The Sign of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (first in a series on John chapter 6)

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: July 26, 2009
2 Kgs 4:42-44; Ps 145:10-11, 15-18; Eph 4:1-6; John 6:1-15

This past year, my assignment as a transitional deacon was at the Catholic Student Center at the University of Maryland, up in College Park. And one thing I learned is that, if you are going to hold any campus ministry activity and have students come to it, there is one essential element food. Up at Maryland they have their big Wednesday night dinners every week, and at committee meetings they have pizza, and on a weekend retreat they have a big table of cookies and chips and soda that they eat over the course of the weekend. And somehow they never gain a pound!

But it isn’t only campus ministries. Parents and those who teach children know how important their snacks are. And food is important in the life of an ordinary parish. Donuts on that Sunday every month help to foster friendships between people. Food can make an event more of a celebration. And sometimes it’s just practical. If there is food at an evening class, then we know we can go there, and pay attention well, without having to stop somewhere and grab something. Whatever form it takes, food in the parish always says, “We know you, and we care.”

In today’s Gospel reading, we hear about Jesus’ “feeding of the 5000″—the only one of his miracles to be reported in all four Gospels. It’s not entirely unlike our parish events—you know, 5000 men, plus women and children, follow Jesus to a remote location to listen to him teach all day. Yeah, that sounds more or less like St. Mary’s. But on this occasion, the refreshment committee didn’t prepare for it. Jesus’ disciple Philip says, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” But Jesus has a plan. A boy provides his five barley loaves—the bread of the poor—and two fish; and Jesus uses these to feed the crowd. This is no “miracle of sharing,” as wonderful and heartwarming as that would be. No, it is a miracle of multiplication, as Jesus uses those few barley loaves to keep on giving, to person after person, and at the end there is more left over than what they started with.

This had happened before, as we heard in our first reading. Some eight centuries earlier, the prophet Elisha had used 20 barley loaves to feed 100 people; now Jesus uses 5 barley loaves to feed 5000 plus. And the crowd is not only satisfied in their hunger, but is also very impressed. They want Jesus to be their campus ministry chaplain! No, wait—they want Jesus to be the pastor of their parish, so that when the food starts running low at the annual Christmas Bazaar bake sale, he can, you know, take care of it. No, actually, of course, they want to make him their king; because anyone who could feed them like that could surely take care of the Roman Empire. In fact, they weren’t going to take no for an answer; they were going to come and carry him off by force. But that wasn’t Jesus’ plan, and he withdrew.

There is something the crowd was missing. Twice in this passage we hear a word that is very important in the Gospel of John: signs. John wants to tell us that Jesus’ miracles aren’t just amazing mighty deeds: they are also signs: they point beyond themselves to something else; some meaning, some truth. At the beginning of this passage, the large crowd is following him because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick. And of the crowd that had been fed, he tells us: “the people saw the sign he had done.” Jesus intends this miracle to be a sign pointing to something. But to what?

But first, another question. What are we doing in the Gospel of John? This is Year B in the three-year lectionary cycle of readings for Sunday Mass, and everyone knows that Year B means the Gospel according to Mark. Year A, Matthew; B, Mark; C, Luke. But Mark is the shortest of the Gospels; and so, to fill out Year B, those who planned out the lectionary gave us a little summer vacation: five Sundays in the Gospel of John, starting today. In fact, it’s five Sundays working through just one chapter: John chapter 6. What’s so important about John chapter 6? Many of you know already know the answer. And if you don’t know yet—stay tuned; you’ll find out.

The fact that the feeding of the 5000 is the sign that begins John chapter 6 gives us a big clue about what truth this sign is pointing to. And, to make sure that we are prepared for what will come next, we should go back over this passage again, to pick up some clues that we missed the first time. These clues come in four groups.

First, we read that the Jewish feast of Passover was near. This put in the minds of the crowd, and of those reading John’s Gospel, all the events that the annual festival of Passover recalled: Moses; the slavery of the People of Israel in Egypt; the plagues that God worked to change Pharaoh’s mind; the sacrifice of the Passover lamb; the parting of the Red Sea; God giving the Ten Commandments and the Law on Mount Sinai to the People, through Moses; the long journey through the desert; being fed with manna from heaven, and water from the rock, through Moses. This is all in the background, so that we then notice that Jesus went up on the mountain, like Moses; and that he sat down with his disciples, the posture of an ancient teacher who is going to teach, like Moses was the great teacher of Israel.

Second, we read that there was a great deal of grass in that place, and Jesus said, “Have the people recline.” And we should think of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.

Third, we read that a boy brought forward some loaves and fish; and we should think of the Eucharist, the Mass, in which a small group of people bring forward the gifts to be placed on the altar. We read that Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them; and we think of the fourfold action used in Scripture and in the Mass to describe what Jesus did when he instituted the Eucharist—he took, blessed, broke, and gave. Here, similarly, we see that he took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them. And afterwards he instructed the disciples, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted“; and we think of how, at every Mass the Blessed Sacrament that remains in reserved in the tabernacle.

Fourth, what is it that the crowd says after this miraculous feeding? “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.” Not just “a” prophet, but “the” prophet: what is that about? In the Book of Deuteronomy [18:18], Moses reported that the Lord had told him, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kinsmen, and will put my words into his mouth.” This promise had been fulfilled somewhat in the centuries that followed, in the many prophets of the Lord. But it had never been fulfilled completely, and they were waiting for someone like Moses. In addition, there was an expectation at that time that when the Messiah came, manna would again be given from heaven. And now, 1200 years later, this Jesus leads them into the desert, like Moses; to a mountain, like Moses; and teaches, like Moses; and feeds them miraculously on a scale that no one has ever seen—like Moses fed them with manna from heaven.

In other words, the crowd is reading Jesus loud and clear. He is broadcasting these signals that he is about to say or do something very important; and they’re right with him. That they want to make him king is their one mistake. That’s not the message Jesus is pointing to. No, what he wants to communicate to them is far more amazing and earthshaking than that. What Jesus is actually pointing to by this sign is—

but you’ll have to come back next week to find out—when we continue in John chapter 6!

For now, let us simply take note of that one boy and his gift of five barley loaves and two fish. It was a small gift; ordinary; even poor. But he gave Jesus all that he had, with a generous heart; and Jesus used his small gift to feed more than 5000 people. If we will place in Jesus’ hands what we have—no matter how small, or ordinary, or poor—what unbelievable things will he do with our lives?

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Published in: on July 26, 2009 at 6:41 pm  Leave a Comment  
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