SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2018)
Psalm 145: 10-11, 15-18
For the next several weeks, our gospel readings will be from the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, the great Bread of Life discourse. In this sixth chapter the Evangelist John shares with us the most basic, yet extraordinarily profound, theology of the Eucharist. Like the liturgies of Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi, it gives us an opportunity as Catholics to contemplate the precious gift of the Eucharist, and it all starts with a remarkable miracle on a grassy knoll by the Sea of Galilee.
What is frequently referred to as the miracle of the loaves and fishes was an important story for the early church. It is the only miracle, other than the miracle of the Resurrection, which is recounted by all four evangelists, highlighting the story’s importance for first-century Christians. The gospel story, foreshadowed in our first reading from the Book of Kings, foreshadows the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. John’s account of Jesus feeding the five thousand is unabashedly sacramental in it’s tone: “then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining.”
The similarity to what Elisha does in Kings was not lost on the people, for the actions of Jesus caused them to declare “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.” But there is a very definite difference between these two prophets. In Kings, God acts through the prophet Elisha. The feeding of the one hundred did not happen on account of Elisha’s own power. In John, the God Jesus multiplies the bread and fish to feed the large crowd, fulfilling the Psalm response, “the hand of the Lord feeds us.” The Gospel story gives witness to the power of God and is an implicit declaration of Jesus’ divinity.
While the inclusion of this miracle story in the gospels is surely meant to lead us to a deeper appreciation of the miracle of the Eucharist, it is also meant to reveal something important about the nature of the God we worship. Jesus is kind and compassionate. In John’s story he is seen as someone who is concerned about the crowd and their hunger, rhetorically asking Philip, where do you think we “can buy enough food for them to eat?” Philip answers, no doubt with a chuckle, that even with “two hundred days’ wages worth of food” people would still be hungry. The stage is set for something extraordinarily miraculous to happen, and the people will not only have their fill, there will be leftovers to be collected and shared. Our God is seen as satisfying “the desire of every living thing,” and those hungers extend way beyond the boundaries of bodily need.
Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians, in our second reading, encourages them 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.” It is because we are “one body and one Spirit” that we, in imitation of Jesus, are called to be compassionate and generous. We also are called to feed the hungry as Jesus did, and not just those who reside in our household or our neighborhoods, but all those who hunger and experience want. The five thousand in today’s gospel were fed not just by the miraculous power of a loving God, but they were fed with the assistance of the disciples and the generously given gifts of a young boy. Jesus counts on us, as he counted on the disciples and boy, to help feed the hungry of our world.
We need to allow ourselves to be challenged by our gospel reading from John, for so many of us live in a land of plenty where genuine hunger is seldom experienced. In the Asian, African, and Latin American countries, well over 500 million people are living in absolute poverty. Every year fifteen million children die of hunger. Nearly one in four people, 1.3 billion souls – a majority of humanity – live on less than one dollar per day. There are multiple reasons for this situation, but the first and foremost reason is greed: the greed of individuals who refuse to share, the greed of countries whose priorities are askew. Imagine if the 1.4 million dollars that it costs to build a cruise missile were given to the poor – it would be enough for an entire school of children to eat lunch every day for five years! Imagine if the 2.1 billion dollars it costs to build a stealth bomber were given to the poor – it would save millions of people from dying of hunger.
By describing how Jesus miraculously fed five thousand people using the sacrificial sharing of a young boy’s lunch, today’s gospel challenges us to plan what we can do to feed the hungry in the world around us. While we might feel that the gifts we have to share are too small and insignificant, just as the young boy surely did, we need to rely on a generous God to multiply those gifts and miraculously fill the needs of countless numbers of people in our world. Miracles can happen with the help of our hands, when we collect and distribute to those in need the food that was destined for all people by our loving and generous God.