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The Great Table Ministry

Our need for God’s love is huge. We have but to seek it, to hunger for God’s love, and our need will be fed and we will be filled.

Pentecost IX - Year B

2 Samuel 11:1-15

Psalm 14

Ephesians 3:14-21

John 6:1-21

The Great Table Ministry

After a long day of healing and teaching the crowd following Jesus, there are five-thousand people to feed and no food to be had. Then, the five thousand – men – not counting women and children, are amazingly fed fish and bread till they are sated, with enough to fill twelve baskets. A lot of doggie bags.

What are we to make of this story in today’s gospel in John?

Do take note that we are asked to pay great attention to this event, as simple, and as complex, as it is.

Aside from the story of the Resurrection, this is the only one, the sole other story, that is given to us in all four gospels, the synoptics Matthew, Mark and Luke, and in John.

Some miracles, or signs if we are referring to Jesus’ works in John, are told in only one gospel. Others, like the birth of Jesus, appear more than once.

But of all the activities, and signs and miracles and healings of Jesus, only the recounting of the feeding of the five thousand shows up four times. Two other times, the feeding involves four thousand.

We can picture the scene in our mind’s eye. We’ve been shown it on screen by Cecil B. DeMille, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and George Stevens – masses of people gathered and food suddenly appearing.

What are we to make of it?

This hungry, perhaps slightly restive crowd, that is told to sit and gets fed, seemingly out of nowhere.

Because repetition indicates that this is a highly significant occurrence, it helps to look at the similarities, the common threads, across the gospels in our effort to understand its meaning.

o It’s the end of the day, evening, and Jesus has been with people all day, restoring the health of the ill and teaching.

o All the gospels have Jesus seeking a quiet place, only to have been followed by the multitudes – the location varies somewhat depending on the account, but this was not what Jesus planned as a “teachable moment.”

o There wasn’t sufficient food for those gathered, after all this wasn’t intended to be a tent rally. Jesus had been trying to reach seclusion.

o With some differences, it’s clear that to feed the aggregation, it would cost about 200 denarii – well more than a half-year’s wages for a laborer. Think: 25-thousand Euros.

o Five loaves of barley bread and two fish were produced.

o The multitudes of people – men, women and children – were told to sit.

o Jesus gave thanks for the food and he or his disciples distributed it to the crowd.

o All ate their fill, and the scraps were collected, yielding twelve baskets of remainder in John

Was this a miracle, or sign as John would say?

Food astonishingly multiplying. Picture a packed Jaude.

Or was it the teasing out from the crowd the food that they were carrying with them, coaxing them to share with their neighbors in genuine acts of charity?

That would be the logical, if you will, human, explanation for such an immediate production of food, and there are some who would support that answer.

If one must be logical, though, doesn’t it really make more sense that this truly was a miracle?

Would the gospel writers, all four of them, stop in the middle of describing signs and miracles to insert an act that was fundamentally one of generosity, that could and does happen in our own world, often on the heels of distress?

I suggest not. What we are witnessing in today’s gospel is a miracle, a sign of Jesus’ divinity.

Still, what do we make of it, this feeding of the five thousand? Okay, so we’ve got a miracle, one brought on by the necessity to feed weary and hungry people. It is so important that it comes at us four – really six times in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

There are moments, especially in John, I when need a decoder ring. Turn it to the correct letters, in the right sequence, and the hidden meaning will pop right out.

The messages in John are often subtle, rather nuanced.

The first three gospels tend to tell us what happened – and as a former reporter I appreciate that. John fills us in with the why and the how, the meaning.

If we compare these feedings side-by-side, we can see how John’s account differs – and what more we can learn from our reading today.

Here, the recounting of the five-thousand feeding – remember that’s just the men – is carefully constructed. It is a tightly edited story.

We get the event presented in the standard John format: there is a sign/miracle, there is dialogue about the sign, and then there is discourse – helping us to understand what just happened here.

Among the differences in the way the story appears in John: He asks Philip a question.

It’s not the disciples asking, “Boss, how are we going to feed all these people?” Rather, Jesus questions Philip. Remember that Philip, with Andrew, tended to act as a go-between to the people. Philip also served as a sort of quartermaster for the disciples.

Jesus asks Philip, “Where are we going to buy bread to feed these people?”

Consider it a rhetorical question. Jesus already knows the answer. He wants to see if Philip has a clue.

Apparently, he doesn’t.

Then it is Andrew, doing his best to help out, who comes up with a boy, a lad, who has five bread loaves and two fish.

Jesus then directs the people to sit down on the grass on a hillside.

He takes the loaves, gives thanks, and then he, not the disciples, proceeds to hand out the bread, followed by the fish, to the people as they are seated.

Up the ranks, through the rows, Jesus distributes what came to him as two fish and five loaves of bread.

When everybody was stuffed -- and we are told “they had had enough” -- he directs the disciples to get all the scraps, twelve baskets-full “so that nothing is wasted.”

Not surprisingly, the people thought that this was most clearly a sign that they had been tracking the right person, so they started for Jesus to scoop him up and make him king – and why not?

But Jesus, sensing that this was the crowd’s intent, headed for the hills himself. As we know, he had not come to be the king on earth the people were hoping for.

Let’s unpack this a little more. What are we to make of this story?

Some of the numbers told to us in this story of the feeding meant a great deal to the original hearers.

They understood, probably quite readily, that this sign in John was about far more than being a good host to a very large crowd.

The five loaves of barley bread – the Torah, the law, the Books of Moses.

The two fish – one interpretation is two witnesses. Together the five and two make seven, a sacred number.

God created the earth in six days and rested on the seventh. The seventh day is holy. And then there is forgiveness that is seventy times seven.

The twelve baskets – the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve disciples.

But the symbolism is not limited to numbers.

Jesus is the bread of life. He is giving himself in endless quantities, more than was needed and with plenty left over, to those who had come.

The meal on the hill is a bridge, I believe, between the manna sent to the desert wanderers in Exodus, and the Eucharist, the thanksgiving, that we will celebrate shortly.

It is another affirmation of the New Covenant that God has given to us and that is revealed to us through Jesus.

And what are we to make of this story, of the feeding of the five-thousand, more if we count women and children?

Jesus shows us that God’s love comes to us in absolute abundance.

The source is never-ending, even when the prospects – as with the food for five-thousand people – seem rather dim.

Our need for God’s love is huge. We have but to seek it, to hunger for God’s love, and our need will be fed and we will be filled.

Let us sit down on that green grass, in those pastures, and feast until we are bursting. By and with Jesus, let us be fed.


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