17th SUNDAY (B) July 25, 2021

2 Kings 4: 42-44; Psalm 145; Ephesians 4: 1-6; John 6: 1-15

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Our first reading features the prophet Elisha, who followed Elijah. The two prophets differed dramatically, lest we think prophets fit into a mold. Elijah was an outsider, a critic of the religious and political powers of his day. But Elisha reflects another aspect of a prophetic calling: he was a close and caring member of the community. He kept company with other prophets and with the numerous and nameless crowds.

Today, gifts of bread are presented to Elisha for the hungry. The breads are the "first fruits" of the harvest festival. The man who provided the loaves displays generosity and hospitality for the hungry poor. Elisha makes a bold move. While the breads would have been offered to God, the prophet orders them to be given to the people. Through this prophetic act Elisha shows God’s care for the needy and desperate.

The Elisha story of the feeding of the crowds has details similar to our gospel account of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The worlds of Elisha and Jesus are similar: there are hungry people in both tales and the available food is not enough. God uses what humans provide, as inadequate as that might be, to feed the hungry. But this feeding is for only one meal, those who ate will be hungry again. Both stories are reminders of the hungers around us and they challenge us that, we can put our resources to God’s service with trust that God will help us meet human needs – even though we may think we do not have enough resources. Sometimes our offerings may be only words, when we feel called to speak up for others who are not in a position, or with skills to do it for themselves. Our words may not seem enough but, judging from the gospel, when offered to God’s service they will be more than sufficient to meet the needs before us.

Both Elisha’s servant and Jesus’ disciples realized the absurdity of the situation: how could so little be of any help for so many? We tend to be cautious how we invest our time, resources and energies. We are prudent and adverse to risk. But when the need is great, even though our resources are limited, according to today’s gospel, if we take a chance with what we have, bless and offer it to the Lord’s service, who knows how they will be multiplied. Haven’t we known people who went beyond common sense, in the world’s way of reckoning, to do something on God’s behalf and then watched their small contribution multiply?

Jesus was drawing large crowds to hear him speak. What was it that drew them to Jesus? Faith? Curiosity? John doesn’t tell us that they sat at Jesus’ feet anxious to listen to him. Rather, it was because they "saw the signs he was performing on the sick." While their physical hunger is not mentioned, Jesus fed them. The disciples didn’t get it. They think they will need money and enough food to feed the people. But Jesus doesn’t just want to just satisfy the people’s physical hungers. He has more to offer them. The miracle will be another "sign," in John’s characteristic term, of God reaching out through Jesus to feed our deepest longings and hungers.

So, we ask ourselves: Do we have hungers we are not aware of that Jesus sees and wants to feed? Or, hearing this gospel of the abundance Jesus provided, can we name our hungers, and have faith we will be fed?

Jesus has noticed the hungers of our world. He asks us the same question he asked his disciples: "Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?" Like his disciples, we see the people’s needs and our own inadequacies as well. We shrug our shoulders and say, "We just don’t have enough to feed them!" But Jesus wants to address their hungers. He takes what few gifts we place at his disposal, our "barley loaves," blesses them and feeds the hungry with them.

John is clearly alluding to the Eucharist in the details he provides of the multiplication. There are the crowds drawn to Jesus. (There must have been women and children at the scene, but only the 5000 men were told to recline on the grass. Why?) Who knows how the miracle took place? Some claim the people would have carried provisions for such a trip and, under Jesus’ influence, they shared what they had with strangers around them. That would be a miracle in itself, wouldn’t it? Strangers caring for strangers? However it happened, the people there drew the conclusion that God had sent them this Prophet, the one they had been waiting for, to deliver them. So, they were ready to carry Jesus off and make him a king.

John tells us early in the story when the miracle took place. "The Jewish feast of Passover was near." It coincided with the feast of Unleavened Bread, celebrated during the barley harvest. When the Israelites fled Egyptian slavery they had no time to wait for the bread to rise, it was Passover. Unleavened Bread and Passover were two feasts remembering the mighty works God had done for the people. They were also feasts of anticipation when they looked forward to the final age when God would bring to completion what God had begun for them. Thus, after Jesus’ miracle the people were excited, thinking that Jesus was the one who would bring about God’s final age.

As we prepare to go to the altar, we reflect on a detail in the story that we might have missed. Did you notice the boy? He contributed all he had, the loaves and fishes, for the hungry crowd. His presence and what he did pose a question to us: what do I have, in materials, talents and conviction of faith, as little as they might seem, to share with others?

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: