The only miracle of Jesus told in all four gospels is the feeding of 5000 with a few loaves and fish. Evangelists set their stories in their own theological framework and today’s liturgy chooses John which follows the miracle with a long speech of Jesus on ‘the Bread of Life’, drawing out theological and symbolic meanings. These teachings will be read in the the coming weeks.
2 Kings 4:42-44
Elisha was the successor of the great prophet Elijah, and his cycle of stories is told in the second book of Kings. It lists many miracles, rather than a lot of teaching, and the liturgy has chosen this short one that will resonate with the gospel reading. The barley loaves and the servant will be hinted at in John’s account. ‘First-fruits’: it was customary to offer these from the harvest as a thanksgiving. Rather than leave them on the altar, Elisha orders them to be shared, but the servant sees the obvious difference between the token offering and the number of people. As with Jesus, the miracle is told simply with no details of how it ‘worked’.
Psalm 144/145:10-11, 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.
A different theme comes with this short selection, continuing in the Letter to the Ephesians, a heartfelt stress on unity, with a compelling spiritual reason for oneness in the unity of Father, Jesus and Spirit. All disciples are to live in unity, as there is only ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’. The opening verses stress virtues that help us to that goal, and as we live in a time with an emphasis on differences, the unity the writer urges us to support can be a daily challenge in living out our shared Christian calling.
The chapter opens with a vague time connection and a general geographic location as the evangelist is not concerned with historic details, 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 he asks a disciple about finding bread. 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 and 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 after seeing the miracle and want to make him their king there and then. Jesus will not have this: his role is given him by the Father and not by human beings, and 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.
The disciples are not mentioned here, 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 start a series of reflections, only recounted in John.