Thought for the day
The multiplication of the loaves generates many levels of meaning, often deeply spiritual. At a more ordinary level, we see an anonymous boy with the bread and fish making available what little he had for the Lord to make use of them. Placing ourselves at his disposal, offering whatever gifts we have is all that is asked of each of us.
Lord Jesus, we know that you see potential where we see limits. All we have and are is your gift in the first place. Help us to place ourselves and your gifts at your disposal for the service of the Kingdom.
John 6:1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
John 6:15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
Twice in the liturgical year B, Mark is supplemented by the Fourth Gospel. This happens for three Sundays in Lent and more extensively during the summer. The reading of Mark is suspended for no fewer than five Sundays and we read instead from John 6. However, the sequence of the entire chapter follows Mark, as may be seen from the chart overleaf.
Kind of writing
This is the Johannine reception of the traditional story of the multiplication of the loaves. Already at the level of Mark’s Gospel, this story is to be read symbolically—to such an extent that it is virtually impossible to figure out “what actually happened.” At the level of the present text, this doesn’t matter because it is the teaching about present risen Jesus (and the Lord’s Supper) that counts.
Behind the story lies symbolism linked with Moses and Elisha (see the Old Testament background) and in front of the story lies the Christian practice of the Eucharist, a reality which shapes all of John 6. An even more fundamental reality lies beneath the narrative, however, and that is the identity of Jesus. Each of the sections is focused first of all on who Jesus is and only then on how we encounter him in the Lord’s Supper.
Old Testament background
Significant texts from the Hebrew Bible are alluded to in this telling. In the text of John 6 above, the Moses and Elisha allusions are in italics. The Eucharistic references are in bold.
(i) Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the Lord became very angry, and Moses was displeased. So Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favour in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favour in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.” (Num 11:10-15)
(ii) When Elisha returned to Gilgal, there was a famine in the land. As the company of prophets was sitting before him, he said to his servant (Gk: paidarion) “Put the large pot on, and make some stew for the company of prophets.” (2 Kgs 4:38)
(iii) A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” (2 Kgs 4:42)
(iv) The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. (Deut 18:15)
New Testament foreground
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. (John 21:9–14)
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” He who supplies seed to the sewer and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness (2 Cor 9:6-11)
Verse 1 “Sea” (twice) reminds us of Moses and the crossing of the Red Sea.
Verse 2 Earlier, Jesus condemned faith based only on signs: Then Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” (John 4:48)
Verse 3 The mountain too is symbolic reminding us of Moses on Mount Sinai.
Verse 4 It is very important that this is Passover and the reference returns at the end of ch.6 in an oblique way: He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him. (John 6:71) In this Gospel, Jesus is the Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36), sent to death at the moment when the slaughter of Passover lambs traditionally began (John 19:13-15). This feast was the context for the programmatic temple action in John 2, as well as for the dénouement of this Gospel in John 19-20.
Verse 5 Like Moses, Jesus himself notices the problem of the shortage.
Verse 6 In this Gospel, Jesus is always portrayed as totally aware and in control, a portrait under the considerable influence of the Easter faith.
Verse 7 This verse underlines the seriousness of the challenge. The “little” contrasts strongly with the extensive leftovers gathered into twelve baskets.
Verse 8 Andrew has a higher profile in this Gospel (John 1:40, 44; 6:8; 12:22).
Verse 9 The words here evoke the Elisha texts cited above.
Verse 10 The instructions evoke Mark: Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. (Mark 6:39)
Verse 11 Notice the Eucharistic language – important in a Gospel that does not recount the Lord’s Supper at the Last Supper in John 13.
Verse 12 Gathering is a significant image in this Gospel. Cf. Jn 11:52.
Verse 13 Twelve alludes, in the context, to all Israel, symbolised by the twelve sons of Jacob, the twelve tribes of Israel.
Verse 14 This refers to Deuteronomy 18:15. There was an expectation that a Moses-type figure would inaugurate the Messianic age. In this Gospel, it is clear that Jesus is indeed a prophet (as with the Samaritan woman).
Verse 15 The people don’t actually say or attempt this, so the transition is abrupt. In this Gospel Jesus really is a king, but conceived utterly differently, as the dialogue with Pilate makes clear (John 18-19).
Pointers for prayer
One could start by reflecting on times of need in one’s own life, coupled perhaps the estimation of apparently inadequate resources. It might have been that the simple giving of what one had led to results, which took those involved by surprise. The metaphor of bread is linked to hunger. It might be good to recall any relevant experiences of need which formed part of our journey of faith, critical times when we felt nourished by our faith. Part of that journey may well include an initial, not yet fully formed grasp of who Jesus is. What image of Jesus followed? What relationship then developed? Where are we now in relation to that? It is not without interest that the initiative comes from Jesus, suggesting that we don’t know how hungry we are until we encounter him. Often, it is only when we are surprised by relief (and belief) that we recognise how needy we really were.
1. At the heart of this story we are told that Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks and distributed them. In our day this reminds us of the Eucharist, the bread of life with which Jesus feeds us. By sharing the bread and wine in the Eucharist we symbolise our unity with one another and with God. Can you recall a particular Eucharist that was especially nourishing for you. What was it that made it different?
2. Take, give thanks, distribute. The actions of Jesus also suggest an attitude to time, gifts and living. We take what we are given, give thanks, and use what we have. Have you found that having a grateful heart for what you have been given has made it easier for you to share with others?
3. From what seemed meagre and inadequate resources many were fed. When have you found that when you gratefully use what little resources you have the results are beyond your expectations?
4. Jesus chose to involve those around him in feeding the people. Have there been times when you have experienced benefits from calling on those around you to use their gifts to help with a task?
O God, you open wide your hand, giving us food in due season. Out of your never-failing abundance, satisfy the hungers of body and soul and lead all peoples of the earth to the feast of the world to come. We make our prayer through your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.