Jesus’ famous feeding of 5000+ people is the one miracle story found in all 4 Gospels. That says something about its impact in the collective memory of the early Church. It may also reflect a greater familiarity with hunger and the preciousness of food in that society, something our affluence may make us less sensitive to.
Ancient tradition associates this event with a specific site on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, known as Tabgha, where a picturesque outdoor shrine commemorates it. When I visited the site almost 30 years ago, it was summer, but today’s Gospel [John 6:1-15] sites the event in spring (at Passover time), when grass grows abundantly in the area. John portrays the people sitting in groups on the grass, just as those fed by Elisha in today’s 1st reading [2 Kings 4:42-44] had probably done.
When I was a boy in the Bronx in the 1950s and early 1960s, our family – that is, the entire extended family full of aunts, uncles, and cousins – used to go on picnics practically every Sunday in summer. And, before my father bought his first car, that meant going by bus and train from home to the picnic ground. In those days, Sunday dinner was an absolutely fixed part of any Italian-American family’s Sunday. So, going on a picnic on a Sunday involved transporting enormous quantities of food, pots full of pasta and sausage and all sorts of other wonderful food. Looking back at it now, carrying all that with us on public transportation was an awful lot of work, but at the time we thought nothing of it. That’s just the way it was if you were going to have a picnic.
Of course, to have a picnic the food has to come from somewhere! Normally that means bringing it yourself. So it must have been in today’s Gospel story. Some, perhaps, had planned ahead and brought enough food for themselves. But maybe some hadn’t or hadn’t brought enough and so were hungry again. Meanwhile, Jesus recognized their need to be fed.
But it was the way Jesus responded to that need that was as striking and as memorable as what he actually did about it. “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” Jesus asked Philip. In effect, he was saying to Philip: these are our guests; we have to feed them! The disciples probably preferred for that to be someone else’s problem, not theirs! Poor Philip, not quite yet out of seminary, and already he already sounds over-stressed: “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little,” he laments.
Just down the path from this site, on the same shore, is another shrine, which marks where the Risen Lord later cooked breakfast for seven disciples and then commanded Peter to feed his sheep. In this instance, it seems 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. 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 how to do ever since.
Our weekly celebration of the Eucharist reenacts - in a ritualized way - that famous meal. Here, we are nourished and then 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 just for oneself, no eating while others go hungry, no security at someone else’s expense. Good news kept to oneself is not the good news of Jesus.
Meanwhile, back at the Sea of Galilee, it appears that the people remembered the story of Elisha and so figured that Jesus was the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world. But it seems that they got only part of the message. Interpreting it in a narrow, self-absorbed way, they turned good news into bad – as has happened too often in human history.
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 be the Church he is challenging us to be.
Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, NY, July 25, 2021.
(Image: Famous floor mosaic, Church of the Multiplication, Tabgha, Israel)