Sunday, July 29, 2012
Eating and sharing the bread of life
John 6: 1-15
1. Let us invoke the Holy Spirit
Our Father in heaven,
you have given us your beloved Son,
send your Spirit
that we may eat and savour your gift.
Give us our daily bodily and spiritual bread,
may it provoke in us a hunger and thirst
for you, for your Word and your banquet,
where you will satisfy us with your presence,
with your love and your shalom,
in the joy of the communion with the brothers and sisters that you give us this day,
that we may share with them the material and spiritual bread. Amen.
a) The premises and key of biblical and liturgical reading:
* Our passage contains an unusual characteristic: it narrates the only “inflated” episode in the Gospels. In fact, all together it is told six times (once in Luke and John, twice in each of Mark and Matthew). Apart from any historical-critical evaluation of this unusual repetition, it is clear that early Christian tradition gave this episode great emphasis.
* Much discussion has gone on concerning the literary connections with the other Gospel stories, but really we cannot tell definitely whether there are any direct or indirect connections among the various Gospel stories. The nearest parallel to John seems to be the first text in Mark (6: 30-54), but John would have had an autonomous source, which he reworked so that it would fit in well with the discourse that follows.
* As is usual in the fourth Gospel, a discourse of great theological importance is closely coupled with the “sign”, which in this case is a miracle. Here, the discourse that follows covers almost the whole of the sixth chapter: it is the discourse on the “bread of life" (6: 26-59), the great source of theological reflection on the sacrament of the Eucharist.
* Throughout the text there are several references to actions, words and ideas characteristic of the Christian liturgy, thus there seems to be a close relationship between this passage and the liturgical tradition of the eucharistic celebration, especially in view of the fact that the Gospel of John makes no reference to the institution of the Eucharist
* In this year’s liturgical cycle, which is based on the Gospel of Mark, a series of Sunday Gospels taken from John are inserted at this point. The insertion takes place precisely where one would have expected the readings on the multiplication of the loaves. The choice of the first reading is a classical example of mutual illumination between the Testaments: we have the multiplication of loaves by the prophet Elisha (2Kings 4: 42-44). The parallel between the miracles throws light also on the prophetic aspect of the person of Jesus. Again, the second reading (Eph 4: 1-6) emphasises an aspect of the eucharistic life of the Church: the communion built around Christ and nourished by the one eucharistic bread.
* The main themes of this passage are those that concern the symbolism of the bread and of sharing the meal, it also has an eschatological dimension. Other important motifs present in the text are those of faith in Jesus and in his way of interpreting messianism, here expressed through the Old Testament figure of Moses.
b) The text:
1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. 2 And a multitude followed him, because they saw the signs which he did on those who were diseased. 3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there sat down with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. 5 Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a multitude was coming to him, Jesus said to Philip, "How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?" 6 This he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. 7 Philip answered him, "Two hundred denarii 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 lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?" 10 Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was much grass in the place; so the men sat down, in number about five thousand. 11 Jesus then 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 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost." 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten. 14 When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!"
15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
c) A subdivision of the text for a better understanding:
vv. 1-4: Temporal, geographic and liturgical introduction.
vv. 5-10: The preparatory dialogue between Jesus and the disciples.
vv. 11-13: The meal “multiplied” and over-abundant.
vv. 14-15: The reactions of the people and of Jesus.
3. A moment of interior and exterior silence
to allow the Word of God to impregnate our hearts and minds.
* It is Spring and Easter is close. The air is still fresh and this makes it easier to follow and listen to the now famous, though controversial, rabbi of Nazareth.
* As I read and reread, I hear a voice, but still saying rather “strange” things”: how is it possible to feed this great crowd of people?
* A few loaves and fewer fish…but we must not lose them, while we accept to share them. Look, they increase as we distribute them!
* At the end, we collect everything: it is very tiring, but bread is always precious, everywhere and at all times, especially this bread.
* I resume my journey with Him, without stopping, with a light and happy heart because of the great things that I have seen today, but also with a few more questions. I go on looking at Him and listening to Him, I let my heart echo His actions, the expressions of His face, His voice and His words.
4. The Word given to us
* The “book of signs” of the fourth Gospel: Our passage comes from a part of the Gospel known as the “book of signs” (from 1: 19 to 12: 50), where we find descriptions of and comments on seven great “signs” of self-revelation (semeion, a symbolical miracle or action) worked by Jesus in this Gospel. Discourses and “signs” are closely correlated: theological discourses explain the “signs” and in the “signs” we find a concrete presentation of the contents of the discourses in a progressive deepening of the divine revelation and the consequent growing hostility towards Jesus.
* Chapter 6 of John: In an attempt to clarify the chronology and geographical details of chapter 6, some propose that we change the places of chapters 5 and 6. This, however, would not resolve all the problems. It is better, then, to keep and respect what tradition has passed on to us, keeping in mind the historical-editorial problems involved, so as not to “unduly stress something which does not seem to have had great importance for the Evangelist" (R. Brown).
* Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias: The lake is identified as having two names; the first is the traditional one, the second is adopted by John in the New Testament (also in 21: 1), perhaps because it had appeared recently in the life of Jesus and was, therefore, in common use after his death and widespread especially among the Greeks.
* And a multitude followed him, because they saw the signs which he did on those who were diseased: Before this (2,:23-25) we come across a similar situation of many believers in Jesus who had seen the “signs” he had worked. In both situations, Jesus shows clearly that he disapproves of the motivation (2: 24-25; 6: 5. 26).
The “signs” on those who were diseased, namely the healings that Jesus worked in Galilee are told by John, except for the healing of the son of the regional official (4: 46-54). However, with these words, this Evangelist lets it be understood that he had not told all the events and that he had chosen a few among many that he could have communicated to the readers (cfr also 21: 25).
* Jesus went up on the mountain, and there sat down with his disciples: There is no way of knowing which mountain.
The scene of Jesus, like Moses, sitting surrounded by his disciples, is a recurring theme also found in the other Gospels (cfr Mk 4: 1; Mt 5: 1; Lk 4: 20). The action of sitting in order to teach was normal for rabbis, but John – contrary to Mk 5:34 – does not mention that Jesus taught on this occasion.
* Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand: The fourth Gospel makes three references to the celebration of the Passover by Jesus during his public life. This was the second (the first: 2: 13; the third: 11: 55) and we are told the religious and theological circumstances of everything said and done in chapter 6: the “bread given” by God like the manna, the going up the mountain by Jesus, like Moses, the crossing of the water as during the exodus (in the following episode: 6: 16-21), the discourse on the theme of the bread that comes from God. Concerning the relationship between the manna given to Israel in the desert and the multiplication of the loaves, there are also several parallels recalling Numbers 11 (vv. 1. 7-9. 13. 22).
Some actions of Jesus (for instance, the breaking of the bread), as also the many theological themes touched upon in the following discourse, are clear references to the liturgical actions of the seder at the Passover and to the liturgical readings in the synagogue for the feast.
The Passover is a springtime feast and, in fact, John notes that “there was much grass in the place” (6: 10; cfr Mt 14: 19 e Mk 6:39).
* Seeing that a multitude was coming to him: At the beginning of the narrative, it seemed that the people had been following him before, whereas here John seems to say that the crowd was arriving. Perhaps this is a reference to one of John’s favourite themes and one greatly emphasised in this chapter: the coming to Jesus, an expression synonymous with complete adhesion to the faith (3: 21; 5: 40; 6: 35. 37. 45; 7: 37 and elsewhere).
* Jesus said to Philip… Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother: These are two of the Twelve who in this Gospel seem to have a special role (cfr 1: 44 and 12: 21-22), whereas in the other Gospels they remain in the shadows. It seems that they were particularly venerated in Asia Minor, where the Gospel of John was written.
* “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”: The question addressed to Philip may possibly be justified because he came from that geographical region.
If we interpret this question in the light of similar questions in the whole Gospel (1: 48; 2: 9; 4: 11; 7: 27-28; 8: 14; 9: 29-30; 19: 9), we discover its Christological importance: asking from where the gift comes is also to seek to understand the origin of the giver, in this case, Jesus. Thus the question leads to the seeking the divine origin of Jesus.
* This he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do: The “testing” the reaction of the disciple is indicated by a verb (peirazein) which usually has a negative meaning, of temptation, checking or deceit. The role of this sentence, however, is to protect the reader against any doubt that Jesus’ question may be interpreted as ignorance.
* “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little”: The amount is equivalent to a labourer’s salary for two hundred days of work (cfr. Mt 20: 13; 22: 2).
Mark (6: 37) puts it in such a way the we may think that such a quantity of bread would be sufficient for the present need, but John wants to emphasise the greatness of the divine intervention and the disproportion of human resources. Andrew’s words, which follow, have the same purpose: "… but what are they among so many?"
* “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish”: Judging by the double diminutive of the Greek text (paidarion), the lad is really a small child: someone with no social standing. The same term is used in 2Kings (4: 12. 14.25; 5: 20) for the servant of Elisha, Giezi.
Barley loaves, unlike loaves made from wheat, were particularly simple food and cheap, used by poor people. It would seem (cfr Lk 11: 5) that the meal for one person was made up of three loaves. The dried fish (opsarion, again the use of a double diminutive) was the common food to go with the bread.
* “Make the people sit down…in number about five thousand”: In reality, according to the custom of the times, Jesus commands that they “lay down” or to “stretch out”: the meal has to be eaten in comfort, just as it is prescribed for the ritual meal of the Passover and as of obligation in banquets. All the Gospel reports of this episode only refer to the number of men present.
* “Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them…so also the fish”: These actions and words of Jesus are very close to those of the eucharistic rite, although we cannot say that the one derives from the other.
* "When he had given thanks" is a translation of eucharistein, which was commonly used as distinct from eulogein, to bless, the verb used by the synoptic Gospels here; the first verb is characteristic of the Greek milieu, whereas the second comes directly from the milieu of Hebrew culture. If we take into account the language in use at the time of writing of the Gospels, then we cannot say that there are any significant differences of content between the expressions, even though John’s expression is, for us who are used to the Christian liturgical language, a much more direct reminder of the eucharistic sacrament. This is so true that the fourth Evangelist uses the same verb also in 11: 41, where we find some reminders of the sacrament.
As presider at the ritual Passover table, Jesus personally breaks the bread and gives it directly to the people. In the same way he will do this at the last supper. Most probably, however, things proceeded the way the synoptic Gospels describe them: Jesus gave the broken bread to the disciples so that they might distribute it. In fact, the crowd was too large for Him to be able to do it all alone. John, then, wishes to concentrate the whole attention of his readers on the person of Jesus, true and only giver of “the bread from heaven”.
Let us follow closely the sequence of events: the multiplication takes place only after the breaking and the breaking of the bread takes place only after a “small lad” courageously gives up all of his trivial resources. Those poor, small loaves are multiplied as they are broken! Jesus multiplies what we accept, a little blindly, to share with Him and with others.
* As much as they wanted … they had eaten their fill: It is the abundance promised by the prophets when the time of šalom and of the festive eschatological banquet comes (cfr, e.g. Is 25: 6; 30: 23; 49: 9; 56: 7-9; Os 11: 4; Sl 37: 19; 81: 17; 132: 15).
Thus, the crowd is not wrong when it says of Jesus "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world": a prophet who fulfils the divine promise of sending a prophet “equal to Moses” (Dt 18: 15-18) and who ushers in the messianic times preparing a free and abundant banquet, as promised by the ancient prophets.
* “Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost": The disciples appear on the scene with the task of not letting any of the precious bread go to waste. In fact, this too is a “bread that perishes” and cannot be compared with the true “bread from heaven” (cfr 6: 24). The command to gather (synagein) the fragments recalls the prescription regarding the manna (cfr Ex 16: 16 ff.).
* So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves: We cannot tell for certain whether the number of baskets is connected with the number of disciples. What is certain is that these words want to emphasise again the great abundance of food from those small barley loaves blessed by Jesus. John seems to pay scant attention to the two fishes offered with the bread, perhaps because the discourse that follows is all about bread.
* When the people saw the sign: The motive that John gives for the miracle just worked is not compassion for the crowd; this would have been well understood by the disciples present, who, however, according to Mark (6: 52 and 8: 14-21), did not understand the meaning of what had taken place.
The fourth Gospel, then, shows the “sign” significance of the miracle.
* Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself: Contrary to the other Evangelists, John gives the reason for Jesus’ sudden disappearance after the miracle: he wanted to prevent that his role as Messiah might be “fouled” by political manifestations by the crowd. Jesus once more makes clear his choice (cfr Mt 4: 1-10), which he will repeat right to the end before Pilate (19: 33-37).
5. A few questions to direct our reflection and its practice
a) The bread is multiplied because someone “very small” has the courage to renounce hanging on to his security (even though it was minimal, it was a little like the Hebrews hankering after the life in Egypt) risking failure or shamefacedness. The “young lad” of the Gospel story believes in Jesus, even though Jesus had promised nothing on this occasion. Would I, would we do the same?
b) The lad is an insignificant person, the loaves are few and the fish even fewer. In the hands of Jesus everything becomes great and beautiful. There is a huge disproportion between what we are and what God can make of us, if we place ourselves in His hands. "Nothing is impossible for God": not converting the hardest of hearts, not transforming evil into and an instrument for good… God fills in every disproportion between us and him. Do I really believe this, in the bottom of my heart, even when everything seems to contradict it?
c) The material bread offered by God refers us to the bread we ought to share with so many men and women who, on this same earth we live on and whose resources we waste so thoughtlessly, struggle desperately for a slice of bread. When we pray “give us this day our daily bread” do we at least think of those who have no bread and how we can help them?
d) Physical hunger and material bread remind us also of the “hunger for God” and the eschatological banquet. These are truths that we often put out of our thoughts because we prefer to think that they are far and distant from us. And yet, if we keep them present, they would help us to see the relative value of so many events and problems that seem to us greater than ourselves, and to live a more serene life busying ourselves only with what is essential. When, during the eucharistic celebration we say "…as we wait in joyful hope" are we really fervently waiting for the glorious return of the One who loves us and who even now takes care of us?
6. Let us pray (Psalm 147)
Praising God in a hymn with a Passover flavour to Him who provides food and every kind of subsistence to the “little ones” of his people and to every living creature.
Praise the Lord! For it is good to sing praises to our God;
for he is gracious, and a song of praise is seemly.
The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
He heals the broken-hearted,
and binds up their wounds.
He determines the number of the stars,
he gives to all of them their names.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
his understanding is beyond measure.
The Lord lifts up the downtrodden,
he casts the wicked to the ground.
Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
make melody to our God upon the lyre!
He covers the heavens with clouds,
he prepares rain for the earth,
he makes grass grow upon the hills.
He gives to the beasts their food,
and to the young ravens which cry.
His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the legs of a man;
but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.
7. Closing prayer
From its earliest days, the Church has celebrated the Eucharist as the supper of the Passover of the Lord where it echoes the event of the multiplication of the loaves. Thus, our closing prayer today is one inherited from the Christians of the first century:
We thank you, Father, for life and the knowledge you have revealed to us through Jesus your servant. Glory to you forever.
Just as the broken bread was scattered here and there over the hills and when gathered became one, so now, may your Church be gathered in your Kingdom from the ends of the earth;
for yours is the glory and the power, through Jesus Christ forever.
We thank you, holy Father,
for your holy name that you make present in our hearts,
and for the knowledge, faith and immortality
that you revealed to us through Jesus, your servant.
To you Glory forever.
You, all powerful Lord, have created all things to the glory of your name;
you have given humankind food and drink for comfort, so that humankind may give you thanks;
but you have given us a spiritual food and drink and eternal life through your servant.
Above all, we thank you because you are powerful.
To you be glory forever.
Remember, Lord, your Church,
preserve her from every evil
and make her perfect in your love;
made holy, gather her from the four corners of the earth into your kingdom, prepared for her.
For yours is the power and the glory forever.
May your grace come, and may this world pass by.
Hosanna to the house of David.
(from the Didaché, 9-10)