Daniel J. Harrington
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B), July 30, 2006
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” (John 6:14)

Today we interrupt our series of readings from Mark’s Gospel and turn, on four of the next five Sundays, to Jesus’ discourse on the “bread of life” in John 6. These Johannine texts will provide an important opportunity to reflect on what we believe about Jesus and the Eucharist. The Old Testament texts for these Sundays have been chosen with an eye toward types or models that illumine the Gospel passages.

 

Today’s selection from 2 Kings 4 features the prophet Elisha, the disciple and successor of Elijah. The stories of these two prophets’ exploits in 1 and 2 Kings are among the most attractive parts of the Hebrew Bible. These two colorful figures from the ninth and eighth centuries B.C. have much in common with Jesus. They were teachers, miracle workers and prophets. In today’s passage Elisha the prophet feeds God’s people. When a man brings to him 20 loaves of barley bread, Elisha places them before 100 people and manages to feed them all. More remarkable still is the presence of leftovers.

In today’s reading from John 6, Jesus does what Elisha did, only on a grander scale. With five barley loaves and a few fish, Jesus feeds over 5,000 people and still has 12 baskets of leftovers. In both cases the prophet feeds God’s people. But Jesus does it even better than Elisha.

The story of the multiplication of the loaves appears six times in the four Gospels. The distinctive features of the Johannine account include the characterization of Jesus’ action as a “sign” and the identification of him as a prophet. A sign points to something else. The description of the way in which Jesus acts (“Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks and distributed them”) points toward the church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper and toward the eternal banquet celebrated in God’s kingdom. Jesus’ ability to do what Elisha did points to his identity as the prophet like Moses promised to God’s people in Deut 18:15.

When we participate in the Eucharist, we place ourselves in the history of God’s people. As the prophet of God’s present and future kingdom, Jesus continues to feed God’s people materially and spiritually. And what the prophets did points us toward the even more perfect reality of the messianic banquet in God’s kingdom.

The Eucharist is the sacrament of ongoing union with God and with our fellow Christians. Today’s reading from Ephesians 4 reminds us that we have been made one in Christ and therefore should live in a way that befits our corporate identity. That means humble and patient efforts at maintaining the bonds of love and peace. The very structure of Christian faith proclaims unity—one body, one hope, one faith and one baptism. And all these unities flow from the one Spirit, one Lord and one Father of us all. In the Eucharist we are fed with the bread of life and united in the divine life in a most intimate way.

 

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.

Readings: 
Readings: 2 Kgs 4:42-44; Ps 145:10-11, 15-18; Eph 4:1-6; John 6:1-15
Prayer: 

• Read the accounts about Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings. In what respects are they types or models for Jesus?

• How does Jesus’ feeding of God’s people function as a “sign”? To what does it point?

• How might the Eucharist serve more effectively as a sign of unity? What do our failures at unity say about us?