For the next five Sundays the Gospel readings are taken from the Gospel according to John. For most of this liturgical year we have been listening to readings from The Gospel according to Mark and will return to these again on the 22nd Sunday of the year. The reason for this interruption of sequence is that the passages from John fit in very well with Mark’s accounts of the crowds that have been following Jesus and the things he has been saying about himself.
As in last Sunday’s gospel, the crowd is still following Jesus. Everyone is running after him. One must ask: is it really Jesus they are seeking? The suggestion of the author of the gospel is that the crowd follows Jesus because of the signs he performed by curing the sick. Here we have an example of the irresistible attraction of the human heart to the marvellous, the exciting, the entertaining and indeed the attraction, the lure, of potential benefit.
But Jesus does not despise this psychological reality. He does not dismiss it and least of all despise or reject the people who follow him. However ambiguous peoples’ motives may be, Jesus uses these motives as a starting-point. The question he puts to Philip is intended to test the depth, the perceptiveness, of Philip’s faith. But, towards the end of today’s passage, when the crowds try to take advantage of his miracles and seize him, even make him king, Jesus flees from them.
Throughout the Old Testament, bread is a symbol of God’s providence. It is literally the staff of life. Its availability in abundance is seen as a sign of God’s support of his people, its lack a sign of his punishment. In time, bread came also to represent and be a source of community, of sharing, and in the Temple the very presence of God himself among his chosen people.
The Jesus of the New Testament loses no opportunity to point out that the human person cannot live on bread alone. We eat, we survive – and then what? Jesus not only tells us that we need to go beyond living from physical bread – essential though it be – to live from every word that comes from the mouth of God. There is another hunger that only Jesus himself can satisfy. He goes so far as to tell us that he is the one who can satisfy that spiritual, existential, even cosmic, hunger. He goes so far as to point out that he is even the cause of that hunger, that longing, and at the same time the very bread that alone can satisfy that hunger.
In today’s story, some people give help in the preparations for the meal. Andrew draws attention to the presence of a small boy who gives what little he has – five barley loaves and two fish. And so, if what happens is far from ordinary, the natural order of things is somehow respected. The loaves are not conjured up out of thin air, but thanks to the sharing, and then the multiplication of what a child has in his bag, however inadequate that was, there is enough for all and even some left over. Whoever among us desires to be a blessing for others should bring to Jesus whatever she or he possesses. The master does not ask us for what we have not got; but in the hands of Jesus, what we are prepared to share works miracles, it fills and satisfies.
The gift of God, superabundant though it be, is not any less precious, none of it should be wasted. This is true of the bread multiplied in the Eucharist. It is also true of ourselves, for all of us are given one to another: the child to her or his parents, brother to sister, bridegroom to bride, friend to friend. Nothing of what Jesus has given should be allowed to be wasted. In today’s second reading, Paul describes the kind of community that results from this sharing: lives worthy of what Jesus calls us to be. ‘Bear with one another charitably, in complete selflessness. Gentleness and patience. Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together…’.
Mention was made above of God’s chosen people. Remembering that no phrase in the Gospels is there purely by chance, we might note that when the hunger of all was satisfied, twelve baskets of food remained. Some scholars interpret this as indicating that the twelve tribes of the chosen people remain, but have now been joined by the rest of the human race, all chosen to feed on the new bread which is Christ.
Everyone should be gathered around his table so that while each shares with others what she or he has received – each his or her own five loaves and two fish – the gifts of God never cease to multiply.