17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Immediately after the story of the disciples’ return from their first mission (last Sunday), Mark reports the first multiplication of loaves. But he liturgy, starting today, temporarily sets aside Mark’s gospel in order to read in John’s the account of the multiplication of the loaves and, afterwards, for four Sundays, the discourse on the Bread of Life. Old Testament texts shed light on each successive part of the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel.
For the next five weeks, then, our Gospel readings come from John’s said chapter, which contains the profound discourse on the Bread of Life, a theological and spiritual reflection on the meaning of the Eucharist for the life of the Christian and the community. The Gospel today is, in fact, the first of five readings we will be given from that Eucharistic chapter.
But before we reflect on the eucharistic insights of the evangelist, we need to pay close attention to the opening verses of chapter six, for it begins with one of the seven signs worked by Jesus. Our reading opens with a large crowd following Jesus. They saw his signs of healing. They wanted more. They were also hungry. But there were only five barley loaves and a couple of dried fish on hand. Jesus gives thanks for the little that is present and proceeds to use it to feed 5000 people. The reaction of the crowd is typical: Jesus realized that they would come and carry him off to make him king, so he fled back to the mountain alone.
Jesus is not interested in being a celebrity. His bread is to do the will of the Father. Jesus knows that he is faithful to the mission entrusted to him. But there is another lesson for us to consider in this episode of multiplying resources so that human needs are met. Jesus provides for the people’s physical, material needs. Only after the noise of hungry stomachs has been silenced can the people hear Jesus speak about the bread of life. The bread of earth is not unimportant. Granted, we do not live by bread alone, but we do not live without it. Material needs, those things basic to human life, should never be considered trivial.
It is easy for us to be spiritual when our stomachs are full, our thirst is quenched and we have a roof over our heads. Jesus is showing us that before we preach and teach, we must care for real, human, bodily needs. We must provide earthly bread and clothes and shelter for the least of our brothers and sisters. To meet the physical and spiritual needs of others is truly to realize the words of St. Paul: Live a life worthy of the calling you have received... bearing with one another lovingly.
Our society today is filled with many who are empty, who lack adequate food, clothing and shelter, who find themselves on the margins of an affluent society. But there is yet another emptiness. There are also those who are filled with the goods of this world, but who lack the spiritual gifts necessary for true peace. All human needs are worthy of our attention. The responsorial psalm tells us that the hand of the Lord feeds us and answers all our needs. Let us daily be the hands and eyes and ears of the Lord. Let us meet all the needs of one another.
The conclusion of this narrative is especially significant. The disciples “filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments”… the guests are about five thousand in number. This detail highlights the abundance of the bread multiplied by Jesus… The fragments make us think of the ancient appellation of Eucharist: the fraction of the bread… that the eucharistic bread will never fail in the Church.