Commentary on the Readings
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
The Bread: Cause of Conflict and Sign of Communion
The Israelites were caught by panic in front of the Canaanites. To instill courage in them, Joshua and Caleb, men of imposing stature, exclaimed: “Do not be afraid, for they will be bread for us!” (Nm 14:9). Curious coincidence: the Hebrew root of the word “bread” is composed of the same consonants of the verb “to fight,” as if to indicate that the struggle for food is the stirring cause of wars. Even the disagreements between Israel and the Lord are derived from the scarcity of bread, “In Egypt we sat down to eat all the bread” (Ex 16:3).
Only when bread is shared, it ceases to be a source of competition and strife and becomes a sign of love and brotherhood.
Eating bread with someone is to consider him one’s own intimate, a friend whom one grants trust, an ally from which one does not expect any betrayal (Ps 41:10). The strongest tension, the most poisonous resentments are manifested in silence at table and more embarrassing discussions that break out among the diners.
The banquet is, by its nature, an expression of peace and reconciliation (Gen 31:53-54), this is why God has chosen it as the image of his kingdom. He will lavish a banquet in which “the lowly will eat and be satisfied” (Ps 22:27).
Here’s his dream: one day to contemplate all his children, the olive shoots, around his table (Ps 128:3).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“The poor shall eat and be satisfied, if I will have the courage to share my goods.”
What are Israel’s “poor of the land” dreaming? No great things, only to have their fill of bread to the full and maybe, of their being able to eat, like the rich ones, three times a day. The abundance of bread was the sign of God’s blessing (Ps 37:25) and its scarcity a punishment for sin (Ez 4:16-17).
The scene narrated in today’s reading is set during a terrible famine. The situation was so desperate that, in order to survive, people ate roots, leaves and herbs, even poisonous ones (2 Kgs 4:38-41).
The term hunger occurs 134 times in the Old Testament. Many times, because due to the lack of rain, the lands of the Middle East were often affected by this disaster.
In a time of famine, therefore, a man of Baal Salisa comes to Elisha and offered him twenty loaves of barley (v. 42).
Barley grows also on poor and rough terrain and has less value than the grain (Rev 6:6). Its maturation cycle is shorter than that of other cereals, for this it is the first to be collected. It is harvested in the spring, around Easter. The rich preferred wheat bread, the poorer classes instead were content of barley that was cheaper. It is therefore a poor peasant who, with a gesture of touching generosity, deprives himself of valuable food to hand it to the Prophet. He does not keep to himself the first fruits of his field. He feels the need to share with others the gift received from God. Bread is a gift from God and should be immediately shared with those who do not have: “The warmhearted man will be blessed since he shares his bread with the poor” (Prv 22:9).
Elisha, in turn, gets involved in this dynamic of the free gift, done by the man of Baal Salisa. He does not put the bread in the bag to take home, but calls his servant to distribute it to a hundred hungry people around him.
The servant’s reaction is skeptical: “How am I to divide these loaves among one hundred men?” (v. 43). If there is not a miracle, it is not possible to solve the problem of hunger of so many people with so few resources.
The Prophet asked him to trust ensuring, “They shall eat and have some left over” (v. 43).
The miracle is possible and will happen, but only if we have the courage to believe in the promise of the Lord and we trust of the disposition, seemingly absurd and senseless, of the Prophet who orders to distribute, to share, to put in common.
The food will be enough for everyone and there will be left over, but no one must grab more than what one needs to be satiated. Who, distrusting the providence of the Lord, or moved by greed and avarice, will take his brother’s part away to keep, hide or hoard it for himself, the next day he will see it, like the manna, rotten and full of worms (Ex 16:20). God does not multiply the bread from scratch. He does not let it fall down like rain from the sky and does not take one’s place in solving the problem of hunger. He makes his miracles through those who trust in his word.
This is the dynamic that led to the miracle: first there was the generous gesture of a man of Baal Salisa who offered the fruit of his labor, then Elisha decided to share the gift received, finally the miracle happened “they shall eat and have some left over according to the word of the Lord” (v. 43).
Today, it is true that only a miracle can solve the problem of hunger in the world, yet it is possible to do it. It’s enough to have the courage, against all human logic, to trust the gospel and, like Peter invited to fish at noon, exclaiming “if you say so …” (Lk 5:5) and act accordingly.
This part of the Letter to the Ephesians dedicated to moral exhortations starts with this passage. The unity of the church is the first topic to be introduced.
In the first verses (vv. 1-3) some characteristics of the new life of the baptized are listed. They are introduced with a reference to the Apostle Paul, “a prisoner in the Lord” (v. 1). The authenticity of his message is evidenced by his willingness to give his life for the gospel.
The first hallmark of the disciple is “humility,” understood as the choice of the last place, willingness to serve, stooping down to raise the poor. Then come “gentleness, patience and forbearance” (v. 2). The Christian is not quarrelsome and irritable, does not claim to be always right, knows that people have qualities and limitations, flaws and virtues, gifts and pettiness. Following the example of the Master he renounces to all forms of aggression and violence, and seeks in every way unity, reconciliation and peace.
In the second part of the passage (vv. 4-6), the theme is taken up and motivated. There are seven reasons why unity should reign among Christians: “Let there be one body and one spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, the Father of all.” It is hard to explain why the emphasis on one Eucharistic bread is forgotten.
The unity of a community is not the result of sympathy or the result of the interweaving of self-interest. Like everyone else, Christians have every reason to be divided and in disagreement. There are among them differences of race, language, culture, economic conditions, mentality, character … The same religion, sometimes, is a motive of dissension; there are so many professions of faith in the same Christ. The differences, however, must not give rise to envy and create competitions. They are an asset and are intended to promote mutual aid, cooperation, complementarity. That’s why, in the following verses (vv. 11-16), the Letter to the Ephesians will describe the Christian community as a body, in which every member has a role and a task.
After five consecutive Sundays the reading of the Gospel of Mark will stop. Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John is proposed instead. The story of the multiplication of loaves starts today and continues in the coming weeks, with the famous discourse on the bread of life given by Jesus in the synagogue of Capernaum.
In interpreting this chapter, one can make the mistake of assuming that it is about the Eucharist from beginning to end. It should be avoided in order not to lose the richness of the message of each passage. The theme of the Eucharist goes in the background of the discourse, but, explicitly, it is introduced only at the end.
Of all the signs wrought by Jesus, not one is told as many times as the multiplication of the loaves. All the evangelists report at least once, Matthew and Mark even two; it is reported six times in all.
How come this fact has been given so much importance in the early church?
It is because it was really clamorous and sensational; it very much impressed a people accustomed to eating only once a day. It is true, the chronic hunger of the Israelites can partly explain, but not all the interest in this episode. Jesus accomplished the most extraordinary miracles that are told once. Why so much insistence on the bread?
Today we are offered John’s version of the episode. It is different in many details from the others. We will not dwell on these differences, nor will we strive to establish what really happened. We plunge right away instead in the message and we will try to highlight it in every important detail of the story.
Let’s assume an important observation: the text does not use the word “multiplication;” we use it in the titling, which is not inspired, of the gospel passages. The gospel speaks only of the pooled loaves and fish, the distribution of the same, the result—all of them were given “as much as they wanted”—and the collection, in twelve baskets, of the left over bread, a sign of a food which will never run out. That’s all here. The central message of the story should not be sought in the multiplication, but in the sharing.
We are affected by the craving to multiply all that is material: money, health, years of life, friendships, successes, and when we feel unable to multiply, we call upon God in order to do it for us. But the desire to multiply is a syndrome of death. It comes from the fear of death and failure; it is a sign of lack of faith.
Jesus, by his action, intends to answer to the problem of hunger, material starvation, not spiritual. There is the problem of hunger in the world and we would like that he solves with multiplications; Jesus, however, follows a different logic, a logic that cannot be neglectful, but involves and with joint responsibility.
The story begins with a chronological indication: “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand” (v. 4). This is not an information , but a theological framework that serves to highlight the significance of the episode. John wants the passage to be read in the context of the great celebration of the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt.
The parallel between the multiplication of the loaves and the events of the exodus is so important that the evangelist emphasizes it repeatedly: Jesus, like Moses crossing the sea (v. 1) and, one notes, there is no boat, just like in the Exodus; like Moses, Jesus is accompanied by numerous people and wins the trust of the masses by making great signs (v. 2). Twice (vv. 3,15) he goes up the mountain and sits down with his disciples, just as Moses was on the mountain, and often taught his people. During the Exodus Moses gave manna and, like him, Jesus feeds those who follow him. Fourteen times we see that the crowd acclaims him as “the prophet, the one who is to come into the world” (v. 14). An explicit reference to this prophecy made by God to Moses, “I shall raise up a prophet from their midst, one of their brothers, who will be like you. I will put my words in his mouth and he will tell them all that I command” (Dt 18:18).
All these references are intended to present Jesus as the new Moses who begins, with humanity, a new exodus, a passage from slavery to freedom, from an unsustainable and inhumane condition to real life.
The goal of the journey of Moses was the land of Canaan, that of Jesus is the true promised land, the Kingdom of God, the kingdom in which—as the prophets announced—all will have abundant and free food (Is 25:6).
It is not about paradise, afterlife, but, above all, of the here. Of course, the kingdom of God will be fulfilled at the end of time. However, the sign performed by Jesus indicates that the new society, one in which everyone is given the opportunity to live according to the plan of the Creator, where everyone can have sufficient resources to meet basic needs, must begin here and now.
But is it possible to create it? Is it conceivable that the resources of this world would be enough to feed everyone and still with leftovers?
The apostles’ doubts expressed with frankness and lucidity reflect our concerns. It is written in the Mishna, to meet the daily needs of the poor, 1/12 of a denar is needed. Philip does a quick calculation: with 200 denars 4800 half portions could be prepared (v. 7). But where to find a lot of money and a lot of bread?
In Luke’s Gospel the twelve forward another very realistic and acceptable proposal, “Send the crowd away and let them go into the villages and farms around, to find lodging and food” (Lk 9:12). In other words, this is an issue that does not concern the faith. They come to us to pray, meditate, listen to sermons; as for bread, each has to make do as he or she can. It is the idea, widespread even today, that there are two distinct separate and unconnected spheres: the kingdom of God on the one hand and material life on the other.
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother intervenes: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish,” then, as if he realized he had made a remark devoid of any common sense, he adds immediately, “But what good are they for so many?” (v. 9). There is little food and an immense crowd. Faced with a situation two hundred times less complicated, Elisha’s servant had the same reaction: “How am I to divide these loaves among so many people?”
Through an ingenious dialogue, Jesus revealed the strategies dictated by the wisdom of men to solve the problem of hunger in the world, which are our strategies and the evangelist has cleverly placed it on the mouth of the apostles.
The conclusion is reached: there is no solution; the mouths to feed are too many and resources are insignificant and spontaneously even the doubt that the creation is not completely successful comes up. The maximum that can be obtained in this world is a good organization of social assistance, but it is inconceivable that misery can be defeated.
It is at this point that Jesus promises his solution: “Make the people sit down” (v. 10). The idea that the kingdom of God, is carried out in a sphere separate from reality is thus rejected. The word of Christ is meant to be a social ferment, to transform the whole world and the whole person.
The “table” on which the banquet is laden is original. The crowd is asked to lie down on the green grass of a meadow. “There was plenty of grass there” (v. 10)—the evangelist notes—and this detail, seemingly marginal and superfluous, is significant because it refers explicitly, the words of the psalm: “The Lord is my … shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures” (Ps 23:1-2). If Jesus makes his sheep sit “in green pastures” it means that he presents himself as the shepherd announced by the prophets, that means the banquet of the kingdom of God is inaugurated (Is 25:6), that the new world comes up, the world in which no one will fight for food because there will be an abundance for all.
How will this new world be built?
Jesus points out what is his proposal by making a gesture: he takes the bread that was offered, distributes it and the miracle takes place, realized by faith in his word which is an invitation to sharing, renouncing to own and keeping for oneself.
John is the only evangelist who notes that the one who has made available to all the little food he had “was a child” and that his bread was “of barley” (v. 9), the staple food of the poor. The details about the child is unrealistic because, as we know, children are the first to consume the supplies; it is therefore unlikely that, among so many people, exactly a child and only one child has kept the snack. The symbolic value of the detail is rather obvious: in the gospel the child is the model of the disciple; those who want to enter the kingdom of heaven must be like children (Mk 10:15).
Now the message is clear: the poor child is the disciple called to make available to the brothers and sisters all that he has.
This is a great proposal; this is the key of the miracle!
It is enough that people put aside their selfishness, overcoming the greed to possess, “which is the root of every evil” (1 Tm 6:10), they welcome the logic of the Kingdom and make available to the brothers, without reservation, all that they have and the miracle happens: all are fed and had leftovers.
I mentioned that the chapter 6 of John is not, from the beginning, about the Eucharist. The theme of today’s passage is the sharing of goods and spiritualistic interpretation should be avoided. However, one cannot but note that the story has Eucharistic overtones. In the description of Jesus’ actions—“Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks and distributed them to those who were seated” (v. 11)—is an obvious reference to the words of the institution of the Eucharist (Mk 14:22). It is the way in which John recalls to his and our communities that the problem of material food is strictly linked to the celebration of the Eucharist. It would make no sense to break the Eucharistic bread together and not to share the material bread.