Gospel for the Seventeenth Sunday (26 July 2015)
Notes by Michael Whelan SM
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 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?”
He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 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. 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. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 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.” 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. (John 6:1-15 – NRSVCE)
There are parallel passages to this text in Matthew 14:13–21, Mark:6.30–44 and Luke:9.10–17. This is the only time we find a miracle of Jesus recorded in all four Gospels. (There is also an account of the feeding of four thousand in Matthew 15:21–28 and Mark 8:1–9.)
“The other side” of the Sea of Galilee is determined from the Western side, the side where the Jews lived.
“The Sea of Galilee was in Old Testament times called Kinnereth (‘lyre’) because of its shape. About ad 20 Herod Antipas founded a city on the west shore and called it Tiberias, after the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar. Gradually the name Tiberias was transferred to the lake, though probably the change was not common in popular parlance until much later in the century, when John wrote. Hence John’s parenthetical explanation.” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 268.)
“A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.” John signals the reader that these people are not yet believers. See a similar situation in John 2:23–25.
“Jesus went up the mountain”. This is perhaps the area we now know as the Golan Heights.
“Although this is the second of three Passovers mentioned by John (cf. 2:13, 23; 11:55ff.), his reason for including this aside is not so much chronological as theological. The Jewish Passover celebrated the exodus from Egypt. Intrinsic to the celebration was the slaughter of a lamb in each household, which then ate it. In this Gospel Jesus is the Lamb of God (1:29, 36). The first Passover to be mentioned (2:13, 23) is in the context of Jesus’ self-designation as the temple that would have to be destroyed—a way of pointing to his death; the third Passover (11:55ff.) is at the time of his death. This intermediate one occurs about (John says it was near) the time of the feeding of the five thousand, which precipitates the bread of life discourse, in which Jesus identifies his flesh as the true bread that must be given for the life of the world (6:33, 51), the bread that must be eaten if people are to have eternal life. The connections become complex: the sacrifice of the lamb anticipates Jesus’ death, the Old Testament manna is superseded by the real bread of life, the exodus typologically sets forth the eternal life that delivers us from sin and destruction, the Passover feast is taken over by the eucharist (both of which point to Jesus and his redemptive cross-work).” (D A Carson, op cit, 268.)
“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Like the crowds, Philip does not yet “believe” either. His response to Jesus shows he is thinking in a very worldly way about the situation. Belief always gives a richer and wider perspective.
Both the masses and the disciples “saw” the “signs” but they did not “read” the “signs”. To be able to “read” the “signs” – to realise that they actually are “signs” and discern what they signify – is a matter of faith.
In our attempts to understand our situation in the cosmos and, in particular, to understand the place of God in our lives, there have been a vast web of ideas at play in the human family. One small but significant example of this emerged during the 17th century. Philosophy and theology became confused:
“The existence of God was taken primarily as a philosophic question and defended through the evidence provided by the new learning. Philosophy itself, then, became either the Universal Mathematics of Rene Descartes or the Universal Mechanics of Isaac Newton. And these, the most influential philosophers of that age, not only accepted the assignment from the theologians, they introduced and defended this allocation of duties. To the faculty of theology at Paris, Descartes dedicated his greatest work, his Meditations on First Philosophy, but in that very dedication distinguished his responsibility from theirs: ‘I have always been of the opinion that the two questions that have to do either with God or with the soul were the chief among those that ought to be demonstrated by the power of philosophy rather than that of theology’. Which is Descartes’ nice way of saying to the theologians that to establish the existence of God is his responsibility, not theirs.” (Michael J Buckley SJ, Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism, Yale University Press, 2004, 33.)
By the middle of the 17th century Christian theology had lost its focus on the person and teaching of Jesus and the lived reality of each person being an extension of the incarnation.It had ceded to philosophers and philosophies the question of God and God's place in our lives. This meant that, come the 19th century and the rise of modern atheism, Christian theology was ill-equipped to speak to the world of the God of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the living God who is with us in our world.
By the middle of the 20th century, Christian theology had become an abstract, rationalistic presentation of ideas about God rather than a concrete reflection and expression of an encounter with God. It had also taken on a particularly apologetic bent, purpoting to offer an apologia for the Christian faith to the non-believer and a set of "answers" better than other theologians, particularly those from the reformed tradition. This effectively removed theology from the lives of the faithful and put it in the hands of academics. We will be reaping the tragic effects of this for many generations to come.
The great spiritual guide of the 4th century, Evagrius of Ponticus sounded a very different note: “If you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray you are a theologian.” (“Chapters on Prayer”, 60 in Evagrius Ponticus: The Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer, translated by John Eudes Bamberger OCSO, Cistercian Publications, 1981, 65.)
We have much hard work to do in this regard.