For freedom, Christ has set us free

Corpus Christi Sunday
Gospel Commentary
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23 June 2019


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Gospel
Luke 9:10   On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. 11 When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured.

Luke 9:12   The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.” 13 But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 They did so and made them all sit down. 16 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.

Initial observations

The multiplication of the loaves is a natural choice for Corpus Christi. The lectionary excerpt begins at v. 11, but the story really starts at v. 10, so it is included above in italics. This story is told no fewer than six times in the NT, twice in both Mark and Matthew, and once each in John and Luke. The key, when reading shared accounts, is to pay attention to what is distinctive to each one. In our case, two things stand out. Firstly, Luke brings out the Eucharistic symbolism more strongly. Secondly, he underscores the intermediary role of the twelve, as he looks ahead to their importance in the Acts. Overall, Luke is very attached to Elijah / Elisha symbolism which comes out in this story.


Kind of writing
The story forms an important bridge in Luke’s narrative between the question raised in 9:9 (“Who is this?”) and the confession in 9.20. The evocation of the Eucharist was already present in Mark’s version, so that, by the time Luke’s received this tradition, it is already being read in another register. The symbolism of the account(s) makes it difficult to get back to an original tradition not to speak of an original “event.” Any literalist “down reading”—such as they shared their sandwiches—is to be strenuously resisted, of course!

Old Testament background

There are substantial echoes in this text of the story of the manna in the desert: Exodus 16 and Numbers 11. In particular, the miracles of Elijah and Elisha should be noticed. The Gospel of Luke frequently underlines and echoes the Elijah traditions and expansions.

Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah. (1 Kgs 17:13–16)

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.” But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord. (2 Kgs 4:42–44)

“You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.”

So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men from all Israel and appointed them as heads over the people, as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.” (Exod 18:21–25)

New Testament foreground

Reversal of poverty is part of the vision of the Kingdom, as we see:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:52–53)
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” (Luke 6:21)

Meals are really significant in Luke’s Gospel—Jesus is shown eating twice as frequently as in Mark and the tradition continues in the Acts of the Apostles. Two texts may illustrate:

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”” (Luke 24:30–32)

“We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. (Acts 10:39–41)

St Paul
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 sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. (2 Cor 9:6–10)

Brief commentary

Verse 10 In the different Gospels the story is variously located. Only Luke has the reference to Bethsaida at the start (Mk 6:45 does refer it, but at the end). At this point, Luke leaves out a great part of Mark—the so-call Great Omission—Mk 6:45-8:26, which began and ended with a reference to Bethsaida. Already in Mark, these stories form the background to Jesus’ identity and in his own way Luke follows Mark’s impulse.

Verse 11 In Luke’s telling, the crowds really are “Gospel greedy,” as we say, and they come for Jesus’ message and for healing. Oddly, Luke omits Mark’s mention of compassion and their being like sheep without a shepherd.

Verses 12 The time marker reminds us of 24:29. The twelve take the initiative here. Their concern expresses a compassion for the poor and the hungry. (See also Acts 2:42, 4:34; 6:1-6 and 11:27-29). Their advice is certainly practical, apart from finding the money!

Verse 13 Jesus responds with a challenge. Then we learn the actual resources present—not absolutely nothing, but well short of adequate. The apostles are still thinking on a very material level. For Luke, interestingly, the twelve themselves have this resource, unlike in the other tellings. The irony of the 200 denarii is omitted by Luke. The imperative makes a link with Elisha (see above). Why fish has puzzled commentators. There are tenuous links with Jewish tradition—not only water from the rock but fish in the water! It was certainly an early Christian symbol, but how early is difficult to establish.

Verses 14-15 Luke goes for the greater numbers, so as to underline the wonderful nature of the feeding of so many. The groups of fifty may echo the organisation of Israel in the desert: see Exod 18:21–25 above. As an aside, Luke also likes “fifty” as a number: Luke 7:41; 9:14; 16:6; Acts 13:20; 19:19. The particular verb to sit is found only in Luke in the NT: Luke 7:36 (Pharisee); 9:14–15 (miracle); 14:8 (parable); 24:30 (Emmaus).

Verse 16 Here we have a clear and intentional echo of the Eucharistic worship of the early church. As we know the Gospels were written not only in the light of the Resurrection, but also under the influence of early church traditions. Cf. “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”” (Luke 22:19)

Luke’s redaction of Mark is very clear here. Compare:
Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. (Mark 8:6; cf. Lk 22:19)
Looked up to heaven: cf. Job 22:26-27, in the Greek Old Testament / LXX. It underlines the context of prayer, which fits Luke’s portrait of Jesus as man of prayer.
Gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd: The intermediary role of the Twelve anticipates their importance in the Acts later on.


Verse 17 The first part of this verse describes extravagance associated with the end of time. Cf. “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” (Isa 25:6) Luke, in the Greek, moves the expression “all” to a position of emphasis—something to consider in the light of the all / many translation in the Missal, perhaps.

In Luke’s view, the church’s ministry of feeding the hungry stands between Jesus’ own ministry and its fulfilment in the heavenly banquet. The mention of twelve baskets (rather than seven in Gentile symbolism) underscores the fulfilment of Jewish expectation.

Pointers for prayer

1. Jesus welcomes the crowd, teaches them, and cures those in need of healing. Bring to mind the ways in which the story of Jesus and his message have brought you enlightenment, and healing.

2. The miracle is symbolic of the abundance of blessings coming to us from God through Jesus. How has your faith in Jesus been a source of nourishment to you? What blessings have you received through your faith?

3. When the disciples became aware of the problem they wanted to send the crowd away and Jesus told them “You give them something to eat”. They thought what they had was insufficient but Jesus used the little they had to feed the crowd. Have you ever found that when you give the little you have to a situation, the results were beyond your expectations?

Prayer

You have blessed all generations, O God most high, in Jesus, our compassionate saviour, for through him you invite us to your kingdom, welcome us to your table, and provide us with nourishment in abundance.

Teach us to imitate your unfailing kindness and to build up Christ’s body, the Church, by generously handing on to others the gifts we have received from your bounty.

Thought for the day

Bodily hunger and thirst are easy to recognise—we feel them directly. The deeper hungers can take longer, especially in our “culture of distraction” where there is so little room for reflection and real conversation. These hungers are just as real, of course, and call for recognition and response. But the first step is really awareness and attention to the hints and nudges life provides.

Prayer

You have formed us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in you. Amen.