As you likely recall, in this year’s lectionary cycle, Cycle B, nearly all our Sunday readings include texts from St. Mark’s Gospel. It’s the shortest Gospel, only sixteen chapters, and so to supplement it in this year, beginning this Sunday, we are given five consecutive Sundays with texts from St. John’s Gospel. And all five weeks are from one specific chapter—Chapter 6. As a Eucharistic people—fed from this altar/table at every Mass, it’s among the most meaningful of chapters in all the Bible.
There was a time when Christianity was accused of diverting attention to the plight of the poor—their hunger and any other injustices—by instead emphasizing the reward that would come in the next life—promising “a pie in the sky when you die” (Joseph Pollard, Fresh Light, Cycle B). After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Blessed are you who are poor… the kingdom of God is yours….you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied” (Lk 6:20-21)? While indifference to hunger has never been the teaching of the Church, undoubtedly some have used such words, and religion itself, as justification to ignore the plight of the poor.
Let’s be clear: Christianity is not in the business of promoting the rewards of the next life, while ignoring this life’s hunger and poverty. If we look closely at the Gospels, we see Jesus fighting hunger, poverty, and sickness—bodily maladies, if you will—as much as he fights Satan and sin—spiritual maladies.
In fact, he saw the connection between these two realms of human suffering. He didn’t emphasize care for the poor as a humanitarian gesture, with merely the here and now in mind. He saw the plight of the poor, including physical hunger, as a consequence of our sin and a fallen world. There is indeed, a connection between the promises of the next world, and the realities of the present world. And therefore, as Christians, we must respond to human need in this life, as we prepare people for the next: mindful of both the body and the soul.
John’s chapter 6 begins by telling us that it was the time of the annual Passover celebration, when so many Jews traveled from all directions to Jerusalem. Jesus wanted to get away from the crowds for a time, so he and his disciples sought out a hilltop to pray and be silent. But as they were withdrawing, the crowds were seeking him out. Eventually finding him, they filled in, all around him. Coming out of his deep interior state of prayer, Jesus opened his eyes to see the throng of hungry people looking to him.
It seems he immediately knew their need, despite the fact that there was not nearly enough food for them all: a couple fish and a few barley loaves—barley loaves, being the bread of poor people. St. John tells us he took the barley loaves and said a prayer of gratitude, and from that came abundance—more than the crowd could eat.
We sometimes call this a miracle. But you may know that in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus’ miracles are specifically referred to as ‘signs’. That’s the word used twice in today’s reading: the sign. And like a road sign, the purpose of Jesus’ signs is to point our attention to something beyond. In other words, it’s not just about the miracle itself—in this case, the feeding of the hungry multitude. It’s something more: the sign was to point to the kingdom of God.
As Jesus’ present crop of disciples, we are called to do the work of pointing toward that kingdom and bringing it to reality. And just as in Jesus’ time, there is enough food in the world to feed all people. We just haven’t figured out how to grow it and justly distribute it. One in six persons in our world does not have access to adequate nutrition. People are malnourished and too often, starving. We need only do our part, even if it doesn’t solve the larger problem. As we hear today, if we offer what we can through Jesus, and give thanks as he did, God will somehow bring abundance from it.
I thank you for what you give in our Blue Envelopes each month; for your support of Catholic Community Services and Catholic Relief Services; for your time and contributions toward Issaquah Meals Program, Issaquah Community Services, St. Vincent de Paul; Eastside Baby Corner, and the Issaquah Food and Clothing Bank.
In the upcoming Sundays, the narrative in John chapter 6 will shift to Jesus’ words about the Eucharist. As it leads us to contemplate his True Presence in the Eucharist and how it points us to the next life, may we never forget how that heavenly food is connected to the barley loaves given to the hungry. If we fail to see the Eucharist in connection to our response to the needs of the poor in the here and now, then we’re missing the point of the Eucharist as a sign for eternity.