26 July 2015: Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
2 Kgs 4: 42-44 Ps 145: 10-11, 15-16, 17-18 Eph 4: 1-6 Jn 6: 1-15

The sign of bread in the wilderness

In Ordinary time, the Lectionary presents RCIA participants and all believing community members with stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. This week we begin a five-week meditation on the Eucharist and discipleship.

The first reading, from 2 Kings, tells the story of Elisha the prophet and his multiplication of barley loaves. The Lectionary editors chose this story because it parallels today’s gospel. In both readings a hungry crowd is present; only a small amount of food (barley loaves) is available; someone says that it isn’t enough to feed the crowd; the prophet ignores the objection and orders the food to be distributed; the crowd has enough to eat; and there is some left over.

This week the gospel author changes from Mark to John. Beginning this week (and for the next four weeks) we hear from Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse (Jn 6). This discourse has many themes, including Eucharist, messiahship, faith, and discipleship. Today’s gospel describes the sign that sets up the rest of the discourse; it has four elements:

  • The timing. John tells us “the feast of Passover was near.” John wants us to connect Jesus’ sign of the multiplied barley loaves with the Passover events: the Passover meal, freedom from slavery in Egypt, the Sinai covenant, and the manna in the wilderness.
  • The question. Jesus’ question to Philip (“Where can we buy food?”) stretches Philip’s understanding and faith. Philip gives a limited physical solution (“Two hundred days’ wages”). Andrew also gives a physical solution (“five barley loaves and two fish”). Philip and Andrew know their solutions are insufficient (“not enough,” “what good are these for so many”). Jesus’ solution is a spiritual sign that results in a superabundance (“more than they could eat.”)
  • The sign. Jesus’ sign of the multiplied barley loaves prefigures the Eucharist. John uses the same formula (“took, gave thanks, distributed”) that we find in the Last Supper accounts–“he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it.” When Jesus “gives thanks,” John uses the word εὐχαριστέω (“yoo-kah-ris-TEH-oh”), the same word we use for the Eucharist. John presents this event as both an actual sign by Jesus and a liturgical sign for the believing community.
  • The response. After experiencing Jesus’ sign, the crowd realizes that Jesus could be the “Prophet-like-Moses” foretold in Deut 18:15. In Jesus’ time, some rabbis taught that the messiah would give the people manna just as Moses gave the people manna in the dessert. Jesus knows that the crowds follow him because of his signs, not because they understand who he is. He rejects the crowds’ definition of messiahship and departs alone to the mountain.

Today’s readings present a complex sign. We can understand the multiplied barley loaves simply as an act of power–Jesus uses his power to feed the stranded crowd. But immediately we are presented with other ideas: God’s concern for our material needs (“Jesus distributed the loaves”), our role as disciples in feeding others (“where can we get enough food?”), our understanding of who Jesus is (“make him king”). RCIA participants and the whole believing community recognize this sign as an invitation to relationship with Jesus through the Eucharist. We find ourselves hungry on a mountain in the wilderness. Are we following Jesus because he gives us bread, or because he gives us himself? Do we make Jesus into a temporal ruler, or let him be the messiah? Do we anticipate Jesus’ response, or let his unexpected abundance come to us?

—Terence Sherlock

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