Jesus today provides a miraculous meal for the crowd following Him, an event that looks back in history and forward to the future. How?
By Gayle Somers
Gospel (Read Jn 6:1-15)
St. John tells us that near the Sea of Galilee, a large crowd was following Jesus, because they had seen Him miraculously cure the sick. Although He and His disciples “went up on the mountain,” the crowd pursued them. Then St. John inserts a detail that seems extraneous to the story: “The Jewish feast of Passover was near.” The action here has nothing to do with Passover—or does it? Why does St. John place it within a Passover context? The only possible relationship between this story about people eating and Passover is that both feature a meal. Surely St. John wants us to make that connection, keeping it in mind as the story unfolds.
As the crowd approaches, Jesus asks Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” Now, the story gets really interesting, because St. John tells us the question is a test. What answer was Jesus looking for? Did He expect Philip to know that He would miraculously feed the crowd? In the one other public miracle (His first) Jesus performed with food, His Mother, Mary, had understood that a shortage of wine needed to be addressed to Jesus Himself (see Jn 2:1-11). Did Jesus expect Philip to follow Mary’s example?
Philip is not thinking about a miracle. He’s not even thinking about the question Jesus asked. The question was about “where,” but Philip is thinking about “how.” His mind is on the shortage of money, not the food. If he had been thinking about the lack of food for so many people, he might have remembered a foundational event from Israel’s history. When Moses delivered God’s people from slavery in Egypt, they experienced food shortages in the wilderness. The remedy was God’s provision of “manna,” bread that rained down from heaven at the start of every day for forty years, keeping the Israelites alive on their journey home to the Promised Land.
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was a little closer to the mark. He was not thinking about Moses and the manna, but he was perhaps thinking about another food miracle in Israel’s history. When Andrew noticed that a boy had “five barley loaves and two fish,” was he reminded of the story of the prophet, Elisha, who had once miraculously increased barley loaves to feed a crowd (more on this in our First Reading)? His muted question (“What good are these for so many?”) suggests he thought that it was at least possible Jesus could do what Elisha had done.
If so, Andrew was right. Jesus had the whole crowd “recline” on the grass. This is an important word in the story, because it evokes a future event that also took place at Passover. For the Passover meal, Jesus and His disciples “reclined” at table (see Mt 26:20). Using the word twice in this story, St. John doesn’t want us to miss its relevance for another miraculous meal—the Passover meal during which Jesus instituted the Eucharist, bread and wine from heaven, as the new observance of God’s deliverance of His people. The Passover lamb commemorated Israel’s freedom from physical slavery. The Eucharistic bread and wine commemorate and make present our deliverance from sin and death. The Lamb of God is our new Passover meal.
All the hungry people were fed by the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Jesus turned the impossible into the real. In fact, there were even leftovers, representing a superabundance of God’s provision for the needs of men. This echoes the declaration of the steward at the wedding in Cana, when he tasted the miraculous wine and recognized that it was far superior to even the “good wine” the bridegroom served first (see Jn 2:10). What a rich metaphor this is for how God provides for us—our “impossibles” become “more than enough” and “the best”!
Jesus’ miracle wowed the crowd, of course. They recognized that He was “truly the Prophet” Moses had promised God would send them someday, one just like him (see Deut. 18:15-19). However, it was not time for Jesus to be made king. He would, indeed, receive a crown and be announced to the world as, “Jesus, King of the Jews,” but His throne would be the Cross. For now, Jesus had worked a miracle to help His disciples better understand (remember this story starts with a test for them) the miraculous meal that lay in their future. So, “He withdrew again to the mountain alone.”
Possible response: Lord Jesus, I love this picture of You feeding hungry people in the most amazing way. Help me remember this when I am starving for Your help.
First Reading (Read 2 Kings 4:42-44)
Elisha, the disciple of and successor to the prophet, Elijah, lived in the 9th century B.C. It was Elijah who called down fire from heaven on Mt. Carmel as he urged the people of Israel to forsake their wanton idolatry and return to their God. Elisha was his younger associate. When Elijah was about to depart from this world, he asked Elisha what his last request of him would be. Elisha asked for a “double portion” of Elijah’s prophetic spirit (see 2 King 2:9), and that’s what he got. He worked many miracles and had a vast ministry among his people.
In our reading, we see that a man had brought to Elisha barley loaves “made from the firstfruits” of his crop. This would have been rendered as an offering to God’s holy prophet. Elisha needed to feed the company of men who were with him (likely a school of prophets), so he commanded that the bread be given to them. The servant sees the impossibility of feeding so many with so little. Elisha insisted, and uttered a prophecy from God as well: “They shall eat and there shall be some left over.” It happened exactly that way.
In our Gospel, it is quite possible that Andrew had this history in mind when he told Jesus about the barley loaves and fish. Interestingly, Jesus Himself was a younger (by only six months, of course) prophet than His cousin, John the Baptist, yet He could be said to have a “double portion” of the Baptist’s spirit, in that His work was greater than John’s. Likewise, Jesus told His disciples, when He was about to leave them, that they would do “greater works” than He, once He had gone to the Father (see Jn 14:12) and sent the Holy Spirit to them. Jesus, at the Last Supper, gave miraculous bread and wine to the Twelve; their successors today feed the whole world with this heavenly meal.
A double portion, indeed.
Possible response: Father, forgive me for the times I have doubted You could meet the needs that press in on me.
Psalm (Read Ps 145:10-11; 15-18)
The psalmist helps us understand that God’s provision of physical food for His people (even when it was provided supernaturally) in the Old Testament was simply the beginning of His complete provision for them: “You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” Hunger for food is one of our most basic human bodily drives, yet even when it is sated, we “hunger” for much more than food—love, justice, the nearness of the One Who made us. The psalmist rejoices in the knowledge that God will care for us in all these needs, too. Jesus, in our Gospel, prepared His disciples to understand that a meal was coming that would far exceed what would have been “enough” to fill the deepest human hunger. In the Eucharist, we can sing with the psalmist, “The hand of the Lord feeds us; He answers all our needs.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Eph 4:1-6)
Our epistle readings for the last several weeks have taken us through St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The selections, meant to help us be familiar with this very important epistle, do not always immediately seem related to our other readings. Generally, when this happens, it helps if we ask, “Is the epistle somehow a practical example of our Gospel theme?” Today, our readings have helped us think about how God feeds His people with supernatural food, the Body and Blood of Jesus. St. Paul now asks us, knowing God’s gift to us in the Eucharist, to “live in a manner worthy of the call” we have received. He spells out for us, in a practical way, the kind of life we should pursue when we feed on the Bread of Heaven. It can be summed up in a word—unity. This, of course, is a human hunger as deep as anything we experience for food. Being in the image and likeness of God, we are hard-wired for the kind of unity that binds the Trinity together in love. St. Paul urges us to remember this and live accordingly. He wants us to “strive to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”—in our families, in the Church, in the world. When we do, our deep hunger for unity is satisfied, sated in the reality of “one God and Father of all, Who is over all and through all and in all.”
Possible response: Father, Your food is meant to nourish me for holiness. To that end, please help me to be a peacemaker today, always seeking unity.