Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time



First Reading: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Response: Psalm 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18; Second Reading: Ephesians 4:1-6; Gospel: John 6:1-15

Among other subjects, the authors of 1 and 2 Kings narrate the deeds of the miracle-working prophets Elijah and Elisha. 1 Kings gives a long cycle of the ministry and work of Elijah. The dates of his ministry: circa 869-849. 2 Kings narrates in a similar pattern the career of Elisha, the disciple and successor of Elijah. Elisha’s dates are approximately 849-801 B.C. His work began when Elijah was snatched up to heaven in a chariot of fire pulled by fiery horses. Elisha even excelled the spectacular deeds of Elijah. When Elisha realized that God was about to send his chariot to convey Elijah to heaven, he asked Elijah for a double share of his power (spirit). Even though Elijah said, “You have asked a hard thing,” it was granted. The same idea occurs in John 14:12, when Jesus says to his disciples, “He who believes in me will do the works that I do, and greater works than these he will do.” Example of the greater work of Elisha — even his dead body brought a man back to life. Some men were carrying a dead man to his burial. A band of Moabite raiders came by. Out of fear the men threw the corpse into the cave-tomb of Elisha. When the dead body came into contact with Elisha’s remains, the dead man “came to life and stood up.”

Today’s first reading describes one of Elisha’s miracles. The story was selected because Elisha feeds one hundred people with an insufficient amount of bread, just as Jesus in today’s gospel feeds five thousand with a few loaves of bread and a few fish. Here is Elisha’s story. A man brought him a donation of twenty loaves of barley bread. Barley, not wheat, was the commonly used grain for bread. The gift shows the esteem (or fear?) in which a prophet was held by the people. Why did Elisha need so much bread? The great prophets had a band of disciples attached to them, like great theologians have their devotees. There were also brotherhoods of prophets. See for example, 1 Samuel 10:5-12; 19:18-24. Elisha said to one of his disciples, “Give it to the people to eat.” The man replied, “How am I to set this before a hundred men?” Elisha repeated the command, and added, “For thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and there shall be some leftover.’” The authors close the story with this observation, “And when they had eaten, there was some leftover, just as the Lord had said.” Sound familiar? It should, because this story surely influenced the composition of the gospel narratives of the miracle of loaves and fishes.

Psalm 145 picks up from the first reading a theme of God feeding his people. It also connects with Jesus feeding the multitude. The proclamation of the people’s response summarizes the theme. “The hand of the Lord feeds us. He answers all our needs.” The second set of verses of the psalm elaborate, “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.”

In today’s excerpt from Ephesians, Paul identifieshimself as “a prisoner of the  Lord.” This is not figurative language. It was real. In 2 Corinthians 6:5 and 11:23, Paul refers to the many imprisonments he endured. Mostly the prisons were brutal. There was also lighter confinement while awaiting trial, like the house-arrest Paul experienced after being taken to Rome for his trial. This would be at the prisoner’s expense. See Acts 28:30. In this letter, he neither complains nor boasts. His concern is his parishioners. Basic to this part of the letter is the problem of disunity between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians at Ephesus. He writes, “. . . trying to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace, one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”

The gospel of this day begins a series of gospel readings from the Bread of Life Discourse in the Gospel of John. Today we have the prequel to the discourse, setting the stage for what follows. It is the feeding of five thousand in the wilderness during Passover Week. Key words of the story: sea, multitude, signs, mountain, Passover. This collection of key words tells us that a theme of Moses, the Israelites, and Exodus runs throughout the narrative. A large crowd is present. Jesus proposes to feed them. He teases his disciple Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” Philip, along with Andrew, are the straightmen here. Philip is unaware of his role and suggests that a year’s wages would not be enough to buy food for this crowd. Andrew notes that there was a boy present with five loaves of barley bread, (Recall Elisha’s barley bread), and two dried fish, “but what good are they for so many?” Jesus wants his disciples to be involved. He commands, “Tell the people to recline.” This was a common posture for eating, propped up on the arm not used for eating. This was a custom picked up from the pervading Greek culture of the Middle East. The boy was apparently willing to share or afraid not to. Jesus took the loaves and the fish, prayed over them, and distributed them to the people, “as much as they wanted.” He ordered the disciples to gather the leftovers — twelve baskets full.

John does not speak of Jesus’ miracles as “mighty deeds” like Mark does. For John they are signs. He includes seven of them in his gospel. They are signs of Jesus’ various identities. There was a belief among the Jews that when the Messiah (the Christ) comes, the manna will once again feed the people in the wilderness. The feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness therefore reveals that Jesus is the Messiah. When the people realize what Jesus did, they say, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world.” It is a reference to Deuteronomy 18:15-18, where Moses promises that God would raise up a prophet like Moses to lead his people. In this way, John adds another identity to Jesus, “the Prophet like Moses.” Luke confirms this identity in Acts 3:20-23. Finally, John confirms Jesus’ identity as Messiah but under another role. Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king . . . .” The Messiah was expected to be the new King David, a reference to Jeremiah 23:5-6.