July 29, 2018
SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
2 Kgs 4:42-44
Elisha multiplies the loaves
Ps 145:10-11, 15-18
The Lord feeds us
Live in a manner worthy of the call
Jesus multiplies loaves and fishes
It is the year of Mark, but we will be taking a five-week vacation from this Gospel to spend time with the sixth chapter of John. As we were following along with Mark, we came to the miracle of the loaves. And the lectionary editors felt this would be a good time to look at the major development given this story by John in his Gospel. This Sunday we will hear about the miracle itself. For the next four Sundays, we will be listening to the Bread of Life Discourse that follows it. In a way, we will be reading a layered text, with Mark underlying John’s account.
The story of Jesus in the desert has its own background in the accounts of the various groups in Galilee and Judea offering militant opposition during this time. Social changes, made worse by the Roman occupation, had resulted in a number of resistance movements. Along with certain groups ready to take up arms in revolt, there were more symbolic opposition movements as well. Prophetic figures called on God to send a sign, for which reason scholars today call them “signs prophets.” They took their followers to historically significant sites evoking the early days of Israel, such as the desert or the Jordan river. They wanted a new beginning for salvation history. John the Baptist could be called one of these, though in some ways he transcended the category.
Jesus began with John, went into the desert, but returned to the villages to urge a renewal. Most of his work was there, but on this occasion he returned to the desert. And we witness a great sign. However, it is directed toward mutual care. It builds the relationships of community and doesn’t look to an apocalyptic act of God.
A second thing cannot escape notice this week. That is the story from 2 Kings about Elisha the prophet multiplying loaves. The story has the same structure of the story about Jesus doing that. What are we to make of this?
First of all, it places the account of Jesus’ miracle within a story tradition. It alerts us to the fact that most likely the event was not literally as the Gospel tells it. Instead, it borrowed the form of the story from 2 Kings. This may even be a longer tradition than that, since the story about Elisha already seems to have a well-worn, polished form.
But why would the evangelist do that? One reason is that stories need a form. Any newspaper account of a public event requires the writer to decide on the form to report it. So in this case the evangelist adopted a ready form to tell about something that had happened in the ministry of Jesus.
But more than that, the form chosen makes an interpretation. That is the reason for choosing a particular way to tell a story. In this case, the story of Jesus and the loaves puts it in the prophetic tradition of God providing for his people. Jesus is a “signs prophet” in the desert, but the sign is one of nourishment, support and encouragement. It is a sign of God caring for his people.
In addition, the miracle has obvious overtones of the Eucharist, as Jesus is shown blessing and breaking the bread, having the disciples distribute it and -gather the fragments left over.
John has taken the story further. Among the evangelists, he comes late on the scene. He contemplates the meaning of events, developing that reflection into longer discourses. In this case, he gathers traditions from different quarters and the result is the Bread of Life Discourse. But that is for the coming weeks.
For reflection: How do you think about the miracle of the loaves and fishes?
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.