All four gospels tell the story of the miracle of feeding thousands with a few loaves and some fish. Only John, however, follows this with a long speech of Jesus on ‘the Bread of Life’ which draws out theological and symbolic meanings from the miracle. The liturgy will focus on these speeches for the next four Sundays, and therefore we read John’s account today instead of Mark, as usual for Year B.
2 Kings 4:42-44
In this account of the early history of Israel, the author tells us Elisha has just inherited the role of the prophet Elijah. His new authority and power are shown by the working of this miracle, which is part of the background for both Jesus’ miracle and his speech. The barley loaves and the servant will be echoed in the gospel.
Psalm 144 or 145:10-11, 15-18
The psalm continues the theme of food as coming from God’s hand. The ‘closeness’ of God in the final verses go with the closeness of Jesus to those around him.
The second reading, again from Ephesians, again gives us a differing emphasis. The stress is on unity, with a compelling spiritual reason for oneness in the unity of Father, Jesus and Spirit. For all of us living in unity of the Trinity, we are joined by sharing ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’. The opening verses stress virtues that help preserve unity, and can be a daily challenge in living the Christian vocation as it relates to others.
The chapter opens with a vague time connection and a general geographic location as the evangelist is not concerned with historic details here, wanting to focus on Jesus himself. There is a symbolic point to mentioning that the Passover was near. This was a time of reading the story of the manna in the desert, and of course would also be the time when Jesus would on a later feast take his last meal with his close disciples. Both of these aspects will be picked up in John in the coming weeks.
The first part of the story is a shorter version of what we heard in Mark last week, bringing Jesus and the crowd to a deserted place. ‘He sat down’ – this was the usual position then for teaching, although John does not stress that as Mark does in his gospel. In John’s gospel, Jesus always takes the initiative and now asks a disciple about finding bread. (In Mark, the disciples raise the point.) John tells us that the question of buying bread is a ‘test’; will Philip be able to trust in Jesus? In the background is the story of Elisha – will Philip believe Jesus could similarly provide? But Philip thinks only of going out to buy some bread and how expensive it would be. Andrew has found a ‘small boy’ – the Greek word was also used for a slave, and this word is the same in the Greek text of Kings for Elisha’s servant. Barley loaves were the food of the poor, with wheat the more expensive choice. Only John mentions barley, highlighting again the background of Elisha’s miracle. Small amounts of preserved fish were used as seasoning for the bread. It was a simple, portable meal someone had brought with them. John with his allusions to Elisha may also be pointing out that while Elisha’s miracle fed 100, Jesus feeds 5,000. Barnabas Lindars in his commentary on John, says of the number 5000, ‘we can allow for some exaggeration,’ but the point of an extraordinary act is made clear.
‘Make the people sit down’ – the Greek word means ‘recline’ for that was the usual position for eating a banquet. The picture of them is relaxing on the fresh spring-time grass something like a picnic of our times. Jesus himself distributes the bread – in Mark he gives this task to the disciples. The abundance is stressed by the amount of leftovers. The ‘gathering’ is typical John language, and may recall the Exodus story of ‘gathering manna’, which we will hear of later in the discourse.
A common metaphor in the Old Testament for the times of the Messiah was an abundant banquet, and this, plus the memory of Elisha’s miracle, is probably why the people now believe Jesus is the ‘prophet who is to come’ – a messianic title. They are understandably enthusiastic and want to make him their king there and then, and are even planning to take him away for this purpose. Jesus will not have this: his role is given him by the Father and not by human beings, as this will be stressed later in John. He evades the crowd and goes off alone to ‘the mountain’ (as it is in Greek) as he has done before to pray. Mountains are places of meeting with God and of God speaking to people in the biblical tradition, but the translators’ choice in our liturgy of ‘went back to the hills’ loses that resonance. In Mark also mountains will be significant for prayer and revelation.
The disciples are not mentioned here again, but in the following section in John – which is not read at mass – they take a boat to return to the other side of the lake where most of Jesus’ ministry took place. The people will follow the boat, still looking for Jesus, although the idea of making him king is not repeated.
In his account, Mark leaves us to think for ourselves about the meaning of this bread miracle. Next week we will see John giving us a reflection about it.