Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) | Fr David Goodill explains the prophetic significance and the symbolic power of Christ’s miracle in today’s Gospel.
The five loaves and two fish are all that they have, yet it more than suffices to feed the great multitude of people gathered by the Sea of Galilee. In today’s readings we are shown the connection between this feeding miracle and an earlier one recounted in the Second Book of Kings, in which the prophet Elisha tells the man from Baal-shalishah to give the first fruits of the harvest to the people to eat. In a time of famine the prophet gives up his privileged right to the first fruits and trusts in God to feed his people.
The act of giving the first fruits to a priest or prophet is a symbolic act, through which the people give thanks to God for all he has given to us through his creation. The priest and prophet must never abuse their privileges by failing to see that any honour owing them is derived from the honour we owe to God. Their role is to point always to the one who is the source of all good things. When Elisha tells the man from Baal-shalishah to give the offering to the people he is pointing away from himself to God; for in saving those made in the image of God he is giving honour to their creator.
Elisha gives all that he has, the first fruits of the harvest, to the people. The offering is small but complete; too small for the number of people, yet complete in honouring God. So God honours Elisha by making up what is lacking in his offering. Jesus Christ is the first fruits of the harvest, and he offers himself for the people. Through his humanity Christ constantly points to his Father, and so by his self-giving he honours God by saving those made in God’s image. He is the true prophet and the great high priest, never seeking honour for his own sake, but so that the Father may be gloried in the Son (John 14:13). In this world’s sight Jesus Christ is small, yet in offering himself he holds nothing back and draws all people to himself; healing and raising our broken nature.
The account of the feeding of the multitude given in St John’s Gospel makes these connections clear. We are told that on the following day Jesus withdraws to the other side of the sea, but the people come to him. Now he tests the people by challenging those who follow him as a meal-ticket, telling them to labour rather for the food of eternal life (John 6:27). If any doubt remains over what he means by this Jesus makes his meaning clear by proclaiming: “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35), and “I am the bread which comes down from heaven, if anyone 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” (John 6:51).
When Jesus gives himself for the life of the world his act is both a symbolic and a real act. Just as Elisha’s act of giving is both symbolic in honouring God and real through God’s power in effecting what it symbolises, when Jesus gives himself he honours God by restoring human nature through divine power. So when he tells us that by eating his flesh we will live forever he is speaking both in a symbolic and a real manner. When children play they often use symbolic food to represent real food. The symbolic food may look like the real thing, or it may not, and part of the game is using your imagination to draw a connection between the symbol and the reality. The children’s symbolic food does not, however, really feed them. When Christ offers himself as our food under the symbols of bread and wine we are also invited to use our imagination (through the gift of his grace) to see the connection with his work of salvation. The difference between this and the children’s game is that in the Holy Eucharist what is symbolised is made really present: Christ feeds us, healing our souls and raising us to eternal life. Those who turn away from Christ (see John 6:60) lack the humility to enter into play with Jesus; they will not allow him to teach them how to welcome the Kingdom like little children. In giving his life Jesus does not calculate or work out the chances of success, but in a childlike way trusts completely in his Father. The five fish and two loaves offered by a child in no sense could be calculated to feed a multitude, but they are a complete offering, symbolising the complete offering of the one who gives his life for the life of the world.
Readings: 2 Kgs 4:42-44 | Eph 4:1-6 | John 6:1-15
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.