17th Sunday of the Year

Jesus our Companion

As I alluded to last week, today we begin to read Chapter Six of John’s Gospel which contains the miracle of the loaves and the discourse on the bread of life. It is a majestic and stately construction in which the evangelist has taken the only miracle story which he shares with the other evangelists and constructed around it a deep and revelatory understanding of the Eucharist and of its centrality to our life.  It will take us five weeks to travel through this Chapter; we need to pay this task due heed and attention.

This week we read the account of the miracle itself, but we should always keep in mind that John engages us to recognise the signs he has placed in the narrative, as markers and pointers to guide and teach us as we make our way through the story. The first paragraph contains two important pointers: Jesus climbed the hillside and it was shortly before the Jewish feast of Passover.   These two phrases should inform us of what is being suggested for the whole of the Chapter. Firstly when Jesus begins to teach, the gospels often recount how he climbed a hill. This is particularly so in Matthew; seeing the crowds he went up the hill, he sat down with the disciples and began to speak, this is what he taught them and there follows the Sermon on the Mount. So I think this image of Jesus teaching the disciples and the crowds the word is clearly meant, but attached to it is a second theme which is suggested by the reference to the feast of the Passover. Here is a prefiguring of the hill of Calvary and the passion and so from now on all that Jesus says and does with the loaves and the fish has as a context what will ultimately takes place later at another Passover in Jerusalem.

As the narrative proceeds another theme is raised which is that of testing.  Philip’s question is reasonable enough, but no question in John’s gospel which is put to Jesus is simply a literal one. This question, like that of the Samaritan woman at the well, is loaded with significance. The mention of Passover tells us we are metaphorically in the desert and so we may well ask where is food to be obtained in such a place.  Recall how Jesus himself, when confronted by Satan is asked a similar question – how are we to be sustained or how are we to turn stones into bread? Jesus in his discourse on the bread of life will show us that, just as he responded to Satan by replying that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God, so we too must understand the need for something more that just nourishment to satisfy us. We need the bread of life, the word of God, the teaching of Jesus to be the sustaining ingredient which fulfils us.

It is Jesus himself who here, takes the bread and gives thanks (eucharistein in Greek) just as he will at the Last Supper. And it is Jesus who here distributes the loaves and the fish, just as he will distribute the bread at the Last Supper and even though this action is absent from John’s Last Supper account, the resonance is clear. What we are to concentrate our thoughts upon is Jesus as our companion, the one who shares bread with us, a bread which is his life, his body and his blood. This belief will demand serious questions of us, questions which will be vicariously raised for us over the next four weeks as we continue to journey onwards and finally be confronted with the words of Peter as he asks: Lord to whom shall we go?


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