Get to the Point
17th Sunday Ordinary Time, 7-26-15, 2 Kings 4: 42-44, Ps 145, Eph 4: 1-6, John 6: 1-15
Most of us have heard this Gospel many times, and learned that it is a kind of shadow, a figure of the Eucharist that comes later in the Gospel. And we have an even earlier shadow or figure of this back in 2nd Kings, with Elisha. We started today with the prophet Elisha, having “20 barley loaves made from the first fruits” to fed 100 men. “Bread” was typically round like small pita bread; the ground grain was mixed with water and baked. 3 “loaves” was a normal meal for one person.
Scholars think this gathering of 100 was a gathering for the prophets of God of the time. It was in the spring, possibly around Passover. Barley is the grain of the poor, the first grain to ripen in the spring, just in time for those who have exhausted their winter food supplies. Out of that 1st ripe barley of the new crop, (the first harvest of the season was called “first fruits”) loaves were made and given to the priests. At God’s direction, Elisha had the 20 loaves distributed, and the miracle was that everyone ate their fill, with bread left over.
There are often key words that help us move beyond the story line and find the deeper message. For example, our Gospel says: “The Jewish feast of the Passover was near.” It sits there, seeming a little off topic, a little odd, but the writer did that to catch your eye, or your ear, and make you ask, “So what?”
Well, here’s what. Passover is in the spring, usually just before Easter. Only in spring was there green grass where the people could recline to eat as in our Gospel. Remember that Jesus and the apostles celebrated a Passover meal on what we call Good Thursday. After the meal, Jesus went to the garden to pray and Judas betrayed him. Jews still celebrate Passover every year with reading the Exodus story, wine, unleavened bread, and the unblemished lamb– all that is Passover. Passover and Crucifixion, the necessary preludes to the Resurrection, all are at the heart of our faith.
The entire 6th chapter of John has a Passover theme. In fact, John the Baptist proclaims, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” in John 1:29. Jesus goes to Jerusalem in chapter 2, for Passover, and that is when the cleansing of the Temple occurs. Our lectionary spends 5 weeks on this chapter of John, working carefully though what is called “The Discourse on the Bread of Life” talking about Moses and miracles, food and faith, and body and blood. This is “heady” stuff that some theologians spend years on, writing books on, trying to understand the details and fullness of it.
I enjoy all that detail, but for today, I think it is more important to ask, “What is John trying to do here?” and “How does this impact my life?” I recently read an article by Fr. Dennis Hamm, a Jesuit, and I would like to share some of his ideas with you. Fr. Hamm says that the point of this Gospel is not to just tell us how some people were fed one day nearly 2000 years ago; and that this chapter from John was not meant to be an exact recording of the event. That frees us from worrying about the other 5 similar but slightly different versions of this story in the other Gospels. Many of us grew up thinking it was a word-for-word report, but it’s really more like an icon suggests Fr. Hamm. An icon is an artistic work, drawn or painted – or in this case written – for the purpose of encouraging meditation and prayer, a way to open us to the teaching of the Holy Spirit. To fulfill its purpose, this reading must connect us to the past, ring true in our lives and worship today, and lead us toward the future with hope. It is to lead us to the living and present Jesus, alive and available to us, who travels with us on a journey to freedom and gives us spiritual food as we go.
Talking about Elisha and Passover make it clear how this reading is solidly based in the Jewish salvation story. The intersection of Scripture and Tradition is a great place to start a journey. But as Christians, we have not only a continuation, but also an explosive salvation story, for Passover links us to the resurrection of our Lord. John’s point is that, yes, Elisha was a prophet, but Jesus exceeds Elisha in every way, in numbers, in power, in teaching, in divinity, in rising from the dead. Our living Lord exceeds Moses in every way. Jesus eternally leads all mankind, not just one group, and has love instead of law; he is our manna, his mountain is heaven, and his destination is the kingdom of God, not a country.
The danger, of course, is to draw the wrong conclusion. If our vision of Jesus is just a magician who will fix what is wrong in our lives and fill our stomachs, there’s a problem. If we want to cozy up to the political power of the moment, we have not only missed the point, but we’ll be disappointed. Reducing Jesus to an earthly king is so distorted and divisive that Jesus fled from those who would try to twist his message to increase their own status and control. In the darkest periods of church history, people have tried that, always with disastrous results.
The purpose of this multiplication of loaves and fish is to show and tell us who Jesus was and is now, to keep us active followers of Jesus, and to feed our souls while keeping us hungry for more teaching, learning and prayer. Without this ongoing relationship with a real Jesus, our stomachs will never be satisfied, much less our souls. Jesus, the Bread of Life, is the way to fullness of life