The Gospel for this Sunday, John 6:1-21 (the Catholic lectionary stops after v. 15), presents the Feeding of the 5000, the one miracle of Jesus found in all four Gospels:
John 6:1 After this, Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee [of Tiberias]. 2 A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick. 3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish feast of Passover was near. 5 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?” 6 He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, ‘Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little [bit].” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” 10 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. 11 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. 12 When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” 13 So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat. 14 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.”
15 Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone. 16 When it was evening, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 embarked in a boat, and went across the sea to Capernaum. It had already grown dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea was stirred up because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they began to be afraid. 20 But he said to them, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” 21 They wanted to take him into the boat, but the boat immediately arrived at the shore to which they were heading.
The text presents what we would call a miracle. That needs to be said because the feeding of the 5000 is one of the parade passages that has suffered radical rationalization ever since the time of H.E.G. Paulus, who famously suggested that the real miracle involved no miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes but rather that Jesus’ selfless example caused those who were hiding food under their tunics to share with others. Lest anyone think that this sort of interpretation died out in a prior century, it remains with us to this day in Bible study and homiletics materials produced largely by denominational publishing houses. (Indeed, it was encountering this interpretation in Bible study materials for children while working at a camp in northern Minnesota that sparked my own interest in academic biblical studies.)
The text doesn’t promote or permit such an interpretation; to rationalize this passage down to some vapid point about sharing is to read against the grain of the text and miss the point of the story altogether. (Those interested in a philosophically and sociologically grounded study of the possibility of miracles are here referred to Craig Keener’s Miracles; here we will deal with reality as the text suggests it.) The immediate point is to portray Jesus as the Messiah; the broader function is to set up the bread of life discourse which follows (and which the lectionary will provide as a Gospel text for the four Sundays in August).
Jesus as Messiah.
Jesus is confronted by a crowd of 5000 males, men (cf. v. 10: οἱ ἄνδρες, “males,” not οἱ ἄνθρωποι, “people”). This was about the number of soldiers in a Roman legion, which could be either 5000 or 6000. After the crowd witnesses the miracle, we are told that Jesus knew that they were going to attempt to make him a king by force (v. 15). They have witnessed a deed worthy of the messiah, pointing to Jesus’ messiahship, and think that Jesus means to lead their one incipient Jewish legion in a war against the Roman legions. But in withdrawing alone to the mountain, Jesus rejects this nascent rebellion in accord with his later statement, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). The crowd’s problem, which is indeed most everyone’s problem in the Gospel of John, is that its members are looking down, as it were, at the earthly, the temporal, the material, and failing to see through the material signs to the heavenly realities they signify. Just as Jesus’ Jewish opponents in John 2 couldn’t understand that Jesus was speaking spiritually about the temple of his body, or as in John 3 Nicodemus assumes Jesus is talking about physical rebirth when he utters his famous words about being born again, here the crowd assumes that Jesus’ messiahship concerns a kingdom on earth. The feeding of the 5000 points to Jesus as Messiah, indeed, but his kingdom is not of this world. Rather, Jesus is the Messiah who will feed his people with the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, the Medicine of Immortality, as the Bread of Life discourse will make plain.
The bread of life discourse. In John 6, a tripartite typology is in operation, among the story of Moses providing manna in the wilderness, the story of the feeding of the five thousand, and the Eucharist. As I have written on John in general:
John is a sacramental Gospel, for the Incarnation is the sacrament par excellence. And while the Eucharistic import of John 6 is long contested among interpreters, a subtle triple typology found therein suggests a rather high view of Holy Communion, along the lines of what St. Ignatius of Antioch had in mind when he called the Eucharist “the medicine of immortality” (Eph. 20:2). (Of course, preachers may follow their own informed judgment and traditions on this point.)
In John 6, we have the feeding of the five thousand, a miracle which both looks backward to the feeding of the Israelites with manna in the wilderness and also forward to the Eucharist. Challenging Jesus for a sign, Jesus’ interlocutors remind him that Moses gave their fathers “bread from heaven,” manna in the wilderness (John 6:31). Jesus tells them that it is his Father who gives the true bread from heaven, Jesus himself, the bread of life (6:32-35). After some grumbling, Jesus reiterates his words:
“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (6:48-51)
After a dispute arises concerning just how one might eat Jesus’ flesh, Jesus states:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” (6:53-58)
What, then, are the parallels? (1) In the Old Testament, God gives miraculous manna to the people through Moses, and the people eventually die. (2) In the feeding of the five thousand, the Father gives miraculous bread and fish to the people through Jesus (who gave thanks, 6:11, thus involving his Father), and the people eventually die. In each case the food provided sustains the people in their biological life, but it is powerless to provide eternal life; in each case the people ultimately die. But (3) in the case of the Eucharist, the Father has sent the Son, Jesus, in the Incarnation, and then in the Eucharist, a token of the Incarnation, gives the people the bread of life, and the people will live forever.
This is good news: Not just that God sent his Son in the Incarnation to invade a hostile world two millennia ago, but that God is present in the body and blood of his Son who gives his Eucharistic flesh for the life of that world in the present moment. The Eucharist feeds those living in a world where most are starved both of transcendence and immanence, and good preaching will bring congregants to a profound experience of this reality.
Indeed, the lectionary this year dedicates the entire month of August to John 6, so this Sunday would be a good time to start a series on the Eucharist through the lens of this powerful and theologically significant text.