2000 July – Homily from audio copy – 17th Sunday Ordinary Time
Readings: (add) II Kings, John, Ephesians
This week begins five Sundays of readings from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, the great Eucharistic chapter. And we begin the chapter with the retelling of the story of the multiplication of the loaves. This story of the multiplication of the loaves for the masses is told six times in the New Testament….two times in Mark, two times in Matthew, once in Luke, and once in John. And all six of them take their lead from today’s first reading from II Kings.
We pick up in II Kings where a man brings to Elisha, the prophet, the man of God, twenty barley loaves of bread made from the first fruits. Now it was understood that when farmers brought in their harvest each year, the first fruits, the first of the harvest, would be reserved for God. They would take it to the local temple or local priest, or in this case, the local holy man or man of God, Elisha, the great prophet. Elisha accepted the gifts, but this must have been one of those lean times for the prophet and his company. (Prophets always have companies. They never acted alone. Like Rabbis, they always had followings.) So apparently, he had about a hundred men who were part of his following, and they were all hungry. When Elisha said to his servant, “Take these twenty barley loaves and give them to the hungry men“ of course, the servant said, “You know that’s barely enough to get them started. Are you sure you want to do that?” And then Elisha said to the servant, “Give it to the people to eat for thus says the Lord, “They shall eat and there shall be some left over.” And indeed they ate, all hundred of them, those twenty barley loaves of bread, and they had some left over.
In the world of scripture study, we would call that story a literary form that the Gospel writers copied six times in their Gospels. Now I don’t want to throw you off with this idea of a “literary form”. In a contemporary sense, I’m trying to think of an equivalent. Now I’m no fan of country music, but I notice when I listen to country music, at least half of the songs have the same theme….you done me wrong. Whether the guy done the woman wrong or the woman done the guy wrong, that’s at least half of what country music is all about. That’s called a “literary form”. For those of us who like to watch a lot of TV, you know, the half-hour situation comedy stuff. They follow an exact pattern. You know in the 50’s there were only white people on TV. Now you look at TV, there are African American situation comedies. There are Hispanic situation comedies ,and have you noticed they’re all the same? Whether they’re White, Black or Hispanic, they follow the same pattern. It’s a literary form.
So when the Gospel writers were trying to think about how to write about their experience of Jesus and what He did with food; and more importantly, what we do with the Eucharist, they turned to this story from Elisha. They used that literary form which follows this pattern: Gifts are given to God, the first fruits, the best of what we have. In turn, that gift is turned around, and is given to meet human needs…to feed hungry people. The pattern is the same. Whatever gifts we give, no matter how puny and insignificant they are, (and they often are) when they are given to God and returned back to the human race to meet human needs, they multiply. They multiply so much so that all need is taken care of and then there is some left over. This is an image of the Banquet of the Kingdom of God in the here and now and how it should look in this world on this earth.
So we take that literary form, and we go to our Gospel. John was the last Gospel written, and it is also the most elaborate retelling of the story. John is called the Gospel of Signs. There are seven major signs in John‘s Gospel, and what often happens in John’s Gospel, is that Jesus performs the sign and the people misunderstand what it is all about. In this case, the rest of the sixth chapter is going to try to continue to explain what the sign was all about.
We begin with Jesus…He leaves and gets off the boat on the Sea of Galilee and goes up on a mountain. (Everything that’s really happening from God always takes place on a mountain.) Jesus looks up and He sees the vast crowd, and He knows they are really hungry. He asks one of his disciples how much money is it going to take us to feed these people. There is a text that says Jesus said this to test His disciples because Jesus Himself knew what He was going to do. In John’s Gospel, Jesus has this kind of divine internal insight….He knows what’s going to happen. This sits interestingly as a contrast as He’s all knowing, throughout the Gospel, He’s always on the run, running away from the authorities, because right off the bat, He’s in trouble. But He asks this question, and Phillip says, “Lord, 200 days wages would not buy enough to even give everyone a little bit.” And then another disciple, Andrew, says, “Well you know there is this kid here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” Barley loaves…using even the same wording from Elisha. And Andrew says, “But what good is that, with all these people?” Jesus says, “Have them all sit down,” and the number was 5,000.
Now I’m trying to think, how often do you guys have 5,000 people gathered in this area? I’m thinking like maybe a major football game or something. You might get a couple thousand or maybe 3000 people show up. That’s the kind of crowd we’re talking about…5,000 people…half of RAGBRAI. Jesus does these gestures; He gets the bread, blesses it, breaks it and distributes it with the fish and everybody has their fill…everybody. And then He says, collect all the leftovers; and there are twelve baskets filled with leftovers. Why twelve baskets? The baskets represent the twelve tribes of Israel….the new Israel…the new Kingdom. This is a banquet experience highlighting what we can look forward to. And what happens? As soon as the sign is over, the people start to misunderstand what is going on. They say, whoa this guy must be the prophet. This must be the guy we’re looking for. Let’s make him King. You see, they were looking for a political power. Someone who could bring them back to the kingdom that they were under David. Someone who could rid them of the rotten Romans who were treating them so badly. A guy who could feed an army at the tweak of a hand. A guy who could heal people who were wounded in war with a blessing. That’s the kind of guy you want for a king…a quick fix for a worldly problem. And yet, Jesus sees this coming, and what does He do? He ducks out. He hides. He runs away. He finds a lonely place to be away from these people.
This story, and as we progress more and more into the reading of the sixth chapter, is going to try and unfold the many meanings of what we do here every week at the Eucharist. What we learn right off the bat is that meeting human needs, meeting the hunger of the people, filling their empty bellies, is not enough. It’s deeper than that. And at the same time, it’s never less than that. We have a hard time tying into this hunger issue. In Jesus’ day, His background, His family background, we know that He was either poor or desperately poor. He was at the lower end of society. For His people, hunger for food was a common experience. I doubt very much if anyone of us under this roof this day have had much experience with what that kind of hunger is all about. We don’t know that today in this part of the world. Ironically though, the vast majority of humanity living today, the hunger that Jesus’ people experienced is the hunger that they experience. For most people in the world don’t get their basic needs met. Most people in the world know what this hunger is all about.
In the next weeks, we’re going to be unfolding the meaning of the Eucharist in these readings from John and this sign of the feeding of the multitudes is a foretaste of the banquet of heaven as it is to be lived out in the here and now. And even though physical hunger is not the same as what this meal provides in supplementing our spiritual needs, they are connected. And to the extent that we can see Christ, and be Christ, and receive Christ in this Eucharist, and meet the needs of our brothers and sisters outside these walls, who are hungry, we are being faithful to what Eucharist is all about and the converse is equally true. To the extent that we don’t meet the needs of our brothers and sisters who are hungry in the world today, we don’t know what this Eucharist is about. This Eucharist may well stand as a judgment instead of a blessing.
A last thought about the second reading, of St. Paul to the Ephesians. There’s at least one line in here I really like. It says, “Brothers and sisters, I, a prisoner for the Lord…” Paul’s in jail. That’s where he’s writing this letter. And I know something about being in jail. Paul knows even more. And one of the things I don’t like about Paul and the jail thing is that it’s like he never had a bad day! He always has good things to say! And what he says next is a mouthful. He says, “I urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call with all humility and gentleness with patience, bearing with one another through love.” These words need no explanation. They are self-evident. And whether you consider yourselves a traditionalist Catholic or a progressive liberal Catholic, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, whether you work at Offutt Air Force Base or you protest at Offutt Air Force Base, these words are not easy to live.
I live at a Catholic Worker House. I work with the homeless, and I want to tell you, I don’t do this very often. I don’t always act with all humility. I’m a far shot away from gentleness. Patience, I don’t often see. And bearing with the people I live with, with love? Almost impossible! But at least I know the mark. I know what I’m missing. And I bet, I might be wrong, but I bet you have a hard time doing this in your families and the places where you work, and with the people who give you the most difficult time. Even though we don’t live up to the standard, we’ve got to know what the standard is and always try to hit the mark.