See Exegetical Notes from Rev. Richard Eslinger at the end of the homily.
It’s twelve noon on a Wednesday. A construction worker grabs his lunch bucket. He takes off his hard hat, complains about the heat and doesn’t think much about the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that he washes down with a can of Mt. Dew.
On the same day, same hour, a similar thing happens inside the school cafeteria just down the street. A teenage girl walks up to a vending machine, coins slide down the slot, a door slides open and a cold sandwich slides out. She unwraps the sandwich and sends a text message to her boyfriend.
When it comes eating, we don’t always pay much attention, do we? But this “lack of attention” isn’t everyone’s experience. Take a family on a tight budget, for instance. It’s supper time but the mother stays busy at the kitchen counter so her kids don’t notice that she’s skipping the meal. She’s skipping the meal so her children have more food for their bellies.
Or what about the little boy who falls asleep at the back of class. The teacher wakes him up asks, “Did you eat breakfast this morning?” He rubs his eyes and says, “Today wasn’t my turn.” Meaning, “Today wasn’t my turn to eat.”
Might sound strange, but that’s an actual statement made by an American child
in an American school. Hard to believe in a country where people spend $33 billion dollars a year on diet pills and weight loss products. Yet, each year, around the globe, 6 million children die from hunger and malnutrition.
Six million. Children.
Yet, most days, most of us —like that construction worker on the job site, or that girl in the high school cafeteria—take God’s blessing of food for granted.
Food is not the only thing we take for granted. Taking food for granted is actually a symptom of a deeper problem: taking other people for granted. Specifically, taking their hands for granted.
Do you ever stop and consider all the hands that are involved with growing the food we eat. And all the hands involved in transporting the food we eat. The hands involved in stocking the grocery shelves. The hands that hand it to us at the check-out. The hands that prepare it in the kitchen.
I’m talking about farmers, truck drivers and those who work inside processing plants.
I’m talking about waiters and waitresses and all those who work inside places like McDonalds, Sonic and Dairy Queen.
But let’s not stop there, because the hands of other people do more than simply
hand us the food that we eat. They build the rooms in which we live, and construct the roads that we travel; the hands of other people weave the clothes we wear and fix the air-conditioners, cars and computers on which we rely. There is also the hand of a friend on your shoulder, giving you a sense of confidence when you need it and the hand of a priest in the confessional, conferring the mercy of God when you need the relief of forgiveness.
In today’s gospel, it is the hand of a young boy who provides bread and fish…to feed a multitude!
Go back to the story and notice the important role played by all the hands of the people mentioned in the passage: First of all, the boy hands the food to Jesus; Jesus receives the offering into his hands and blesses it; then the Lord hands the food to the apostles, who in turn hand it to the crowd; when all have eaten, hands gather twelve baskets of leftovers.
Notice the hands?
Today’s gospel isn’t about food, it’s about hands! Why? Because hands are amazing things! We use them to get someone’s attention: Hey! Lookout! We use them to soothe a crying baby: Shh! Hush. Everything will be okay. We use our hand to paint pictures and strum guitars.
Hands are amazing things because our God is an amazing God! God made our hands to work hand-in-hand with His! Whether it’s cleaning a house or working in a refinery. Whether it’s cooking a meal or cutting wheat, branding cattle or baking a cake, changing tires or changing diapers…the Lord uses our hands, our very own hands, to provide the needs of the human community.
In today’s gospel, a boy places fives loaves of bread and two fish in the hands of Christ. What will you place in God’s hands this week? What sort of miracle will God provide…with that which you offer Him?
A Homiletical Exegesis: John 6:1-15 17th Sunday in OT
Rev. Richard Eslinger
The Gospel Lesson for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, begins an intercalation of the entire Bread of Life Discourse from John’s Gospel as the Markan lections proceed in course otherwise. The opening narrative of the Discourse provides a further rendition of the Miraculous Feeding, “the only miracle from the public ministry of Jesus that is narrated in all four Gospels.”1 Given this in-common treatment of the Miraculous Feeding, it is urgent to caution against presenting a “generic homily” of this, or any of the multiple Gospel traditions. Perhaps we have heard a colleague in ministry say when dealing with a narrative in multiple attestations, “Oh, I have a homily on that!” What is disclosed in such a comment is that either one version stands for the entire multiple tradition or that various elements of the multiple traditions have been “shmushed” together into a generic package. Either way, the preacher and the faithful will be deprived of the distinctiveness of each of Evangelist’s theology and narrative distinctiveness. For example, if such a preacher brings a generic homily to bear on a Feast of the Transfiguration, the assembly may not be invited into the scene in Year A where St. Matthew tells of the disciples being so filled with fear that they fall to the ground. Jesus then draws near and touches them, “saying, Get up and do not be afraid” (Matt. 17:7). This omission deprives the preacher of the opportunity to image Jesus as offering compassion and comfort like a mother who comes to a child afraid in the dark and speaks love with a reassuring touch. That John’s story of the Miraculous Feeding has so many such distinctive elements, no generic homily on this Sunday will suffice. In fact, our opportunity here is to be especially alert to these unique Johannine elements.
John opens the narrative by setting the stage for the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes; the hearers of the story are provided with several important details. There is a sea crossing of sorts, “across the Sea of Galilee” with a large crowd following him. Right away, on overlooked Johannine distinction occurs. The Fourth Evangelist adds a second name to the lake. It is both the “Sea of Galilee” and “of Tiberius.” Our translation of the lection omits the latter reference entirely. Tiberius is obviously the name of Tiberius Caesar and that name was given to a city founded in 24 C.E. by Herod Antipas, the Jewish tetrarch. It is located on the southwest shore of the lake and was built on an ancient graveyard and therefore considered unclean by faithful Jews. Commentator Jo-Ann Bryant remarks that “John’s invocation of an imperial name reminds his ancient audience that Jesus’ actions ought to be set within the context of empire.”2
But the Fourth Evangelist provides a further juxtaposition in this story. Jesus “went up on the mountain” and from that vantage point watches the approach of a large crowd. The parallels with Moses and God’s people in the Wilderness are profound. Then, as if to underline the connection, John adds that “The Jewish Passover was near.” Jesus, the new Lawgiver, appropriately is seated there upon the mountain, but, in contrast to Mark, does not engage in teaching. Now all of these component markers are in place: A sea crossing “of Galilee, of Tiberius,” Jesus seated upon the mountain with the large crowd, at the time of the Jewish Passover. Now the plot propels the church into seemingly familiar terrain but with increasingly odd twists:
Jesus and Philip. Seeing the large crowd approaching, Jesus asks Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” John whispers in our ears that while Jesus knew what he was going to do, he asked this to “test” Philip. We, too, will be tested by Jesus’ question. In fact, Philip answers for the church in so many similar situations: “”Two hundred days’ worth of wages would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” Put simply, the baptized are continually having the needs of the world pointed out in the name of Christ. The “Church of St. Philip” (a way of speaking of us all) has a ready response to our Lord. “No way, Jesus! There are too few of us. We are barely keeping our head above water. There’s too much need out there. You are asking too much.” (As the preacher comes to this location in the story, some concrete elaboration of our thoughts and behavior as the “Church of St. Philip” may well be in order!)
Andrew and Jesus. At this point, Andrew approaches Jesus with some information. “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” The Greek for both “boy” (paidarion) and “fish” (opsaria) are double diminutives. What John is telling us here is that a “little kid” has five barley loaves and some little fishies (think sardines). With Philip remaining in the scene, we can almost see him shaking his head and muttering, “See, I told you we don’t have enough!” But there is an even more important dimension to this interchange with Andrew. He also tells the Lord that the little kid has five barley loaves. Now another piece in the puzzle becomes clear. Barley bread is the bread of the poor! So now it is revealed that many in the crowd are poor. Even though the boy’s family have provided him with food sufficient for the day, it is impossible from a “worldly” perspective to consider his offering as much of anything. However, from the perspective of the gospel, a marvelous exchange is now about to occur. Still, our reflection on the text may keep us linked to what we should be doing for the poor but, with Philip, cannot do. But now the usual way of thinking about our relationship to the poor is turned on its head. A haunting song out of the Latin American Church, “Cuando El Pobre,” reflects this mystery:
When the poor ones who have nothing share with strangers, when the thirsty water give unto us all, when the crippled in their weakness strengthen others,
[Refrain] then we know that God still goes that road with us, then we know that God still goes that road with us.3
The little poor boy shares all he has, offering it to Jesus. We will be blessed by his gift.
Jesus to Disciples: “Have the people recline.” “Recline” better translates the Greek anapesein rather than “sit down.” God’s people are about to be supplied with every need here in the wilderness. John also tells us that the crowd numbered about five thousand.
The Dominical actions. In the Synoptic accounts of the Miraculous Feeding, most of them reflect the four-fold action of the liturgy. Whether with a hungry crowd, the Twelve in the Upper Room, or on the Road to Emmaus, in the Synoptics, Jesus “takes bread,” “blesses it,” breaks it,” and “gives it” to those being fed.4 In the Johannine Miraculous Feeding, Jesus presides entirely and enacts a three-fold shape to the Meal. Jesus took bread (lit., “received”), gave thanks (lit., “made Eucharist”), and distributed it to the crowd. As we journey further into the Bread of Life Discourse, we will become invited to share in a sacramental Feast as the children of God. Wes Howard-Brook adds a further layer to the meanings of these Dominical Actions: They are “the paradigm of how Johannine disciples are to treat Jesus in turn. To receive and then hand back out to many is a form of the harvest parable Jesus told the disciples at the end of chapter 4.”5 The crowd feasts on the loaves and are fully satisfied, even to overabundance.
Jesus to Disciples: “Gather the fragments left over so that nothing will be wasted.” The Greek translated “wasted” is that familiar Johannine term usually translated as “lost” or “perish,” most familiarly recognized in John 3:16. Notice that the agency now shifts from Jesus—who has been in charge up to this point—to the disciples. Here is the evangelical dimension of the mystery of the Word made flesh. We are called to make Eucharist with the risen Lord and he then directs us out into the world to gather up the “fragments” of a fragmented humanity so that none may be lost.
The sign that the crowd has sought (see 6:2) has been revealed in their midst. The disciples “filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat.” Howard-Brook nicely summarizes this finale to the Meal:
Jesus’ actions fill people and leave enough leftovers for a basket apiece for each of the tribes of Israel. Once again, Jesus has surpassed Moses at his own “game.” For the Tiberian crowd of “unclean” poor, Jesus has provided an overabundant feast.6
The crowd ironically misreads the sign they have sought and become. On one hand, they proclaim Jesus as “truly the Prophet, the one who is come into the world.” But instead of perceiving themselves as the children of God who are to carry the light of Christ into the world, they fail the test. Jesus withdraws from them because they were all set to carry him off and make him king. They sought a sign, became the sign at the Meal, and turned into a sign counter to the will of the Father. (So this lection ends as a cautionary tale, doesn’t it?)
1 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii) (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 236. 2 Jo-Ann A. Brant, John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 115. 3 Diana Sanchez-Bushong, “History of hymns: Cuando el Pobre,” accessed July 15, 2021, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-cuando-el-pobre. (Also see various YouTube performances of the song.) 4 See: Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, New Ed. (London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2005). 5 Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 145. 6 Howard-Brook, 146