Today we remember the most famous picnic in religious history. How many people were there? Some say 5,000. Did that include women and children? We know for sure that there was at least one child -- girl or boy, nobody knows for sure -- who was vital to the story.
|Seventeenth Sunday in
|2 Kings 4:42-44
This event wins the prize as Scripture's No. 1 picnic because the New Testament narrates a version of it six times: twice each in Matthew and Mark, once in Luke and once in John. But like every favorite family story, the details vary. Today, we hear John's rendition.
John presents Jesus as so popular that a huge crowd was following him -- somehow, 5,000 people crossed the lake to be with him. That detail alone suggests that we may be in the realm of stretching the facts to make a point, a well-accepted technique in storytelling through the ages. Writers can exaggerate to tell truths that statistics can't reveal.
While we recognize the sacred character of the Scriptures, we also know that the evangelists were master storytellers deeply immersed in their religious tradition. They honed their Gospel narratives long before delivering the final version. These efforts were a necessary part of their collaboration with the Holy Spirit in producing the scriptural texts. That's been Catholic teaching since 1943, when Pope Pius XII wrote the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, opening the church to modern methods of Scripture study.
As we hear the sixth chapter of John during the coming weeks, we also remember that this is John's eucharistic narrative. John does not talk about bread at the Last Supper; for him, the washing of the feet is the symbol of Jesus' example of self-giving on that night.
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John begins this account differently from Mark and the others. He doesn't portray Jesus teaching the crowds. For John, Jesus' action of nourishing is the first teaching. Explanations will follow in the rest of this chapter.
John's story involves a variety of characters. First, Jesus looks at the mass of people. Then he brings Philip into the action, asking him where they can buy food to feed that crowd. Philip responds as a pragmatist, not so gently reminding Jesus of the limitations of their funds. Then Andrew enters into the conversation, saying that there's a child who has five barley rolls and two fish. Altogether, that adds up to seven morsels -- the number symbolizes completeness, but in this case, it seems more like complete inadequacy.
Now we are in the heart of the story. Just when the disciples have pointed out the absurd limitations of their ability to respond, Jesus has them tell the people to recline in preparation for a feast. While thousands look on, Jesus took the food and prayed.
John says that Jesus "gave thanks." That implies that he acknowledged that the food he held came from God and belonged to God. Once the child handed it over and Jesus gave thanks over it, it was recognized as God's food, and it was therefore God's goodness that the crowd was going to share.
No evangelist describes how the bread multiplied. Whether the sharing of the poorest participant moved the others to open their secret stores or whether it was like the manna in the desert that appeared at just the right moment is a mystery. The how of it is not the point John wants to make. The point is that God met the hunger of the people, beginning with the unstinting generosity of one of the least among them.
What does this story mean to us today? Some understand it like the miracle portrayed in the movies when bread shoots out of baskets like popcorn. That interpretation gives God the responsibility to do everything.
Many people who know poverty see it a different way. People who have passed the end of their rope and still survive recognize this as an example of God's providence. They can tell story after story about how God sent someone at just the right moment: how someone found the money for rent on the morning before the eviction, how a donation came in on the day that the orphanage ran out of food, how God comes through again and again, through some often unsuspecting, usually unexpected, generous soul.
This story is good news because it tells us that God is concerned about people who hunger. It is good news because it reminds us that God can work wonders with the little we have if we are willing to give it all. It is good news because it reminds us that with God in our midst, we can always make a banquet out of what seems to be pretty poor fare.
[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She is a freelance writer and executive director of FUVIRESE USA.]