Gospel: John 6:1-15
The Gift of God
What do you most appreciate in your life? How hard did you work for those items or qualities? Do you deserve those items or qualities?
Is it a gift or a right? We Americans seem to work harder to gain the good things in life. Yet, if we were asked what we cherish the most, we would point to those things that cannot be earned. Ultimately, the question of falls to the our inner character. Are we self-giving or self centered?
Jesus presented such a choice to crowd he fed with bread and fish. He gave them a sign. But was it a sign of faith or a sign of birthright?
1 After Jesus returned to the area, he crossed the Sea of Galilee. 2 A large crowd followed him because they saw the ways he healed the sick. 3 Jesus climbed a hill and sat with his followers to teach them. 4 (Note the feast of Passover was near.) 5 When Jesus looked around, he saw the crowd arrive. "Where can we buy all these people bread to eat?" Jesus asked Phillip. 6 Jesus asked the question to test Phillip's faith, for he already knew what he was going to do next.
7 "Two hundred silver coins would only buy enough bread to give each person a little to eat," Phillip answered.
8 Then Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, spoke up, 9 "Here's a small boy with five barley rolls and two dried fish in a basket. But how can this food feed all these people?"
10 "Have everyone sit down," Jesus replied. There was a large grass area on the hillside for the five thousand men gathered. 11 Then, Jesus took the bread, said the blessing, and gave it to the people. He did the same thing with the small fish until everyone had their fill. 12 When the crowd finished eating, Jesus told his followers to gather the leftovers so none of the food would be wasted. 13 When they gathered the food together, they filled twelve baskets with leftover bread no one wanted.
14 Seeing what Jesus just did, the men in the crowd began to say, "This is the prophet God promised us!" 15 But, Jesus knew they were about to take him and make him king. So, he escaped into the hill country to be alone.
John presented us with the multiplication of loaves and fish. Beneath that narrative John asked the question every sign Jesus performed asked: Does the witness believe in Jesus?
1 After these (events), JESUS went across the sea of Galilee, of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd was following HIM because they were seeing the signs he was doing upon the feeble. 3 JESUS went up a hill and sat there with HIS disciples. 4 The Passover festival of the Jews was near. 5 Having lifted up (HIS) eyes, and having seen that a large crowd came toward him, JESUS said to Phillip, "Where can we buy loaves of bread so that these (people) might eat?" 6 But HE was saying this, testing him, for HE knew what HE was about to do. 7 Phillip answered HIM, "Loaves (worth) two hundred denarii is not enough so that each one might receive a little (bread)." 8 One out of HIS disciples, Andrew, brother of Simon Peter, said to HIM, 9 "There is a small boy here who has five barley loaves and two small fish. But these (items), what are they for such (large numbers of people)?" 10 JESUS said, "Make the men recline." There was a lot of grass at the place. Then the men reclined, five thousand (in) number.
6:1 "the sea of Galilee, of Tiberias" Scholars are not sure whether "Tiberias" referred to a villiage on the southwest shore of the lake, or if the name is an alternate for the lake. In the former sense, the verse would read: "...the sea of Galilee, at the town of Tiberias." In the later sense, the verse would read "...the sea of Galilee (also called "Lake Tiberias").
6:2 "they were seeing" The crowd continued to follow Jesus because of the events they were witnessing. Notice the verbs in the sentence "seeing, doing" indicate Jesus' ongoing ministry.
"the signs he was doing upon the feeble" The noun "signs" has a technical sense in John. These were more than miracles; they were signs of God's presence. In 6:2, he performed signs on the "weak ones" (i.e., the sick).
6:3 The place (a hilltop) and the disciples' position (sitting) indicate Jesus taught them.
6:5 "Having lifted up (his) eyes" is the same as "Jesus looked around."
6:9 "five barley loaves and two small fish" This was a meal of a pair of poor Galileans. Barley was a grain for the lower classes, while wheat was used for the rich or special occasions. The loaf size was small, actually roll size. The word for "small fish" referred to dried fish that kept in the desert climate.
Sometimes we confuse God's blessing with faith: we assume abundance is the sign of God's favor. This sets up a vicious cycle of greed. The little we have is not enough; we want more. And we rationalize this greed in the name of God.
The signs, the time, and the place seemed perfect for a miracle. The signs were Jesus' cures. The time was spring, close to Passover, the feast of liberation from slavery. The place was a mountain in the desert; on such a mountain, God gave the Law to Moses and revealed his power.
Expecting an experience like their ancestors of the Exodus, the people followed Jesus. And Jesus did not disappoint them. In the multiplication of the loaves and the fish, Jesus surpassed the two great prophets of Galilee, Elijah and Elisha. From a single basket of food, there were 12 baskets left over, a number that meant fulfillment. The time and the place were just right; the sign was from God. And, Jesus revealed himself as the Great Prophet.
11 JESUS took the loaves of bread and, having blessed (them), gave (them) to those reclining, and likewise with the small fish, (so the people ate) as much as they wanted. 12 As they ate (their) fill, HE said to HIS disciples, "Gather the leftover pieces (of food), so that none might be wasted." 13 Then, they gathered (the food) together and filled twelve baskets of leftovers out of the five barley loaves which they had eaten their fill. 14 Having seen what sign HE did, the men were saying, "This is truly the prophet, the one coming into the world." 15 JESUS, then, having known they were about to come and take hold of him so that they might make him king, left again into the hill (country) alone.
6:10 "Make the men recline." The narrative shifted from a discussion of the crowd to that of the males in the crowd. In a gender segregated, male dominated society, the men would be served food first. Since reclining (laying down on one's side, propped up by an elbow) was the common posture for eating at the time, Jesus had his disciples prepare the crowd for the meal.
6:14 The multiplication of the loaves reminded the people of an image for God's kingdom, the never-ending feast. Even though the food was common, the shear amount spoke of abundance that was lacking among the poor Galileans. Seeing the sign, the men assumed Jesus was a prophet who would announce God's Kingdom. (Indeed, many scholars posit a "Messiah" prophet figure.) John's gospel infers such a prophet in 1:21, a reference to Deuteronomy 18:15, 18:
"The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren--him you shall heed--I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him." (RSV)
The men in the story were ready to declare Jesus their Messiah.
The people fell to the temptation of greed; after they experience God's blessing, they wanted more. In the people's eyes, what Jesus did was sufficient to make him the prophet-king of a country freed from Rome's dominance. So, they made their move, and Jesus fled.
The multiplication pointed to the Eucharist. From one body, God fed many and an abundance remained. One small piece of bread was broken and the result was eternal life. From the flesh of one man, the world was fed.
But, why was fish used instead of wine? For many years, bible scholars have been trying to answer this question with mixed results. But a few facts should be noted. First, the major portion of Jesus' ministry was in the neighborhood of the Sea of Galilee, an area with a fishing culture. In Galilee, fish was a main staple of food, whether it was fresh or preserved (i.e., cured, pickled, salted, or dried). Sometimes, wine was mixed with the fish brine as a preservative. And fish was always eaten with bread, even in the greater Greek culture.
Second, many of Jesus' followers were fishermen. After the resurrection, missionaries would tell and retell stories from Galilee as the Church expanded outside of Palestine. Indeed, two of the three post resurrection meal stories involved fish (Luke 24:41-43 and John 21:9-13).
So, it is not surprising that fish would be tied to stories about bread meals. The meaning of the fish, however, is a matter of great speculation. With this subject aside, the gospel presented us with two questions:
How can we truly appreciate God's gifts to us? And, how do we resist the temptation to demand more from God and turn faith into an exercise of selfish greed?