Be the sign not the sigh – 17th Sunday in ordinary time – John 6: 1- 15
Each of the four Gospels narrate the multiplication of the loaves and fish and while the synoptics tell it as a miracle story the Gospel of John wraps it up in greater theological meaning. The Gospel of John is the only Gospel that tells us that this ‘sign’ (remember that the Gospel of John has signs and not miracles) takes place close to the celebration of the Passover and that Jesus leads the people not into a ‘deserted place’ as in the synoptics but up a mountain. Why would John give us these details if not to pique our interest?
So, in order to understand today’s text, you need to read the closing verses of the previous chapter 5:39-47. Jesus gets into a verbal spat with the Jewish religious leaders. He pointedly accuses them of a failure to see in the scriptures they read the very message pertaining to himself as the source of life. He clearly tells them that they do not have the love of God in them and that it is Moses whom they revere, who will be their accuser. It is here that our text begins with these little clues. The very word Moses would jog one’s mind to the Passover and now St John tells us that the Passover was at hand.
St John’s Gospel has seven signs, not miracles. A sign always points to a greater reality and so in the feeding of the five thousand we are called to see the greater reality. The focus therefore is not the multiplication in itself but the person of Jesus who is responsible for it and on his divine nature. Thus, Jesus is presented as the new Moses. So, let’s see the similarities and comparisons in the text.
Moses went up a mountain to receive the ten commandments and he went alone. In John’s Gospel Jesus goes up the mountain but takes his disciples and a crowd that followed him.
While Moses parted the Red Sea in a supernatural act, Jesus feeds the five thousand via supernatural grace.
Jesus tests the disciples in today’s Gospel; we read this in John 6:6, “he said this to test him (Philip). In Exodus 16:4 God tells Moses that he “will rain bread from heaven for you and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I WILL TEST THEM whether they will follow my instructions or not.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus asks the disciples to collect the scraps. In Exodus 16:19 refereeing to the scraps, Moses says to the people, “let no one leave any of it over until morning.
In the Gospel of John in Chapter 6:41 the Jews begin to complain about Jesus because he said he was the bread that came down from heaven and we are all familiar with the grumbling of the Israelites in the wilderness against Moses.
Finally, Moses was asked to provide for the people in the book of Exodus but now Jesus was the provider for his people.
St John in highlighting these subtle comparisons and connections is making just one point, Jesus is the New Moses and if the Jewish authorities really knew their scriptures (5:39) and they believed Moses, they would have believed Jesus for Moses wrote about Jesus (5:46)
Yet while the religious leaders could not see the truth, it was people who saw the sign (6:14). They joined the dots and made the connections and remembered Moses who fed the people in the wilderness just as Jesus did. We are told in scripture that they began to say, “this indeed is the prophet who is to come into the world”. They wanted to take him by force and make him king. Sadly, while they stood a head above in their recognition of who Jesus was, they were enamored by the bread they ate and failed to see the meaning of the sign; that Jesus was greater than Moses and that he is God. Sadly, perhaps we too see only the signs in our life and fail to see the God behind our blessings.
So, while we have a clear understanding into the deeper theological meaning of what the Gospel of John intended to convey there is also something we can take away pastorally and practically. I want to focus on just one take away.
When faced with a challenge, Phillip and Andrew both threw their hands up in despair. They both say a PROBLEM. Philip does a mathematical calculation to arrive at the fact that even the six months of financial reserve tucked under their belt would barely buy each one a small piece of bread let alone where they would get it from. Andrew, while identifying a little boy with five barley loaves and two fish throw his hands up in despair. Philip and Andrew see a problem while Jesus sees a hungry crowd that needs to be fed.
Sadly, the Church too has come to respond to the poverty and hunger around us the same way as Philip and Andrew did; as a problem. Yet make no mistake, while we cannot eradicate world poverty, we can make a difference to one person’s life and that begins when we stop throwing our hand up while we sigh and rather lend our hands to bring about a smile.