Enough: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Tenth Week after Pentecost
1) For the last eight weeks, the Gospel readings have been drawn from five chapters in Mark (Mark 2-6). This Sunday we begin a five-week series of readings walking through a single chapter in John. It’s a chance to take up a slower, more contemplative pace, walking together through one of the Gospel’s central themes: “The Bread of Life.”
2) John has organized his storytelling around a series of astounding “signs” that reveal Jesus’ identity and mission. The feeding of the five thousand - the only miracle included in all four Gospels! - is the fourth of these signs. Most interpreters count Jesus walking on the water as the fifth, healing the blind man as the sixth, and raising Lazarus from the dead as the seventh - which would make Jesus’ resurrection the eighth sign, poetically implying the inauguration of a “new creation” (eight = seven days of creation + one).
3) Echoing in the background here is the story of Elisha miraculously feeding a group of one hundred prophets in a time of famine, itself one of a series of signs demonstrating Elisha’s prophetic standing. And in turn, echoing behind the Elisha story is the story of Moses and the feeding of the Israelites in Numbers 11. Along with John’s emphasis that Passover "was near,” these echoes of Moses invoke the ancient narrative of the exodus from Egypt, and in particular of manna from heaven in the wilderness, the archetypal account of God providing plenty in a time of apparent scarcity (John 6:4).
4) Scripture often works this way, with multiple narrative layers, one on top of the other, revealing connections to the most prestigious, foundational stories in the biblical treasury (Creation and Exodus, for example). And the implicit invitation of this storytelling style is for us to consider the details of our own lives in the same way: in our own time and place, what echoes do we hear of the voices of Philip, of Elisha’s servant, of the Israelites, or Moses, or Jesus? The underlying idea here is that salvation history unfolds in particular poetic patterns, and if we tune our ears and hearts to these motifs, we’ll be better able to discern God’s ongoing symphony amidst all the noise and distraction - and accordingly, to play our given part in the music with more style, savvy, and grace.
1) The “Sea of Tiberias” is the what the Romans called the Sea of Galilee - and by going out of his way to include that Roman name, John is calling our attention to the story’s imperial context. First-century Palestine is occupied territory, and Passover - the Jewish festival of deliverance from oppression - is “near” (John 6:4). In this way, John begins by highlighting the tensions simmering underneath the scene: the crowds seek not only liberation from various ailments, but from imperial bondage as well.
2) Philip’s practical skepticism echoes Elisha’s servant (2 Kings 4:43), which in turn echoes Moses’ question to God, “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?” (Numbers 11:13). What all three have in common is a scarcity mentality, an understandable, realistic, and pragmatic concern about what’s possible and what isn’t. And in all three cases, God goes on to act in ways that overflow supposed limits.
3) God feeds God’s people, even and especially when doing so at first seems inconceivable. The “great deal of grass in the place” recalls the idea of God as the good shepherd guiding and feeding the flock, and anticipates the risen Jesus’ culminating instruction to Simon Peter, “Feed my sheep” (John 6:10; 21:17). Jesus himself feeds the people directly; soon enough, he will commission the church on this signature mission. The crowd of five thousand are “satisfied” (literally, “filled”), and just as in the Elisha story, there is plenty left over - “twelve baskets” of fragments, a basket for each disciple. It’s as if Jesus says to them, Listen: This is who I am, and what I’ve come to do. If you want to follow me, feed my sheep - even when you think it’s impossible. There will be enough. Your cups will overflow. And then we’ll gather up the fragments, so that nothing will be lost and you will have sustenance for your ministry (Psalm 23:5; John 6:12).
4) The scene has the form and rhythm of worship: they are seated, Jesus gives thanks over the food (the Greek word John uses here for “given thanks” is eucharistesas), he distributes it, the people eat, and the disciples gather up the fragments. So we may certainly understand the story in light of the Eucharist - but it’s also true that we can better understand the Eucharist itself in light of this story, and so experience it anew as a meal of abundance and care, a meal meant to sooth our anxieties and help debunk the myth of scarcity.
5) And yet - the people misunderstand. They see in this meal not the abundant, nourishing grace of God but rather a powerful wonderworker who can lead them to military and political triumph over their oppressors - and so they set out to take Jesus by force and to make him their king, foreshadowing the passion story. In this way, they double down on viewing the world through the lens of scarcity, maneuvering to shore up their position in the zero-sum-game of a struggle for power. Jesus withdraws to the mountain, likely aggravating the crowd and disconcerting his disciples, each of whom is left literally holding the bag. That night, under the cover of darkness, perhaps because of the throng’s discontent, their own disappointment, or both, the disciples make their way down to a boat on the seashore. John says that Jesus “had not yet come to them” - and they don’t wait for him to come (John 6:17). It's as if they’ve had enough. Again foreshadowing the passion story, they flee.
6) And so after rowing some three or four miles out into the open water, when they see Jesus walking on the waves and coming near the boat, their fear has more than one dimension. On one hand, here is one who is capable not only of feeding five thousand with a few loaves and fish, but also of mastering the stormy, chaotic sea. And on the other hand, here is the rabbi they had promised to follow, the same one they’ve just left behind. In this context, Jesus’ words are at once assuring and formidable: “It is I,” he says (literally “I am,” ego eimi, the same phrase God uses in the Greek translation of Exodus 3:14). “Do not be afraid” (John 6:20).
1) As the only miracle included in all four Gospels, the story of the feeding of the five thousand deserves careful attention, not least because it points toward essentials about Jesus and his mission. At its heart, it’s a story about our fears that we will not be cared for; about our tendencies to see the world - from the day’s headlines to our own interpersonal struggles - through lenses of scarcity; and about God’s work of feeding, of abundantly providing for our needs, and at the same time calling us to help provide for the needs of others.
2) God is the good shepherd - but an “abundance Gospel” doesn’t mean a “prosperity Gospel.” Barley loaves were the food of the poor, and like the manna in the wilderness, this astonishing meal provides for the crowd's needs that day (their “daily bread”), but can't be heaped up in storehouses. What’s more, the overall sweep of the narrative is a lesson for the disciples that they, too, should trust in abundant grace and feed God’s sheep, not hoard resources for themselves.
3) Indeed, the disciples are center stage in this story. Jesus’ initial question to Philip frames the whole episode as part of the disciples’ ongoing education (and ours!), and at key points in the narrative, it’s their skepticism that serves as the foil for Jesus’ gracious action. The disciples doubt, thinking in terms of scarcity; and yet Jesus provides. The disciples flee under the cover of night; and yet Jesus pursues them and stays with them through the chaos. The disciples are anxious and afraid - and so are many of us today, for reasons great and small. The good news of the gospel is that God, like a good shepherd, provides for our needs and, in doing so, frees us up to care for our neighbors. Each day brings its manna. We may insist on interpreting the world through the lens of scarcity, but God will continue to invite us to change the lens, seeing instead through the lens of Eucharist, thanksgiving, trust, and abounding grace. Will there be enough? The astonishing truth - no less difficult to believe for being true! - is that there will be enough, more than enough, more than we could have imagined, and in the end, nothing and no one will be lost.