Jesus’ famous feeding of 5000+ people is the one miracle found in all 4 Gospels. That certainly says something about its impact in the collective memory of the early Church!
Ancient tradition associates this event with a specific site on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee, known as Tabgha, where a picturesque outdoor shrine commemorates the miracle. When I visited Tabgha 25 years ago, it was summer. So it was hot and dry. But the Gospel story [John 6:1-15] sets the event in spring, at Passover time, when green grass grows abundantly in the area. And so the evangelist portrays the people sitting picnic-style in groups on the grass, just as those fed by Elisha in today’s 1st reading [2 Kings 4:42-44] had probably also done.
When I was a boy in the Bronx in the 1950s and into the early 1960s, my family – that is, the entire extended family full of aunts, uncles, and cousins – used to go on picnics practically every Sunday in summer. Originally that meant a long trek by bus and subway from home to the picnic ground, transporting enormous quantities of food. In those days, Sunday dinner was a fixed part of any reputable Italian-American family’s Sunday. So going on a picnic on a Sunday meant lugging large pots full of pasta and sausage and all sorts of other wonderful food on the bus and the train. That’s just the way it was if you were going to have a picnic.
My point is, of course, that to have a picnic the food has to come from somewhere! And usually that means bringing it yourself. So it must have been in the Gospel story. Some, probably, had planned ahead and brought food along as they followed Jesus and maybe still had some left; but the rest had either not brought any food or (more likely) had used up what they had brought and were getting hungry again. In any case, Jesus recognized he needed to do something.
But it was the way Jesus did what he did that was as striking and as memorable as what he actually did. “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” Jesus asked Philip. It’s as if he were saying: Philip, these folks are our guests, and we have to feed them!
Obviously, the disciples would have been distressed by being given this responsibility! Poor Philip, not quite yet out of seminary, and he’s already acquired the feeling-sorry-for-himself, whiny tone of a tired, over-stressed pastor: “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.”
Just down the path from that site, on the same shore, is a shrine, which marks where the Risen Lord cooked breakfast for seven disciples and then commanded Peter to feed his sheep. In this instance, Jesus was giving them a foretaste of that future responsibility.
Luckily for them, of course, Jesus was there to help, to demonstrate just what it means to be his Church in a hungry world. Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining. Note that Jesus didn’t just magically make food out of nothing. He worked with what they had already, with the limited resources the people already had, and made them into something more – something God’s People have had to learn to trust him to do ever since.
Our weekly celebration of the Eucharist reenacts - in a ritualized way - that famous free lunch. At this meal, we are nourished and commanded in turn to feed and nourish one another – both literally and spiritually - and not just one another in a narrow sense, but the whole world, for, in God’s kingdom, there can be no providing only for oneself, no eating while others go hungry, no security at someone else’s expense. Good news kept to ourselves is not the good news of Jesus.
As Pope Francis has reminded us in his encyclical “On Caring for our Common Home,” “It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation... The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter … he comes that we might find him in this world of ours. … Thus, the Eucharist is also a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation… And so the day of rest, centered on the Eucharist, sheds it light on the whole week, and motivates us to greater concern for nature and the poor” [Laudato Si’, 236-237].
Back in the Gospel story, it appears that the people remembered the story of Elisha and so figured that Jesus is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world. But unfortunately it seems that they got only part of the message, interpreting it in a narrow, self-absorbed way, thus turning good news into bad news – as has happened often enough in our history and continues to happen even now.
Our world is hungry for the good news that God is sharing with us in his Son and which we are meant to share with the world. And, as he did with his disciples, Jesus is here to show us how – how to become the Church he is challenging us to be, but that we can so easily and often fail to be.
Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 29, 2018.