The feeding of the multitude
John 6: 1-14
1 Μετὰ ταῦτα ἀπῆλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς πέραν τῆς θαλάσσης τῆς Γαλιλαίας τῆς Τιβεριάδος. 2 ἠκολούθει δὲ αὐτῷ ὄχλος πολύς, ὅτι ἐθεώρουν τὰ σημεῖα ἃ ἐποίει ἐπὶ τῶν ἀσθενούντων. 3 ἀνῆλθεν δὲ εἰς τὸ ὄρος Ἰησοῦς, καὶ ἐκεῖ ἐκάθητο μετὰ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ. 4 ἦν δὲ ἐγγὺς τὸ πάσχα, ἡ ἑορτὴ τῶν Ἰουδαίων. 5 ἐπάρας οὖν τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ θεασάμενος ὅτι πολὺς ὄχλος ἔρχεται πρὸς αὐτὸν λέγει πρὸς Φίλιππον, Πόθεν ἀγοράσωμεν ἄρτους ἵνα φάγωσιν οὗτοι; 6 τοῦτο δὲ ἔλεγεν πειράζων αὐτόν, αὐτὸς γὰρ ᾔδει τί ἔμελλεν ποιεῖν. 7 ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ [ὁ] Φίλιππος, Διακοσίων δηναρίων ἄρτοι οὐκ ἀρκοῦσιν αὐτοῖς ἵνα ἕκαστος βραχύ [τι] λάβῃ. 8 λέγει αὐτῷ εἷς ἐκ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ, Ἀνδρέας ὁ ἀδελφὸς Σίμωνος Πέτρου, 9 Ἔστιν παιδάριον ὧδε ὃς ἔχει πέντε ἄρτους κριθίνους καὶ δύο ὀψάρια: ἀλλὰ ταῦτα τί ἐστιν εἰς τοσούτους; 10 εἶπεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Ποιήσατε τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἀναπεσεῖν. ἦν δὲ χόρτος πολὺς ἐν τῷ τόπῳ. ἀνέπεσαν οὖν οἱ ἄνδρες τὸν ἀριθμὸν ὡς πεντακισχίλιοι. 11 ἔλαβεν οὖν τοὺς ἄρτους ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ εὐχαριστήσας διέδωκεν τοῖς ἀνακειμένοις, ὁμοίως καὶ ἐκ τῶν ὀψαρίων ὅσον ἤθελον. 12 ὡς δὲ ἐνεπλήσθησαν λέγει τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ, Συναγάγετε τὰ περισσεύσαντα κλάσματα, ἵνα μή τι ἀπόληται. 13 συνήγαγον οὖν, καὶ ἐγέμισαν δώδεκα κοφίνους κλασμάτων ἐκ τῶν πέντε ἄρτων τῶν κριθίνων ἃ ἐπερίσσευσαν τοῖς βεβρωκόσιν. 14 Οἱ οὖν ἄνθρωποι ἰδόντες ὃ ἐποίησεν σημεῖον ἔλεγον ὅτι Οὗτός ἐστιν ἀληθῶς ὁ προφήτης ὁ ἐρχόμενος εἰς τὸν κόσμον.
1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 10 Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’
I was speaking about Orthodox Spirituality in the Chapel this morning. This year, we are observing Lent at the same time, on the same Sundays, and Easter on the same date, in the calendars of both the Western Church and the Orthodox Church.
Yesterday [Sunday 14 March] was both the Fourth Sunday in Lent and Mothering Sunday, so the choice of readings in the ECL may mean we all had different readings in Church yesterday. But, before the days of common lectionaries, in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland – and in other parts of the Anglican Communion, and in the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox traditions – the prescribed Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, year after year, was John 6: 1-14.
The story of the feeding of the 5,000 is told in all four Gospels (see also Matthew 14: 13-21; Mark 6: 32-44; Luke 9: 10-17). Although Matthew and Mark have two multiplication narratives (see Matthew 15: 32-38; Mark 8: 1-9), and Luke and John have only one, the sequence of events in the Fourth Gospel more closely resemble the accounts in Saint Mark’s Gospel than the other two Gospels, if we draw Mark’s accounts together.
However, in Saint John’s Gospel there is no teaching before the multiplication of the loaves (see Mark 6: 34). On the other hand, John alone tells us that the feeding and the teaching took place as the Feast of the Passover was drawing near, so this was a very appropriate reading in the weeks immediately before Lent.
Many commentators on the story of the multiplication of the loaves in John 6 of tell us how we can find here a number of key details intended to remind us of the Eucharist. But the story is also full of Messianic hope, harvesting, gathering, and promise.
This story includes hints at Messianic promise as it recalls how David, when he first fled from Saul, fed his small group of followers, those who acknowledged him as the rightful king, with the priest’s bread, asking the priest: “Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here” (I Samuel 21: 3).
We are told that the time is approaching Passover, so there is a build up in the number of Passovers John recounts. This is now the second Passover, and we are being led towards an expectation of fulfilment at a later, third Passover.
The feeding with the fish is a prelude to, looks forward to, another meal by the shores of Lake Tiberias … that breakfast with the disciples after the Resurrection when Christ feeds them with bread and fish. The fish too is a symbol of faith in the Risen Christ: Ichthus (ἰχθύς, capitalised as ΙΧΘΥC), Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour).
When Christ asks the disciples to make the people sit down, he asks them not so much to sit down as to recline. They are asked to recline on the grass as they would at a banquet or a feast, just as they do at the Last Supper.
● John alone uses εὐχαριστήσας (eucharistisas, verse 11), from the verb εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteo), “to give thanks.”
● John alone depicts Christ himself distributing the bread as he will at the Last Supper.
● John alone has Christ commanding the disciples to gather up the fragments lest they perish. The Greek word συνάγω (synago, to gather up) gives us the word συναγωγή (synagogue) for the assembly of faith, and the word σύναξις (synaxis) for the gathering or first part of the Liturgy.
What is gathered in overflows; it is so much more than the disciples first imagined was there; it is so much more than the people brought with them; it is so much more than we could bring with us.
Our Easter promise is beyond anything we can imagine. God’s bounty, God’s generosity, God’s promise for us when we sit down to – recline at – the heavenly banquet, is beyond anything we can imagine in terms of generosity, beyond anything we bring ourselves. God’s love for us overflows beyond all our concepts of generosity.
The Collect of the Fourth Sunday in Lent
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings of this present time
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
though Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was prepared for an academic staff meeting on Monday 15 March 2010.
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