Gospel for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (25 July 2021)
Gospel 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.” (John 6:1-15 – NRSV)
We find a similar account in Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:32-44 and Luke 9:10-17. This is the only miracle in Jesus’ ministry that is recorded in all four Gospels. It seems likely, therefore that John – who is committing his Gospel to writing much later than the Synoptists – is dependent on those earlier accounts, specifically Mark. One commentator writes:
“Several scholars have argued at length that John wrote his account completely independently of the written accounts that have come down to us in the Synoptics (Mt. 14:13–21; Mk. 6:35–44; Lk. 9:10–17; cf. also the feeding of the four thousand, Mt. 15:21–28; Mk. 8:1–9). But as elsewhere, a good case can be made that John knew of Mark’s account (cf. Barrett, pp. 271ff.)—not that he copied him slavishly, but that he was familiar with his record of the details. The differences are minor, and can usually be explained in terms of the themes John wishes to emphasize. At one point, John and Mark provide clarifying details that help to explain the other’s text (cf. notes on 6:5, 15)” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 267).
Chapter 5 of John’s Gospel is set in Jerusalem. Chapter 6 begins with Jesus on “the other side” of the Lake and ends with him back in Capernaum. This continues John’s way of giving us sudden and sometimes striking shifts in location for Jesus’ ministry – see 1:19–4:54. Chapter 7 has him back in Jerusalem. As the crow flies, Jerusalem is about 50 miles south of Capernaum.
the other side: Does this mean the eastern shore, the Gentile side of the Lake? Probably. Though in Mark 5:1, while it is clear that “the other side” is the eastern shore – with the Gerasenes, Mark 5:21 tells us Jesus “crossed again to the other side” and it is clear that he means he has returned to the western shore, the Jewish side. Carson writes: “The next words establish that Jesus travelled to the east side of the Sea of Galilee, since the far shore is normally determined from the west side, the dominantly Jewish side.” (Ibid.) (See John 6:17: “When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum”. The Greek word is peran – literally “the other side”. It is translated here by NRSV as “across”. A number of modern translations – eg EST, NABRE and NIV – are in agreement with the NRSV. The NKJV translates: “went over the sea toward Capernaum”.)
Sea of Tiberias: In the Christian Scriptures, only John calls it the Sea of Tiberias. See also John 21:1. Mark and Matthew speak of “the Sea of Galilee”; Luke 5:1 speaks of “the Lake of Gennesaret”. (“The Sea of Galilee was in Old Testament times called Kinnereth (‘lyre’) because of its shape” (D A Carson, op cit, 268).) “Since Herod had just completed the building of the town of Tiberias in the 20s, it was probably only after Jesus’ time that the name ‘Tiberias’ became common for the lake. The name is encountered in 1st-century Jewish literature (Josephus; Sibylline Oracles)” (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 232).
A large crowd kept following him: This is similar to Mark 6:33-34. However, it is not “belief” that draws the people to Jesus but “because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick”. There is a similar reference in John 2:23-25. One wonders what effect that might have had on Jesus himself?
The people gathering around Jesus are not reading the “signs” well and we can expect they will not read the miracle of the loaves and fishes well. Carson writes: “Their attention was focused on food (v. 26) and victory (v. 15)—not on the divine self-disclosure mediated through the incarnate Son, not on the Son as the bread of life, not on a realistic assessment of their own need” (D A Carson, op cit, 271). So what are to make of John’s statement: “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’”? We must be skeptical of this claim in the light of Jesus’ own skepticism evident in his later statement: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” (6:26-27)
There may be echoes of Exodus 16 here. The people who gathered around Moses and Aaron in the wilderness did not read the sign of the manna well. They complained against the Lord that they had no food. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days” (Exodus 16:4-5). Moses reminds the people that the sign is so that “you shall know that I am the Lord your God’ (Exodus 16:12). This is crucial to the whole story, as is soon made evident, when their anxiety to feed themselves prompts them to focus on themselves rather than God. Instead of relying on the Lord of the Exodus, they want to take control and gather more than they need: “Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents”’. The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul” (Exodus 16:15-20). We might sum up the lesson here in the words of John 15:10: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love”. There is a constant struggle for us all to keep the centre of gravity in our lives moving from “me-centred” towards “God-centred”.
the mountain: The definite article – to oros – might be taken to suggest a particular site. “Scholars differ in their interpretation of the use of the definite article. An increasing number, however, make the link with the gift of the Law at Sinai (e.g., Schnackenburg, Gospel 2:18; Brown, Gospel 1:232; Segalla, Giovanni 224; Perry, “The Evolution” 23–25). Some reject the connection (e.g., Becker, Evangelium 1:191). It should be read as a first hint that the gift made to the people in the Law through Moses is about to be perfected in and through the gift of Jesus Christ (cf. 1:16–17).” (Daniel J Harrington Daniel J, The Gospel of John, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998, 195-96.)
the Jewish Passover: John mentions Jesus celebrating the Passover on three different occasions. The other two may be found at John 2:13, 23 and John 11:55ff. This particular mention of the Passover at the beginning of Chapter 6 seems to be more about theology than chronology. Carson explains: “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). ‘The movement from the miracle to the discourse, from Moses to Jesus (vv. 32–5, cf. 1:17), and, above all, from bread to flesh, is almost unintelligible unless the reference in v. 4 to the Passover picks up 1:29, 36, anticipates 19:36 (Exod. 12:46; Num. 9:12), and governs the whole narrative’ (Hoskyns, p. 281). At the same time, the Passover Feast was to Palestinian Jews what the fourth of July is to Americans, or, better, what the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne is to loyalist Protestants in Northern Ireland. It was a rallying point for intense, nationalistic zeal. This goes some way to explaining the fervour that tried to force Jesus to become king (cf. notes on v. 15). (D A Carson, op cit, 268-269.)
We should also note that this reference to the Passover comes immediately after a lengthy section – 5:1-47 – in which John describes an interchange between Jesus and the religious authorities where Jesus gives a “rereading of Sabbath theology and practice”. (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 196.) Situating Jesus in the context of the Feast of Passover gives John the opportunity to re-emphasize his authority.
Jesus said to Philip …. : This little interaction between Jesus and Philip, serves to highlight further the role of Jesus and the utterly new reality he is introducing. Philip’s response is a very natural, functional or commercial response, entirely of this world. What we are about to see is of another order.
a boy here who has five barley loaves: This reference – the Greek word translated as “boy” is paidarion, which can refer to a young man or a young slave – might be an allusion to Elisha and the miraculous feeding of 2 Kings 4:42-44: “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.” In the Septuagint, Elisha’s servant is twice called a paidarion in this chapter where he assists his master with the miraculous feeding – see 2 Kings 4:38 and 41.
Only John specifies barley loaves. Barley loaves are the inexpensive loaves the poor can afford.
That there are only “five barley loaves and two small fish” heightens the reality of the sign that Jesus is about to put before them. Jesus is a prophet greater than Elijah and Elisha.
when he had given thanks: This is typical Jewish practice, to “bless” God – that is give thanks to God – for the food. It is incidental that the Greek verb happens to be eucharisteō. Daniel Harrington notes: “This expression is very close to known early liturgical formulae and must be rejected as an attempt to have a text that is overtly eucharistic” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 200).
that nothing may be lost: This is also a Jewish custom: Do not let anything go to waste!
twelve baskets: All four Gospels refer to the twelve baskets. It seems reasonable to suggest this is a significant number: Even after all of those present have eaten there is still enough for all the tribes of Israel.
In today’s Gospel – John 6:1-15 – we see Jesus with his disciples in an awkward situation. A large crowd had followed Jesus in the wilderness. Why? Because they believed in him as the Son of God? No! It was “because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick”. They were not reading the miracles as “signs” but as power. Vulnerable people seeking invulnerability? They wanted some of that power channeled in their direction! This led to a potentially embarrassing outcome: “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’.”
We are reminded of a similar experience of vulnerability from long ago. The people are in the wilderness without food: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days’” (Exodus 16:4-5).
The purpose is that “you shall know that I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 16:12). That is, “through your vulnerability you will come to know my love”. However, their anxiety to escape their vulnerability prompts them to focus on themselves. So they gather more than they need: “Moses said to them …. ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs ….’. The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it …. those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. And Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave any of it over until morning’. But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul” (Exodus 16:15-20)
God meets us as we are. That’s where we should meet ourselves too. However, accepting the “as we are” is an experience of vulnerability. We tend to resist that. It is in fact the necessary doorway to our becoming human. The poet, David Whyte, sums it up succinctly: “The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door” (David Whyte, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, Canongate Books, Kindle Edition, 1123-1124). See also Vulnerability - by David Whyte ( English Version ) | Ripples - YouTube).
What is it like to be vulnerable? How are you inclined to respond when you feel vulnerable?