17th Sunday in Ordinary Time B
Readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44 Ephesians 4:1-6 John 6:1-15
This week’s liturgy begins a series of five weeks when the Gospels are taken from the Bread of Life discourse in John 6. Throughout this period the church explores various aspects of the Eucharist. Today’s readings proclaim how God wondrously feeds his people in time of need. God’s largess exceeds human expectations and calls those who have been fed beyond the state of physical sustenance to union with the God who gives the gift of eternal life.
The reading from 2 Kings recounts how the Lord, through the prophet Elisha, was able to feed a hundred men with twenty barley loaves. This miracle must be related to the major motif of the Elijah-Elisha stories in 1-2 Kings: the conflict between the Canaanite god Baal, thought by many in Israel to control the fertility of the earth, and Yahweh, the God of Israel, the true Lord of life. To counter Israel’s temptation to worship Baal, in chapter 4 of 2 Kings, the Lord empowers the Elisha to perform four miracles demonstrating his power over life, death and fertility in time of need: the giving of oil to the widow of a prophet in debt (4:1-7), the resurrection of the son of the Shunammite woman (4:8-37), the healing of the poisoned stew (4:38-41) and the multiplication of the loaves (4:42-44).
The very structure of this little narrative highlights the superabundance of God’s life-giving power. The barley loaves are brought to Elisha, the man of God, who commands that they be given to the people to eat. When the prophet’s servant objects that this amount is inadequate to feed a hundred men, the prophet unhesitatingly takes charge and, in the Lord’s name, announces: “They shall eat and there shall be some left over.” The incident concludes with the fulfillment of the Lord’s word: “And when they had eaten, there was some left over, as the Lord had said.” The point of these miracles is not, as in Western scientific thinking, the impossibility of such actions by virtue of natural laws, but their invitation to belief in the Lord God whose word is powerful in creation and history.
The second reading continues the Ephesians selections with the beginning of the exhortation section, urging the community to a life of unity (4:1-6). The first part of Ephesians (ch 1-3) presents a prayerful meditation on God’s choice of both Jews and Gentiles to share in the community of salvation by being members of a single cosmic body through their common redemption in Christ. Now Paul pleads with the Ephesian Christians to live a life worthy of their calling to unity. The virtues needed are humility, meekness, patience and bearing with one another lovingly; these are gifts already given in the community’s common faith and baptism. Members are united in one body and Spirit, sharing one hope. In Baptism they professed belief in one Lord and one God and Father who is over all, works through all and is in all. Now they are called to become what they already are through their common faith and baptism.
The Gospel is John’s account of Jesus’ feeding 5,000 in Galilee by multiplying loaves and fishes. John’s narrative is unique in interpreting Jesus’ miracles as signs that invite observers to go beyond a merely physical and earthly understanding of Jesus to belief in his true identity as the one sent from God to bring life to the world by laying down his life. The crowd is following Jesus because they have seen the signs he was performing (6:2). In the miracle and the long dialogue that follows (6:25-59), Jesus challenges them to come to an understanding of him as the bread of life come down from heaven to give his flesh for the life of the world (6:51). At this first stage the crowd fails to appreciate the full significance of Jesus’ sign by interpreting it on a purely political and earthly level. They witness Jesus, like the prophet Elisha, feeding a crowd of 5,000 with only five barley loaves and a couple of dry fish, and they respond by saying, “This is undoubtedly the prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14; cf. Deut 18:15-19). But the crowd’s understanding of the title is purely political, as they want a Messiah who will give them their fill of bread (see John 6:26). When Jesus realizes they want to make him an earthly king, he flees back to the mountain alone. In the subsequent dialogue he will invite them to move beyond this earthly understanding of the miracle.
John’s loaves and fishes story bears some similarities to Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, recounted in the Gospels of Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13). In both, the devil’s first temptation is to turn stones into bread, but Jesus, as an obedient son of God, refuses by insisting that providing bread alone will not fulfill his messianic mission. He quotes Deut 8:3: “Not on bread alone does man live, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Today’s readings are an invitation to move beyond the wonderful physical gifts provided by God to a union with the Giver who has spoken the word of love in Jesus’ redeeming gift of himself.