Commentary to the 17th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME –B
A good Sunday to all.
Today we interrupt the reading of the Gospel according to Mark that has accompanied us since the beginning of the liturgical year. For five Sundays, we will meditate on chapter 6 of the Gospel according to John. Before commenting on today's passage, I would like to preface it with some observations that will help us to approach the text correctly because it is easy to run the risk of misinterpreting it and therefore lose the message that the evangelist wants to communicate.
The first observation refers to the title that we find in some of our bibles: 'Multiplication of the loaves and fishes.' Let's delete this title immediately because it deviates us; it moves away from what the evangelist wants to communicate. If we carefully read the text, we can easily verify that there is no mention of multiplication; it only speaks of five loaves and two fishes that have been delivered into the hands of Jesus and that he distributes to the whole multitude without adding anything; and to the great surprise of all, those five loaves and two fish are not only enough to satisfy hunger of all those people, there are also many leftovers so that twelve baskets can be filled with the leftover bread. So, let's erase from our mind those scenes that we have seen in some movies where Jesus appears as a skillful magician who takes out of a basket loaves and fishes, and this basket is never emptied. These multiplications have nothing to do with the sign that Jesus proposes today.
Second observation: This story is repeated six times in the Gospels, and no two are the same; one says seven loaves of bread were given to Jesus, another that there were five loaves and two fish; one says that they were in the wilderness, the other says there was green grass; one says there were 4000 and the other 5000 who ate those loaves; one speaks of twelve baskets gathered, the other of seven. No two are alike. Let us say at once how it is to be understood. They are not six different episodes, but they are six rereading of the same sign made by Jesus; a sign so full of message that the four evangelists felt the need to present it, and Matthew and Mark present it twice because they want the message of the sign to be complete.
Third observation: I want to mention some questions that non-believers ask themselves but that also come up with us when we read this page calmly: How is it possible that 5000 men went after Jesus, with their wives and children? Mark, in chapter 8, tells us that for three days, they followed him. John—we'll hear it in a moment—says they followed him on the mountain.
As a chronicle, it is improbable. Then, how many hours must it have taken Jesus to distribute those loaves and fishes to that huge crowd? And then, they pick up the leftover... Where did they go to look for those twelve baskets? Did they bring them empty? How is it possible that only one child kept the five loaves and the two fish? We know that children are the first to eat everything. This detail is not plausible unless it was an anorexic child or a symbolic child.
In short, it doesn't take much to conclude that the evangelists are not telling us a material fact, but they present us a catechesis page made of biblical images well known by their readers and that we will also try to understand them today.
One last observation: the problem to which the story wants to answer is hunger, material hunger, not the spiritual hunger. In the following Sundays, Jesus' discourse on the bread of life will be proposed to us and there we will speak about the food of life, which is the word of God, the wisdom that comes from heaven. At the end of the chapter, we will also hear about the bread and only at the end about the discourse of the eucharistic bread, but not today. Today Jesus wants to teach us to do a miracle to eliminate hunger in the world. We would like him to do this miracle by raining manna from heaven, multiplying bread. Instead, he does not do it; he teaches us how to do this miracle. Hunger must disappear from the world, and he wants us to be the ones to do this miracle.
Having said this, let's hear how the story begins:
"Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee of Tiberias. A large crowd followed him because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. The Jewish feast of Passover was near."
I said before that to grasp the message that the evangelist wants to give us; we must pay a lot of attention to the biblical references that he introduces in this story. And the first of these references are to the Jewish Passover. Passover, the Jewish holiday, was approaching, and as we know, Passover is the celebration of the passing of Israel from the land of slavery to the land of freedom. The evangelist is saying: pay attention, because in this narrative, Jesus is presented as the one who wants to perform an exodus in which you will be involved.
Let's look at these references to the Exodus. Jesus went to the shore of the Sea of Galilee. In Galilee, there is no sea, but a small lake that Luke calls 'linne' = lake. Why does the evangelist John turn it into a sea, a sea that Jesus crosses over just as Moses crossed the Red Sea followed by all the people? It is a biblical 'sea.' It is a reminder that Jesus wants a people who are still slaves to make an exodus.
Another reference: A great multitude followed Jesus because they saw the signs he performed. This is precisely what happened with Moses. The people of Israel followed him. They trusted him because they saw the signs that came from God. Jesus also inspires trust in those who want to follow him, to those who live in a land that is not the kingdom of God; it is the kingdom of the evil one. He wants to take them out of there, and they trust him because he performs signs that can only come from God.
Last reference to the Exodus: Jesus goes up the mountain just like Moses. It is not a material mountain; five thousand men, with women and children do not follow him to a material mountain. It's the biblical mountain; the mountain is the place that indicates the encounter with God. Jesus invites all these people to whom he wants to make an exodus and introduces them to the thoughts of God. If you don't go up this mountain, if you don't let yourself be involved in the thoughts, projects and plans of God, you will remain in the land of bondage.
The evangelist says: 'be careful because I am talking to you about an exodus that you now have to make.' Jesus wants to take you out of the land where you are, which is run by the evil one, where everyone feels enslaved, where there are passions, envy, lust... he wants to take you out and bring you to a land where you live as children of God. Let's try to ask ourselves, is the world we live in following God's designs, or is it still the evil one that dominates this world and this society? Let us ask ourselves, what is our reality? How are the goods necessary for people's life distributed, how do people relate to creation? According to the creator's plan, or are they driven by insatiable greed? Thus, behaving like poachers, they do not care about future generations; they are slaves of their greed.
And Jesus wants to take us out of this world. We all know how wealth is distributed in our world. Some live in luxury, in gluttony, even squandering and wasting the resources of creation and some live in misery, who do not even have access to drinkable water, to the indispensable goods to carry a dignified human life.
Faced with this reality of our world, questions arise: Has God wanted such a world? Has he prepared a valley of tears to force his sons and daughters to struggle to obtain food for life? Is this what God has wanted, a world where people fight for bread? Where poverty and underdevelopment are part of the world willed by God to make us desire paradise in another life? No one makes these statements anymore.
Then, such a world is organized by the evil one to which people have paid attention and we must go out from this world and go to the new world, the kingdom of God in which Jesus wants to introduce us. This is the necessary exodus. Let us listen to how Jesus now sees the reality of our world, our hunger; hunger for life, those goods that are necessary for a dignified human life. Let us listen:
"When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, 'Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?' He said this to test him because he knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, 'Two hundred days' wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little bit.'"
Jesus looks up, sees the multitude, sees the needs of the hungry; a clear invitation to look up from our little world, from our interests, and become aware of the reality in which so many of our brothers and sisters who are hungry live, who are in misery, who are desperate, who suffer violence. This is not the world that God wanted. Sometimes perhaps we have thought that God has done things wrong. No, we have built this world listening not to his word but the suggestions of the evil one inside us. The evil one is our selfishness; it is the impulse that leads us to withdraw into ourselves, to think about what we like, to disinterest ourselves in others. This evil one has created the world in which we live and from which we must make an exodus.
Jesus wants to take us out of this old world and bring us to the world willed by God. Jesus has seen this hungry humanity; and when we say hungry, we do not only mean hungry of food, but to all the needs that must be satisfied if we want a fully human life. The life of the sick person is not fully human, neither is the life of the lonely, the abandoned, the one who lacks affection, the one who knows no justice, the one who has no home, no job, the one who cannot form a family. All these needs are the hunger that is present in humanity. How to respond to all these forms of hunger so that humanity be satiated?
Let us see how Jesus addresses this problem. He turns to Philip and asks him where we can purchase what we need to satisfy this hunger. Jesus begins from our way of thinking, which is to buy, to go to the seller. Our logic is that of the market. There must be an exchange because if there is no exchange, we die. We keep what we have, but it's not enough to satisfy all our hunger; we are not self-sufficient, we need these exchanges of gifts with our brothers.
What's the problem? The logic that regulates these exchanges, the logic of the market, whoever has the merchandise, scrutinizes the needs of the people and then sets the price. The more the need increases, the more it favors them because it increases the price. This is the market logic that creates the world we live in. The evangelist says that Jesus talked about buying and selling with Philip to tempt him, that is, to make him recover the conscience that, with our buying and selling, with the pursuit of our interest, which is the rule of the market, this unjust world that we all know well, comes to light. And the fact is that goods are a temptation; our instinct tells us to take possession of them, to accumulate them, to keep them for ourselves, at most to share them with our family members, but then, even in the family, when it comes to money, divisions and disagreements begin.
The first letter to Timothy says that the greed of money is the root of all the world's evils. And Jesus tests Philip because he wants him to get out of this logic of the old world. The gifts have been given to be distributed to those who need them. What is the perspective that Jesus wants to present to us now, which is that of God? What people have in their hands does not belong to them. The truth to keep in mind is that everything belongs to God, and we are administering goods that are not ours. God has given them to us, not for us to give them to our brothers, but to give them to those who are in need. This is God's logic. The logic of the market is the one that rules our world, and it is a bankrupt logic; it generates wars, refugees, weeping and mourning, and the weeping and gnashing of teeth of those who do not accept the logic of the free banquet to which every son and daughter of God is invited.
Stimulated by Jesus, Philip takes a step forward and begins to think. He says that at least those useless who have a lot of money should remember to give little alms, and he proposes: he says, to solve the hunger of all these people, 200 denarii of bread are not enough nor even to give a little piece to each one. It is a welfare solution, alms. It is that proposal that in the Gospel of John is put in the mouth of Judas, Could it not be sold for 300 denarii this spikenard perfume and then give that money to the poor? Yes, we must help the poor, but alms are not the solution, it is a momentary setback in this unjust world, but it is not the new world. Jesus wants a world where almsgiving has no meaning because almsgiving always presupposes that one becomes rich, accumulates and then, from time to time, drops something.
Provisionally we don't let the poor starve, but this is not the world that God wants. These 200 denarii will run out, and almsgiving doesn't solve the problem. Therefore, Philip's proposal does not take us out of the old world; the wonder of the new world does not happen, in which all forms of hunger are satisfied. In Luke's Gospel, another solution is proposed; it is the one proposed by the Twelve. They go to Jesus and tell him to send the multitude away so that they may go to the nearby villages, and they can find lodging and food. In other words, to solve world hunger, to each his own. It's a solution for whoever has money, and whoever has good legs gets there first, then he buys all the bread he wants, because he has money.
It's a solution that says, 'We come here for spiritual things, to meditate, listening to sermons, praying, but then, as far as concrete hunger is concerned, let each one manage '... Let's be careful, because this way of thinking is also present in Christian families. Let's try to think about what kind of Christian education parents give to their children to solve hunger. Do they educate to share? Or is it the invitation to accumulation? How are we educated to see our classmates, for example, as brothers and sisters to be loved and help if they don't know how to handle mathematics and physics, or see them as competitors, as antagonists? If they see them as antagonists, we are still in the old world, even if we go to church. The proposals we have heard are, therefore, a failure. The danger of seeing all forms of evil in the world, all this hunger is not solved by this logic.
Now there is a disciple who suggests another idea, let's listen to him:
"One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, 'There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?'"
Andrew timidly suggests the third proposal to solve the problem of hunger, Simon Peter's brother and the solution he proposes is different from buying; he says, 'There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish;' then he realizes that he has said something nonsense because he immediately adds: "but what good are these for so many?"
Let us note that it is only the evangelist John who introduces this child and adds that the bread that he had was barley bread; the bread of the poor was not wheat bread. How do you explain that while all have eaten their provisions, that all have already finished not having anything else, and it is only this child who has five loaves and two fish? The detail of the child is unreal because we know that the children are the first ones to consume all the provisions; therefore, it is not likely that among so many people, only this child has kept five loaves of bread. As I was saying before, either this is an anorexic child or this child is a symbol.
We know that Jesus asked his disciples to be like children, to occupy the last place in society; to put themselves at the service of all. The term used is 'paidarion,' which is a diminutive of 'páis.' Who was the 'paidarion'? It was the servant boy; when one wanted to learn a trade, if he wanted to be a draftsman, he would show up, and he would occupy the last place in the hierarchy, he received orders from everybody, he was the last one to arrive, and if he didn't hurry to execute the orders he could also be kicked around. This was the 'paidarion.' It's this kid who makes available everything he has to everybody. But the objection arises, "but what's that to so many?" I mean, sharing is very good, it's good to put everything in common, but Andrew says it doesn't work, the food is scarce, the crowd is immense.
Through an ingenious dialogue, Jesus has brought out our strategies to solve the problem of hunger. These are our strategies that the evangelist has cleverly put in the mouth of the disciples, but those disciples are us; we are the ones who reason the same as they do, and in the face of the proposition of dividing the assets, we immediately think that it is an unfeasible proposal, does not make sense.
Let's listen now to Jesus' solution and pay close attention because he is teaching us to make a miracle, to put an end to hunger in the world:
"Jesus said, 'Have the people recline.' Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, 'Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.' So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat."
We have seen that Jesus rejected the proposal to buy and sell to solve the problem of hunger in the world; if the exchange of goods is carried out according to the criteria of the logic of the market, a society is born in which there is gnashing and teeth are chattering. Whoever is lucky, whoever can, whoever has many goods available, trades them, scrutinizes the needs, and the more the need increases, the more the price may increase; and it can even go to the point that if the other doesn't have money to pay, he can refuse what the other desperately needs, and it may be legal what he is doing, but it is inhumane. Jesus wants to take us out of this world of competition, buying and selling; this is not the way to exchange the goods that God has put in our hands. Not according to this criterion.
Jesus also rejects the criterion that everyone gets by, i.e., the intelligent one, the capable one is saved, and the other succumbs... patience. This is the old world; we must get out of it. Jesus also does not accept the society where there is the rich and the poor who receive alms from the rich. It is still the old world. It is not the world willed by God. And now he proposes us the world where he wants to introduce us, the one we can contemplate because it is built according to God's criteria.
What does Jesus do? He says to the disciples: "Have the people recline." The verb is important, 'anapitnein,' "Have the people recline." Why so? Because it's the position that they adopted during the Passover celebration. They did not sit; they reclined to celebrate their freedom. It was the Persians who started this custom of reclining because they considered themselves free people who had to be served by slaves. The Greeks had taken the same custom to celebrate their freedom; the Romans had also taken it, and the Jews could not be less than them. At least during the night of Passover, they reclined because they said: "We are a free people." Jesus makes the people recline; it means that the new world is made by free people. If they are still slaves of their passions, of their lust, of their desire to accumulate goods, if they remain slaves of money and possessions, the new world will not be born.
The first condition is that the disciples prepare free people. Otherwise, the miracle does not happen, one remains in the land of slavery where hunger will never be satisfied. People should let go of their selfishness, their greed, their covetousness. At least the believers must let themselves free from these impulses that dehumanize them and prevent them from behaving like people, to put their goods at the disposal of their brothers and sisters who need them to live. The first letter to Timothy in chapter 6 says that at least the believers should reflect about these elementary truths.
Nothing we have brought into this world and nothing we can take with us. When we have something to eat, something to cover ourselves, let us be content. Those who want to enrich themselves, are still in bondage, they fall into temptation, into the deception of foolish desires, which are that greediness which prevent them from living as persons, from being persons attentive to their brothers and sisters and ready to give their goods so that the other may live. This is the first condition for this new world to be born in which Jesus wants to introduce us, and the only world in which hunger disappears.
The second thing that Jesus does, he makes them recline on the green grass; there was a lot of grass in that place, a truly original banquet. The detail is apparently marginal, superfluous, but it is very important because it recalls Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd, in green pastures I lie down." What Jesus means is that he wants them to make an exodus into this oasis of peace, not in the weeping and gnashing of teeth of the old world, but in the new world, the world willed by God.
And then, what does Jesus do? He takes the loaves, raises his eyes to heaven, and gives thanks. What does this gesture of Jesus mean? It is a blessing. It means to recognize, raising his eyes to heaven, that all the gifts for man's life come from above; they come from God, they don't belong to people... "The earth is the Lord's and all it contains, the universe and its inhabitants," says the Psalm. If one does not look up to heaven, then the person considers these gifts and these goods as his or her own and then the logic of the market comes in. If one knows that they are not his or her goods but that they are God's goods because when we arrive at this world, we arrive with nothing, then everything is God's, we are the administrators of these goods, we know to whom God destines these goods: to the brothers and sisters who need them. This glance at heaven is indispensable to grasp, to assimilate the new logic with which the goods of this world are administered. The epoch of the death of God, the one in which it was thought that to be real people, it was necessary to eliminate God, has passed.
The question remains, however, if we eliminate this gaze to heaven if we eliminate this truth that we are not masters but guests in this world, on what can we then base the assertion that we cannot hoard goods according to our capacity, according to our desires? Who can prevent us from trading with these goods that we have received and who can prevent us from putting them up for sale to the highest bidder? If, on the other hand, we know that the goods are not ours but God's, then we can manage them only by donating them, offering them to the needy.
This is the dream of God: to contemplate one day all his sons and daughters as olive trees around the table, diners, guests at the banquet, not masters who hoard the food, taking it from those who are hungry.
Then, "When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, 'Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.'" Twice it's repeated that you must pick up all the leftovers, all the scraps. Here is the importance of not wasting the gifts of God. Let's take notice of all the waste that happens in our world because the less it is shared, the more it is wasted.
"So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat." It is the superabundance of the gifts of God. When they are administered according to the Lord's criteria, they are not only enough to satisfy hunger, but there is more than enough. Let us now listen to what the people understood of the proposal made by Jesus:
"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.' Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone."
Jesus showed the new world in which he wants to introduce us, in the world that is no longer governed by the cruel laws of the market that create weeping and gnashing of teeth and wants to bring all humankind into this world. He says it with the number five thousand. The number 5 in the Bible is the symbol of the people of Israel, multiplied by a thousand is all of humanity that is invited to enter this new world that Jesus proposes, in the world where one is no longer a slave of greed but where one is free. Free not to do what you want, what you like, this is not freedom; this is still slavery to your passions.
The person is free when he or she is himself or herself, when he or she is moved by the joy of seeing a happy brother or sister; happy because he or she has collaborated in his or her joy by filling him or her with the goods that God has placed in his or her hands; he has given them to his brother or sister in need. Exactly as did that child who gave all that he had, five loaves and two fish. The number 7 is the totality; it is the model of the true disciple of Christ, of the one who accepts the proposal of the new world made by Jesus.
What did they understand? Jesus has shown them all this, and the people understood nothing; they are looking for Jesus who does miracles, but Jesus didn't do the miracle; that child did the miracle. They don't want to look at the child because the child is the one who gives everything. It's the proposal of the new world that Jesus makes: that everyone be like that child. They look for Jesus as a miracle worker; they do not want to make the exodus; they want to continue being slaves of their greed.
Let's be careful because what they have done, this misunderstanding, is the same today of many Christians who want Jesus and seek Jesus as a miracle worker; when he sees them seek him for that, what does he do? He flees, he goes to the mountain. It is the incomprehension that makes him escape because people do not expect from him the new world, the new humanity; and don't dare to remove this expectation of wonders from the minds of the people, also of the Christians, because the search for Jesus as the prodigy maker is the faith of many people still today. But when there is this incomprehension, Jesus flees.
I wish you all a good Sunday and a good week.