July 29, 2018: 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

What good are these for so many-

1st Reading – 2 Kings 4:42-44

A man came from Baal-shalishah bringing to Elisha, the man of God,
twenty barley loaves made from the firstfruits,
and fresh grain in the ear.
Elisha said, “Give it to the people to eat.”
But his servant objected,
“How can I set this before a hundred people?”
Elisha insisted, “Give it to the people to eat.”
“For thus says the LORD,
‘They shall eat and there shall be some left over.’”
And when they had eaten, there was some left over,
as the LORD had said.

The time of today’s first reading is approximately 850 B.C., during the time of the prophet Elisha.

A man came from Baal-shalishah

The unnamed man comes from a place named for Baal, the Canaanite god of fertility. Baal-shalishah was located in the foothills around Gilgal.

bringing to Elisha, the man of God, twenty barley loaves made from the firstfruits, and fresh grain in the ear.

Instead of making his offering to Baal, the man brings his gift to “the man of God.”  Before priests were given exclusive authority over the offering of sacrifices, worshipers would bring their offerings to the prophet attached to a particular shrine.  That seems to be what is happening here.

The firstfruits were the best and freshest portion of the harvest, and were normally offered to God as a token of the entire harvest. Loaves and grain in particular were brought as either an offering to God or for the benefit of the prophet at the shrine.

Elisha said, “Give it to the people to eat.”

Elisha shows concern for the worshipers.  This directive is extraordinary; the bread belonged to God and was only to be consumed by the prophet, who had been set apart by God.  This is a significant violation of cultic regulation, which was only warranted in extreme circumstances (e.g., 1 Samuel 21:5-6).

But his servant objected, “How can I set this before a hundred people?”

The “loaves” of the Israelites were cakes or rolls, rather than “loaves” in the modern sense of the word. Each partaker of a meal usually had one for himself. Naturally, twenty “loaves” would be barely sufficient for twenty men.

“Give it to the people to eat,” Elisha insisted. “For thus says the LORD, ‘They shall eat and there shall be some left over.’”

Invoking God, Elisha’s insistence overrides the objection of the servant at the temple, indicating their recognition of his authority.

The origin of the quote is uncertain.  It isn’t a reference to the miracle of the manna in the wilderness, because there the people took only what they needed and nothing was left over.  Many commentators understand this as a new revelation made to Elisha in the moment.

And when they had eaten, there was some left over, as the LORD had said.

The result was as Elisha had predicted.  One hundred men were fed by a mere twenty loaves, with some left over — an indication of God’s bountiful generosity.

In the land of Canaan it was believed that Baal, the god of fertility, provided bread for the people, but this action shows that the Lord is really the source of abundance.

2nd Reading – Ephesians 4:1-6

Brothers and sisters:
I, a prisoner for the Lord,
urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,
with all humility and gentleness, with patience,
bearing with one another through love,
striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace:
one body and one Spirit,
as you were also called to the one hope of your call;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism;
one God and Father of all,
who is over all and through all and in all.

Today’s second reading is a call by Saint Paul for unity within the Church.

Brothers and sisters: I, a prisoner for the Lord,

This was written while Paul was held prisoner in Rome. It is one of his “captivity epistles.”

urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,

Of all the pleas a prisoner could make from his cell, Paul exhorts the Ephesians to live according to Christian standards.

Note that he does not invite or encourage them, he urges them.  This is a common theme in Paul’s letters, as seen in Colossians 1:10 and Philippians 1:27.

with all humility and gentleness,

Paul provides a list of social virtues that characterize the Christian life, all of which foster harmony within the community.

Humility is lowly-mindedness, a resistance from seeking prominence over others; the opposite of pride.

Gentleness, or meekness, is an unwillingness to provoke others or to be easily provoked.

with patience, bearing with one another through love,

Patience implies the long-suffering endurance of injuries without seeking revenge. This forbearance is motivated by love, which should not diminish on account of any injuries received.

In other words, Christians need to make the best of one another, provoking each others’ graces and not their anger.

striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace:

The goal of living this way is to preserve unity, which comes from the Holy Spirit.

one body

After calling for the unifying social virtues, Paul goes on to list seven elements that bind Christians to God and each other:

1) Belonging to one body of Christ, one external visible community: the Church.

“What is this one body? They are the faithful throughout the world – in the present, in the past and in the future. … The body does exist apart from its enlivening spirit, else it would not be a body. It is a common human metaphor to say of things that are united and have coherence that they are one body. So we too take the term ‘body’ as an expression of unity” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392-397), Homilies On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 10,4,4].

and one Spirit,

2) Being filled with and fashioned by the one Spirit of God.

as you were also called to the one hope of your call;

3) Being inspired by the same one hope: the call to salvation.

one Lord, one faith, one baptism;

Elements 4, 5, and 6.  As Christians, we express this unity in the allegiance we pledge to one Lord, our commitment to one faith, and our celebration of one baptism.

“The Lord is one and God is one, because the dominion of the Father and of the Son is one divinity. Moreover the faith too is said to be one, because we believe likewise in Father and in Son and in Holy Spirit. And there is one Baptism, for it is in one and the  same way that we are baptized in the Father and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit. And we are dipped three times so that the one Sacrament of the Trinity may be made apparent. And we are not baptized in the names of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, but in one name, which one name we know to be God” [Saint Jerome (A.D. 436), Commentaries On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 2,4,5,6-7].

one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

The seventh and final unifying element: our belief in the one God of Jewish monotheism, in contrast to the many gods of the pagan world.  We are bonded together as brothers and sisters, children of one father.

God, our Father, is transcendent (“over all”), immanent (“in all”) and actively at work in all creation (“through all”).

Gospel – John 6:1-15

Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee.
A large crowd followed him,
because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick.
Jesus went up on the mountain,
and there he sat down with his disciples.
The Jewish feast of Passover was near.
When Jesus raised his eyes
and saw that a large crowd was coming to him,
he said to Philip,
“Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?”
He said this to test him,
because he himself knew what he was going to do.
Philip answered him,
“Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough
for each of them to have a little.’”
One of his disciples,
Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him,
“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish;
but what good are these for so many?”
Jesus said, “Have the people recline.”
Now there was a great deal of grass in that place.
So the men reclined, about five thousand in number.
Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks,
and distributed them to those who were reclining,
and also as much of the fish as they wanted.
When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples,
“Gather the fragments left over,
so that nothing will be wasted.”
So they collected them,
and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments
from the five barley loaves
that had been more than they could eat.
When the people saw the sign he had done, they said,
“This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.”
Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off
to make him king,
he withdrew again to the mountain alone.

At this point in the liturgical calendar, we move our attention from the Gospel of Mark to the Gospel of John for a period of five weeks. Today’s reading recounts Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand.

Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee. A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick.

The fact that the crowds followed Jesus from place to place points to the mesmerizing effect he had upon them.  They did not necessarily follow him out of faith or to hear his teaching; some followed him out of curiosity and hope that they might witness some kind of marvel.

Faith based merely on miracles — without a recognition of the nature of the one performing them — would be unstable and transitory; that is, not faith at all.

Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. The Jewish feast of Passover was near.

This is the second of three Passovers mentioned in Holy Scripture, all of which appear in John’s gospel.  The first is John 2:13-23, the cleansing of the temple immediately after the marriage feast of Cana.  The second is today’s reading, the multiplication of the loaves.  The third is John 11:55, Jesus’ passion.

This means that the events in this reading occur just past the halfway point of Jesus’ three-year public ministry; one year before his passion, death and resurrection.

When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?”

Note that there is no mention the people requesting food, or even that they were hungry.  Unlike most of his miracles, Jesus is not responding to an explicit need.

The crowd was almost certainly comprised of ordinary poor people, especially in such a remote corner of the countryside.  Christ seems pleased with their attendance and concerned for their welfare.

He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do.

Jesus knew full well that neither money nor a supply of food would be necessary.

Philip answered him, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.”

Philip had been a disciple of Jesus from the very beginning, and had seen all his miracles, including his turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  It might then be expected that Philip would say something like, “Lord, if you will it, it would be easy for you to feed them all.”  Yet Philip takes Jesus’ words literally, insisting that they do not have enough to feed the crowd.

One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?”

Andrew is as incredulous as Philip.  Neither of them realized the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words or what was happening.

Jesus said, “Have the people recline.”

The traditional posture for eating in Jesus’ time was lying down, usually on a special kind of couch, with the food placed on a table within reach.

It would have seemed ridiculous to have the people recline in preparation to eat when there was essentially nothing to eat.  Jesus is basically saying, “Trust me.”

Now there was a great deal of grass in that place.  So the men reclined, about five thousand in number.

Even in springtime (near Passover), having a “great deal” of grass would be peculiar, as this is a desert setting.  It bears mentioning because it made the setting considerably more comfortable and served as cushions to recline upon.

Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks,

The Greek verb for “gave thanks” is eucharistéō.

The language used here is similar across all four gospel accounts, and it strongly resembles the words Jesus used at the Last Supper, the institution of the Eucharist (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:25).  John’s version of this miracle doesn’t mention breaking the bread, but the synoptic versions do (Matthew 14:19; Mark 6:40; Luke 9:16).

and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted.

The synoptic gospels have the disciples distributing the food. In view of the size of the crowds, this seems plausible – John’s bypassing this detail is reminiscent of the Last Supper, where Jesus did the distributing.

When they had had their fill,

They did not each take only a little food; all were fed to their satisfaction.

he said to his disciples, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat.

This is a testament to the bountiful generosity of God.  He not only fills our cup, he makes it run over.  Jesus has met the most basic human need, hunger, with largess and compassion.

This is the only miracle story found in all four gospels, and in all four it has Eucharistic overtones.  John’s gospel was the last of the four to be written, and he typically did not record what had already been included by the others.

He might have incorporated it because of its anticipation of the Eucharist and the final banquet in the kingdom of God (see Matthew 8:11 and 26:29).  This account also sets the stage for the Bread of Life discourse, which follows it (John 6:22-59).

When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.”

The people now recognize Jesus as more than a wonder-worker; he has performed an act of God.  Therefore, he must be the long-awaited prophet that would usher in the messianic age.

Contrast this wisdom of the peasants with the disbelief of the well-educated Pharisees, who despised the crowds for not knowing the law (see John 7:49).

Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.

Jesus isolates himself in order to avoid being proclaimed what he is not; that is, an earthly king. (In his dialog with Pilate (John 18:36), Jesus explains that his kingdom is not of this world.)

Anything which would alter his mission as God’s servant, or his destiny to die on the cross, was a temptation to be avoided.

Connections and Themes

  • All three readings today and in the four weeks that follow either expand or support the meaning of the bread of life discourse (John 6:22-59), one of Jesus’ most pivotal teachings, and have been chosen exactly for that reason.
  • The first reading and the gospel reading remind us that it is God that provides, a fact that is easy for us to forget.  We are tasked with caring for ourselves and each other, but everything we need to do so is provided to us, via the earth.  We have food to eat, water to drink, materials with which to build shelter and clothing.
  • God not only provides resources to meet our needs, he is immensely generous.  The harvest is more than we can consume, the sun bursts forth in beautiful sunsets, flowers and fruit that are not only productive and nutritious, but pleasing to the senses.  We must remember that it didn’t have to be this way, this abundant and this enjoyable.
  • Modern society is heavily individualistic, creating a tendency to overlook the communal aspect of our lives. In the first reading and the gospel, the bread was distributed among the entire crowd, and in Paul’s letter, he exhorts us to live in unity.  As unique as each of us may be, and as passionately as God cares for each of us individually, we must remember that we would have never endured or developed without the care of others.
  • God created a people, not separate individuals.  Jesus died for the entire world, not just a chosen few.  As members of that community, the people of God, we are called to be noble and selfless, upholding all of the virtues that Paul prescribes.  We all live by the same Spirit of Jesus, we are all united through God’s love for us, and we must conduct ourselves in gratitude, accordingly.

 

 

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