image of a mountain should bring up an image in any Bible student’s head – the image of Moses meeting God on Mt. Sinai, the gift of the Ten Commandments and the covenant. Moses led the people to freedom, and here is Jesus, with the gifts of God for the people, to lead them to new life. John uses these images and comparisons often in his Gospel to help people understand the importance of Jesus, his teachings, and the role he will play in our lives.
I need to say up front that this Gospel was not given to us to teach about sharing. Sharing is important and most of us are to some degree infected with the greed of materialism that is an epidemic in our society. I would love to see a more even distribution of food and resources in this world, but that’s not why John wrote this passage.
Sadly, I also have to add that this is not about feeding hungry people particularly. Hunger is only the setting in which John tells his message. Feeding the hungry is a terrific and urgent need in this world. The most recent numbers tell us that every year more people die from preventable hunger than died in the Holocaust, yet the food to feed them is available in this world. Clearly hunger is a huge and pressing problem, but that is not what John is trying to tell us here.
So, Jesus turns to Philip, asking where to buy food for the people. Philip is the go-to guy here because Philip was from Bethsaida, which is where the story takes place. Oddly enough, it would seem some scribe was startled by this question, and not wanting Jesus to appear as less than the “Son of God”, assures us that Jesus is just testing Philip. It is a humorous and enlightening line in the story which serves to remind us that the Bible is not always a book you can simply pick up and read with understanding without studying the background information, the culture, and a sense of the point of the passage. Trillions of hours of study have been spent comparing the many manuscripts we have and knowledgeable scholars can sometimes trace where a scribe’s comments have altered the text.
But Philip is not concerned with where to go shopping, because the cost would far exceed possibility. Then Andrew appears with a boy who has 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. What does this seemingly simple verse tell us? Well, three important things actually. First, where have we heard about barley loaves before? In our first reading – the story of the 20 barley loaves feeding 100 people! That story would have been a classic story well known to the audience John wrote for. Bingo! We know this story has something to do with the power of God. There is a miracle going on here. But Jesus is not a prophet, like Elisha, but far greater, and will feed 5,000 people with 5 loaves. A multiply of 1,000 tells us we have surpassed human ability to provide food, and moved into the range of divine.
But secondly, barley was an important crop in Jesus’ land. It was drought resistant, grew well in the heat, and ripened quickly. The harvest would have been at Passover time, and Passover has some very important implications in our story.
Passover was near, John mentions. It was the event that began the escape from Egypt for the Israelites, one of the cornerstone events of the Jewish faith. Passover is about the death of the cruel slave holders and the freedom of the slaves. Part of the journey to freedom for the Israelites included the bread (“manna””) which God gave the people to eat as they traveled to the Promised Land. It was not just bread, but “supernatural” bread, the “daily bread” which Jesus included in the Lord’s Prayer. John’s Gospel is full of Passover references, linking the Jewish history to the death and resurrection of Jesus. And where else does our eternal life with God begin but with the resurrection of Jesus? A barley loaf may sustain life, but the gift of life is in the resurrection.
Our Psalm says, “The eyes of all look hopefully to you, and you give them their food in due season; you open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” John wants us to stop focusing on a desire for food, and focus on our natural and necessary desire for God.
After the people reclined to eat, Jesus gave thanks, blessing the food, and they ate as much as they wanted. Will God only portion us out small allotments of grace and mercy? Will God weigh out tiny morsels of love? Are we permitted only a few drops of joy in God? No, no; God gives us grace and mercy, love and joy in abundance! God is a God of plenty, of more than we ask for. Luke (6:38) has a wonderful way to put it: “…give, and it will be given to you; a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.”
And what about the fragments? The early Christians had a collection of teachings called “Didache”, which tells us how they understood the fragments of left-over food. It says, “Concerning the fragmented bread, ‘We give thanks to you, our Father. As this fragmented bread was scattered on the mountains, but was gathered up and became one, so let the Church be gathered up from the four corners of the earth into your kingdom.’” Still today, we treat the crumbs left from our Eucharistic bread as precious creations from God’s hand, as the Body of Christ, and we do that as we remember how God gathers people, more numerous than bread crumbs at the table, as precious lives that would have yet another life in the light of God’s Kingdom.
But our passage ends on a somber note. The people saw the sign, the miracle of the food, and called Jesus, “the one who is to come into the world”. Moses had told them of the “one who is to come” back in Deuteronomy (18:19), but John is warning us that Jesus is not just a replacement for an earthly military king like David. John wants us to understand the true meaning of why the Son of God came to earth.
So our task today is to remember why we “do” Eucharist. “The very word, “Eucharist” means to give thanks. We remember Jesus, and we give thanks for his love for us, his sacrifice of himself for us, for what he taught us and for how he showed us the way to live fully, deeply, and with love. We remember that he is the Son of God, the Holy One who came to fulfill a prophecy from long ago, the One who had victory over sin and death, the One who changed everything.