Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Year B 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Kgs 4,42-44; Ps -145, 10-11. 15-18; Eph 4,1-6; Jn 6,1-15

In today’s Psalm response we sang: "The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs" (Ps 145). This calls to mind St. Jerome’s comparison of reading the Scriptures with eating the Eucharist: "In reading the Bible," Jerome writes, "the Fathers did not read the texts, but the living Christ, and Christ spoke to them. They consumed the Word with the Eucharistic bread and wine." He continues, "I believe that . . . the Scriptures, the divine doctrine, are truly the body and blood of Christ" (James Wallace, Preaching to the Hungers of the Heart: The Homily on the Feasts and within the Rites, pg 11). To that end, the recounting of the feeding of the 5,000, in today’s gospel certainly feeds us because it deepens our understanding of Eucharist of communion, which "is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.(Sacrosanctum Concilium 10).

It is important to note that this week the sequence of gospel readings shifts. Since Trinity Sunday we have been reciting St. Mark’s Gospel. Since Mark’s is the shortest Gospel John’s is not the subject of a year’s cycle of Sunday readings, the Johannine text is used during Year B. John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000 is inserted into the same place in the lectionary that would otherwise be occupied by Mark’s recounting of this same event. So, beginning with today’s Gospel, we will remain in chapter six of John, examining this profound Eucharistic discourse, for three additional Sundays after next week’s observance of our Lord’s Transfiguration.

Before engaging John’s Eucharistic discourse head-on, our first reading deserves attention. This passage from 2 Kings, paired with today’s Gospel, is a wonderful example of "God . . . wisely [arranging] . . . the New Testament [to be] hidden in the Old and the Old [to be] made manifest in the New" (Dei Verbum 16). The likely setting for this story is the shrine of Gilgal. In the early years of Israel’s history, before the construction of the temple, the prophets, who were attached to these shrines, such as the one at Gilgal, acted as intermediaries between worshipers and God. The man who presents the offering comes from the village of Baal-shalishah, which indicates a village devoted to Baal, the Canaanite god of fertility. One of the chief tasks of prophets, like Elisha, in the central highlands of Israel during this time, was to keep the cult of the God of Israel pure. Elements of the cult of Baal were often invoked, even by Israelite farmers, in this part of the country. In fact, it was not unusual for Israelite farmers to offer their first fruits to Baal. The unidentified man in this story goes to Gilgal to offer his first fruits, through Elisha, to the God of Israel.

First fruits were offered to God because they were considered the best and freshest –the portion of the harvest that possessed the most vibrant force of life. In all likelihood, the offering of bread, made by the man to Elisha, was, in turn, to be offered to God as the "bread of the presence," which was kept at the shrine for a time and then eaten by, and only by, those who served there. But Elisha, in a highly unusual gesture, directs that bread and grain be given to the people who had gathered at the shrine (2 Kgs 4,42). Our question, then, is, Why would the prophet do such a thing? Only something as serious as famine and the resulting hunger would have justified such a serious violation of cultic regulation. Predictably and understandably others who ministered at the shrine objected (2 Kgs 4,43). Their objections were likely on two grounds: violation of cultic regulation and giving away the food offerings intended for them, which was not enough, they objected, to feed "a hundred people." But Elisha, speaking for the LORD, says, "They shall eat and there shall be some left over" (2 Kgs 4,43) and so it was. In addition to being proof of God’s bounteous generosity, this narrative makes an important, even crucial, link between our worship and the rest of our lives, between orthodoxy (correct belief) and orthopraxis (correct practice), between loving God and loving our neighbor.

We turn now to John’s Gospel. It is from John’s account of our Lord’s crucifixion that interpreters have seen in the water and blood flowing from Christ’s pierced side symbols of the birth of the Church as well as the life and nourishment Christ provides through Baptism and Eucharist. The Gospel of St. John, therefore, shows a strong interest in sacraments and links them to the Jewish feasts – as in today’s passage.

Today’s Gospel shows us that Jesus had a mesmerizing effect on crowds of his fellow Jews. Many followed him from place-to-place. Of those who followed him around, many did this less out of faith than out of the hope that they would witness a miracle. In this passage there is no indication that people had come to listen to Jesus, this is validated by the fact that Jesus offers no teaching. Unlike many of Jesus’ miracles, this one is not in response to a request. Jesus feeds the people, not because they were hungry, as in the case of Elisha. Knowing their weak faith, Jesus reaches out to the people with a sign they can immediately grasp: he feeds them. By giving them more than they could eat, our Lord does not merely meet their needs, he far exceeds them. Imitating our Lord, we must resist the temptation to respond only to people’s physical needs. This means that Christian charitable activity cannot leave Christ aside because, as our Holy Father points out, "Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God" (Deus Caritas Est 31c). If we do not offer Christ, we short-change those we serve.

Linking this event to the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread relates it directly to our first reading. These two festivals commemorated two important events in Israel’s history: the release from Egyptian bondage and the first harvest after their arrival in the land of promise. These were celebrations of both remembrance and anticipation. They celebrated saving events of the past and they looked forward in hope to the Messianic age. This age is revealed by Jesus in the miracle of the loaves.

John relates that Jesus took the barley loaves and the fish and "gave thanks." The Greek word used for "gave thanks" is eucharisteo. The crowds wonder whether Jesus is "the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world." Today's passage shows that Jesus doesn't reflect just one prophetic voice or presence. He sums up all the prophets because, like them, he shows that God notices the hungry, the little ones and those treated unfairly and has sent prophets like Elisha, Moses and ultimately Jesus to meet their deepest needs. Jesus and the prophets provided bread for the hungry and so must we. Good works are thanksgiving- eucharist- for what God has given us in Christ.

Our Holy Father writes in his recent encyclical: "I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become . . . his own. Communion draws me out of myself toward him, and thus also toward unity with all Christians. We become 'one body,' completely joined in a single existence." For in and through the Eucharist "love of God and love of neighbor are . . . truly united" (Deus Caritas Est 14).

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