SUNDAY HOMILY FOR THE 17TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME YEAR B
THEME: JESUS AND THE CROWD
BY: Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB
Christ in the Desert Monastery, Abiquiu, New Mexico
HOMILY: We are told in the Gospel today that Jesus “went up the mountain.” Which mountain, we do not actually know, but the crowds followed him on foot. The setting is outside Jerusalem, on the other side of the so-called Sea of Galilee, that is, the enormous lake in Galilee, called by various names and still a landmark in the Holy Land where pilgrims usually spend time, recounting the various activities and miracles of Jesus on or around that lake.
After going up the mountain Jesus “sat down there with his disciples.” The setting is obviously relaxed and informal and easy to imagine, like a large hike or a family gathering outdoors. In certain countries, I think here of Germany and Austria, people still regularly take hikes together and usually picnic at some point during their time together.
Why did the crowds so readily follow Jesus? Presumably because “they saw the signs he was performing for the sick” (John 6:2). The people had already and repeatedly witnessed the wondrous deeds of Jesus, the healings and cures performed over a period of time. As a result some wanted to be with this impressive and mysterious teacher and willingly sought him out.
Mention is made that “the Jewish feast of Passover was near” (John 6:4). Why might this be mentioned? In some Jewish traditions the long-awaited Messiah was expected to come at Passover time, in the spring, to distribute the heavenly manna, just as God had done through Moses in the wilderness centuries earlier. This would partly explain the crowd’s enthusiasm in the presence of Jesus, seeing in him the long-expected Messiah, with whom they wished to be.
“There was much grass in the place,” we are told in the Gospel, a likely references to Psalm 22(23), verse 2, “Fresh and green are the pasture where God gives me repose.” This could be an indication that Jesus who would miraculously feed the crowds, was also revealing himself as the good shepherd of God’s people, another trait of the Messiah.
Jesus has the people sit down, whereby they can more easily partake of the manna that he would give. Jesus then acts as would the head of a family or the host before a meal, taking barley loaves, giving thanks to God and distributing the bread. He does likewise with some dried fish.
It is important to note that the initiative comes from Jesus, and as in all God’s saving deeds, taking place at God’s good pleasure as a gift from God, like all of life and everything that we have. We don’t earn or deserve God’s good gifts, but they come to us none the less.
At the sight of what takes place, and eating of the miraculously multiplied bread and fish, the people begin to say with some excitement: “This is undoubtedly the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14 and see also, Deuteronomy 18:15). The multiplication miracle is to be understood as a “sign” (an important word for Saint John the Evangelist), revealing the true identity of Jesus.
Saint John says that the people intend to make Jesus their king, the Messianic king, presumably even by force. As Jesus realized the intent of the people, we are told, “he fled back to the mountain alone” (verse 15). This means that Jesus went further up into the hill-side where he would be alone with his Father, in order to pray.
In the mind of Saint John the Evangelist, who recorded the events in a theological mode, Jesus does not perform the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves out of pity for the crowd. Rather, he does it to make known who he is and to inaugurate the Kingdom of God and the salvation of the nations by the shedding of his blood.
What is being called for then and now is faith in the one whom God has sent. Jesus appears to be merely human, but is in fact the Anointed of God and the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Some of the followers could accept this and others could not.
Looking at the other two Scripture readings for this Sunday, the first, from the Second Book of Kings, describes miraculous events attributed to Elisha, the successor of the prophet Elijah. As a spiritual leader Elisha was a man of God, given gifts by God and involved in every aspect of the life of the devout people he served in Israel.
Today’s reading contains the phrase “Give it [that is, barley loaves and fresh grain] to the people to eat.” The narrative ends with the words, “when they had eaten, there was some left over, as the Lord had said.” This is to indicate that God had manifested his presence through Elisha, the prophet of great faith.
For Christians, the saving love of God, as well as God’s power and goodness, are now present among us in the risen Lord, Jesus Christ, who calls from us faith, to “believe in the one whom God has sent,” as the Gospel of Saint John expresses it (chapter 6, verse 29).
In Saint Paul’s Letter the Ephesians, the second reading at Mass this Sunday, Paul exhorts his hearers to live their Christian faith in a manner “worthy of the calling you have received” (chapter 4, verse 1). In doing so, a basic attitude needs to include “humility and meekness” (verse 2), that is, realizing where true strength lies, namely, in God’s gift to us, and not in our own accomplishments apart from God. Jesus presents himself as a master who is “gentle and humble of heart” (Matthew 11:29) and his followers are to be so also, in a life-long effort and practice.
We are always to look hopefully to the Lord, who answers our call and is always near. As the Lord opens his hand to satisfy the deepest desires of the human heart, we are to bless the Lord at all times, an important Biblical theme, especially in the Book of Psalms, possessing grateful hearts for all that the Lord has done and still does for us.
The multiplication of the loaves and fish described in this Sunday’s Gospel passage reminds us of the Holy Eucharist, where we receive the “Bread of Life,” Jesus Christ, in Holy Communion. This Sacrament of the Church is no mere symbol, but the Real Presence of the Lord, under the form of bread and wine. Simple gifts become nourishment for our journey through life, until we partake fully of God’s life in the world to come, our heavenly homeland.