Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
2 Kgs 4:42-44; Eph 4:1-6; Jn 6:1-15
The Bible has a long memory. When the gospel writers try to describe the extraordinary impact of Jesus' ministry they often color their accounts with memories of previous great people in the history of Israel. Such is the case with today's readings for the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time. The Gospel reading is from John's account of the multiplication of the loaves. The feeding of the vast crowds that follow Jesus recalls a number of Old Testament precedents. One memorable event was God's miraculous feeding of the Israelites with manna as they fled across the Sinai desert to escape the hand of Pharaoh and the slavery of Egypt (see Exodus 16).
More to the point is the connection that the Lectionary underscores by selecting the reading from 2 Kings 4:42-44 about the Prophet Elisha who miraculously feeds a hundred people with only twenty barley loves (note that John's Gospel also identifies the bread multiplied by Jesus as "barley" loaves, often considered the bread of the poor). The prophets Elijah and Elisha are great heroes in the literature of Israel. More than any other figures they represent the Spirit-filled prophets who speak fearlessly and do marvelous deeds through God's power. For example, besides multiplying the twenty barley loaves, in other stories in Chapter 4 of the Second Book of Kings, this same prophet Elisha miraculously saves a widow and her only son from starvation, assures a childless woman that she will bear a son and, later when the boy dies suddenly, brings him back to life! For the gospel writers Jesus was a great prophet and more than a prophet. If the Spirit of God worked through great figures like Elijah and Elisha, Jesus himself embodied the divine presence.
But not to be overlooked in this Sunday's readings is the basic emphasis on food-providing food for the hungry who have no other provisions. The story of the Multiplication of the Loaves is one account of Jesus' great works that is found in all four of the Gospels. Mark relates two feeding stories like this, one on each side of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus feed the multitude from what appears to be insufficient rations (see Mark 6:34-44; 8:1-9). The numbers of those who are hungry and need to be fed are substantial: John's Gospel simply notes that it is "a large crowd" that even "two hundred days wages" would not be enough to feed. Matthew notes that the crowd numbers 5,000 "not counting women and children" (Mt. 14:21). Mark also cites 5,000 "men" in his first feeding account and 4,000 in the second (Mk 6:44; 8:9).
There are other scenes in the gospels where Jesus is also concerned about eating: asking that the little girl he raised from the dead be given something to eat (Mark 5:43); defending his disciples who were pulling off heads of grain to eat while walking through a field on the Sabbath because they were hungry (Mark 2:23-28); and preparing a breakfast of bread and fish for his disciples who had been fishing all night long (John 21:13).
This emphasis on feeding those who are hungry reminds us that Jesus was not concerned only about accurate religious teachings or practices. As a healer Jesus reached out and touched human bodies in pain - healing them, comforting them, restoring them to life. So, too, Jesus was aware of what it means to be hungry and to have no provisions. He fed people. Our psalm response today picks up this basic motif: "The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs."
No doubt the presence of these miracle accounts in the gospels are meant to underscore the divine power of Jesus - to help us realize his unique identity as God's prophet and, even more, God's only Son. But there is another important challenge here for us. Like Jesus we are called to be attentive to human need and to do something about it. Authentic Christian faith is not content to simply believe the right things and say the right words. The Letter of James states this in its typical blunt style: "If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,' but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So, also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (Letter of James 2:15-17).
No one who reads the papers or listens to the news can escape the fact that world hunger is a terrible epidemic today. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 925 million people, 13.6% of the world's population, suffer from acute hunger. Many of these are children; of the more than 10 million children who die of illness each year, half - 5 million - die of starvation. While most instances of hunger occur in developing countries, our own country is not exempt. The government reported that in 2010, 17.2 million households, 14.5 percent of all households (approximately one in seven), were "food insecure," the highest number ever recorded in the United States.
What should someone who wants to follow the example of Jesus do when we hear these Scripture readings at our Sunday Eucharist? Each of us needs to do our own examination of conscience, to be alert to the reality of urgent human needs, and see what is possible for us to do in response. Some can donate food or money to food banks and soup kitchens. Some can do volunteer work at their local food pantry. Some can press our local and national government when drawing up their budget priorities not to neglect the poor who go hungry every day in our cities and countryside. Some can make sure that in their own household they do not waste food or habitually consume food that contributes to some of the ecological problems that lead to inequitable food production and distribution.
In each of the feeding stories in the gospels, Jesus turns first to his disciples and asks them: "How will we get enough food to feed them?" On this Sunday in Ordinary Time Jesus asks the question of us.
By Fr. Donald Senior, C.P., President and Professor of New Testament Studies
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