Friday, July 27, 2012

The Prophet Who Feeds the New Israel: The 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Barley Ripens Near Passover
God could have made us with solar cells in our skin, so all we would have to do is lie in the sun to get the energy we need for life.

But he didn't.  In his divine plan, God created us as creature that need to eat.  The first command he ever gave us concerned food: what to eat and what not to eat.  We turned away from him by an act of eating.  And now, since the coming of Christ, we can turn back to him by an act of eating.

Our need to eat reminds us that we are dependent on something or someone outside ourselves—ultimately God—to stay alive.

At this time in the Church year, we begin a five-week meditation on John 6 and the account of Jesus' miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000.  Each week we will read another section of the account of the miracle and Jesus' subsequent discourse.  Each week a different Old Testament passage will appear in the First Reading, showing a different type or anticipation of the Eucharist from Israel's history.

1. Our First Reading comes from the narratives about the prophet Elisha in 2 Kgs 4:42-44:

A man came from Baal-shalishah bringing to Elisha, the man of God,
twenty barley loaves made from the firstfruits,
and fresh grain in the ear.
Elisha said, "Give it to the people to eat."
But his servant objected,
"How can I set this before a hundred people?"
Elisha insisted, "Give it to the people to eat."
"For thus says the LORD,
'They shall eat and there shall be some left over.'"
And when they had eaten, there was some left over,
as the LORD had said.
The lives and careers of the two great prophets, Elijah and Elisha, form the center of the history of the Book of the Kings (1-2 Kings, originally one book in Hebrew).  In fact, the "passing of the torch" between Elijah and Elisha (involving Elijah's ascension in a chariot of flame) in 2 Kings 2:1-14 is the center-point of this literary masterpiece.

Elijah was a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher whose ministry was characterized by the preaching of judgment and calling fire down from heaven.  Elisha's career, however, was quite different.  His miracles were seldom lethal; in fact, they usually consisted of healings, feedings, and other works of restoration.

The gospels clearly portray John the Baptist, the fiery preacher of judgment, as a New Elijah, succeeded by Jesus the New Elishah, who feeds, heals, and restores Israel.

Elisha was a prophet to the northern ten tribes of Israel, who worked to call them back to true worship of the LORD.  He was assisted by a group called "the sons of the prophets" (Heb. b'nai nevi'im), men who left the usual pattern of marriage and family life in order to devote themselves to the teachings of the prophets and the cultivation of their own spiritual gifts.  Jesus ministry, assisted by the apostles who left everything to follow him, also follows this pattern.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18:
R. (cf. 16) The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.
Let all your works give you thanks, O LORD,
and let your faithful ones bless you.
Let them discourse of the glory of your kingdom
and speak of your might.
R. The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.
The eyes of all look hopefully to you,
and you give them their food in due season;
you open your hand
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.
R. The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.
The LORD is just in all his ways
and holy in all his works.
The LORD is near to all who call upon him,
to all who call upon him in truth.
R. The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.
Psalm 145 is the first of six psalms of virtually unfettered praise (Pss 145-150) that conclude the Psalter (i.e. the Book of Psalms) on a high note.  Psalm 145 is an acrostic--each verse starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  The concept of an acrostic is to be comprehensive: this is praise "from A to Z".  Psalm 145 particularly stresses the idea that all creation praises God, because he sustains all creatures.  One of the psalm's important themes is articulated in vv. 15-16:
The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. 
You open your hand, you satisfy the desire of every living thing.
The goodness of God displayed in all creation is expressed in a particular way in the Eucharist, in which he supplies himself as spiritual food for his own people.

3. The Second Reading  is from  Ephesians 4:1-6:
Brothers and sisters:
I, a prisoner for the Lord,
urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,
with all humility and gentleness, with patience,
bearing with one another through love,
striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace:
one body and one Spirit,
as you were also called to the one hope of your call;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism;
one God and Father of all,
who is over all and through all and in all.
St. Paul's instruction emphasizes the unity of the Church.  The Eucharist is a sign of our unity as Christians.  For unity to mean anything, it has to be based on truth and a common commitment.  If the Eucharist was passed out to everyone passing by on the street, it would become meaningless--just as sex becomes meaningless when it is shared with everyone, and not reserved for one's spouse.  There is a very close analogy between the Eucharist and the marital act.

This is why the Church does not distribute the Eucharist to those who do not share the Catholic faith.  If someone takes the Eucharist without actually confessing the "one Lord, one faith, one baptism", then he or she is receiving the sign of unity without actually being in unity.

As a Protestant, it never bothered me that the Catholic Church did not offer me the Eucharistic host.  I understood their position perfectly--in fact, I would never (and did never) take the Eucharist when visiting a Mass, because I knew it would be like sex before marriage--I would be illicitly making the sign of unity without actually having committed myself to that unity.

To "preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace," there has to be a means in the Church of resolving arguments and disputes.  The pope has the ministry of "supreme argument resolver" in the Church's structure.  When disagreement threatens to split the Church, the Pope has the authority to intervene and settle the question.  In order to fulfill this ministry of unity, he must bear the authority of infallibility.  If he did not, his word would never be final, and he could not settle arguments nor maintain the Church's unity.  Christian groups that reject the ministry of Peter exercised through his successor the Pope find themselves unable to resolve their own internal disputes thereafter and eventually end up "condemned in their disputatiousness," as St. Ignatius of Antioch puts it (Letter to the Smyrneans, ch. 7).

Thus unity, Eucharist, and papacy are all inter-related.  In fact, the whole faith is a seamless robe--every truth is related to every other, and it is not possible to cut any thread of Catholic doctrine without the whole garment unraveling.  That's why the rite by which an adult is received into the Church involves a public acceptance and submission to all that the Church teaches as revealed by God.

4.  The Gospel is John 6:1-15:
Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee.
A large crowd followed him,
because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick.
Jesus went up on the mountain,
and there he sat down with his disciples.
The Jewish feast of Passover was near.
When Jesus raised his eyes
and saw that a large crowd was coming to him,
he said to Philip,
"Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?"
He said this to test him,
because he himself knew what he was going to do.
Philip answered him,
"Two hundred days?' wages worth of food would not be enough
for each of them to have a little.'"
One of his disciples,
Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him,
"There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish;
but what good are these for so many?"
Jesus said, "Have the people recline."
Now there was a great deal of grass in that place.
So the men reclined, about five thousand in number.
Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks,
and distributed them to those who were reclining,
and also as much of the fish as they wanted.
When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples,
"Gather the fragments left over,
so that nothing will be wasted."
So they collected them,
and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments
from the five barley loaves
that had been more than they could eat.
When the people saw the sign he had done, they said,
"This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world."
Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off
to make him king,
he withdrew again to the mountain alone.
The Feeding of the 5,000 contains many anticipations of the Last Supper and the Institution of the Eucharist.  We note that both events took place during Passover [Passover occurred near the time of barley harvest (thus the barley loaves)].  Jesus has the people "recline," using the same Greek word used in the other Gospels for the Apostles "reclining" around the table at the Last Supper.  Jesus' making the people "recline" recalls at least two important passages of the Old Testament:
(1) Psalm 23, the Psalm of the Good Shepherd, which says "The LORD is my shepherd ... he makes me lay down in green pastures";
(2) and Ezek 34, where the LORD promises to come one day as the Shepherd of Israel: "I will feed them with good pasture, and upon the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on fat pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel."

Notice that, in keeping with the imagery from Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34,  the Feeding of the 5000 takes place (1) on a mountain (ala Ezek 34), where there was (2) "a great deal of grass," in other words, good pasture!  Jesus is showing himself to be the Good Shepherd of Israel (cf. John 10).

Jesus "took" the loves, "gave thanks," and "distributed" them among those "reclining."  The four Greek words in quotes are also found in the accounts of the Last Supper in the other Gospels, so the very wording of John's description of the Feeding is intended to call to mind the Eucharistic Institution Narrative.

The people "have their fill," as "much as they wanted."  This ties in with the theme of "abundance" that runs throughout the Gospel of John, starting from John 1:16: "From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace."  John sees Jesus as supplying us with an over-abundance of divine favor.  That's why throughout John's Gospel, we see Jesus "overdoing" things: much more wine than necessary at the Wedding at Cana; more food than necessary here; more fish than necessary on the shores of Galilee (John 21).

There is so much leftover that it takes twelve baskets to pick up all the pieces. The twelve baskets represent the restoration of Israel around twelve new patriarchs or tribal princes: the Apostles.  The special care to pick them up reflects (1) social concern to be good stewards of food, money, and other tangible resources; (2) liturgical concern for every particle of the Eucharist already in the early Church, and (3) theological concern for every soul, since it is not God's will that anyone should be lost.

When the people realize the extent of the miracle, they try to make him king by force.  In other words, they want to politicize him.  They desire a perfect political order, with a king who doesn't have to tax the people because he can provide social services via divine miracles.

There's often a human tendency to view some charismatic political figure as a "messiah," but the true Messiah turns down opportunities for political power.  That's one way of distinguishing the true Messiah from the many pretenders in history.

This Reading has a message for us in this election year, when political concerns are at the forefront of our minds.  Of course there is concern on many hearts about the growing restrictions on religious freedom and religious expression in the public square, and the attempt to force Catholic institutions to cooperate with the aborto-industrial complex that currently seems in control of much of the press, the academy, and the  national political machine.  And there can be a tendency to seek a political solution to these issues, as if the election of the right candidate, sympathetic to Christian values, will be a solution to our collective problems.

While active participation in the political process is not only a right but a duty of the Catholic citizen, we still need to maintain a clear head, and an outlook illumined by revelation.  The true Messiah did not choose the political path, but chose instead to found a Church through which he would perennially serve as our Good Shepherd, feeding us with his very body, supplying us with an abundance of God's grace limited only by our appetite and ability to "digest" it.  It would be wonderful to elect pro-life candidates to political office in the upcoming elections [and I'll be helping their campaigns], but even if that should happen, it does not resolve the problem of our personal sin, and it would not instantaneously transform us into saints on January 20th.

A better political order is an admirable goal, but not our primary one.  We seek personal holiness, and also the holiness of our parishes, our dioceses, and the Church around the world.  At to that end, it may be that God decides further persecution would be more effective than a restoration of peace and  material prosperity.

Regardless of what God decides on that score, the readings for this Sunday are calling us to reflect on the abundance of God's grace available to us every time we receive the Eucharist.  The people gathered with Christ on the mountain were not limited by Jesus' ability to provide, but by the capacity of their stomachs.  Likewise, the subjective effects of our participation in the Eucharist is only limited by our capacity to receive, which is to say, by our faith.  Oftentimes we receive little in Mass, because we come with little faith and low expectations.  Let's ask God to increase our faith, and truly believe that as we encounter him in the sacrament this weekend, he can "answer all our needs."


De Maria said...

Amen! Wonderful commentary.

Our Pastor, in his homily today, said something worthy of note. I can't remember the exact verbiage, but it was something like this.

He said that when Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fish, He did not wait to make a big mound of loaves and fish before He had the food passed out to the people.

But He had the Disciples pass out which He had.

Which gives us no excuse. We shouldn't wait until we amass riches before we begin to serve God. But we should begin with that which we already have.

He said it much better. But I think that communicates the gist.


De Maria

Bruce Killian said...

Dr. Bergsma
This meal early Tuesday evening, by the solar calendar, happened precisely one year before the Last Supper. As at the Exodus (12:35-36) there was a treasure this time more than 200 denarii worth of bread. There was bitterness the news of the death of John. Jesus and His disciples kept the Passover watch (Ex 12:42), Jesus healed all so there was no feeble one (Ps 105:37), they reclined because it was the Passover. However, there would be no harvest (of people) because it was the Jubilee year. For more Passover/Exodus links see
Grace and peace,

phatcatholic said...

Dr. Bergsma ... when I was listening to this reading at Mass, I was struck by the fact that they wanted to make Jesus king as soon as they saw the miracle he performed. It made me wonder if perhaps they saw it as a fulfillment of a prophecy about the great King who was to come and redeem Israel. Am I on to something here, or no? Does the OT say anything about a King who will feed the people?