Seventeenth Sunday: Better than Barley Loaves

We now pause from our reading of Mark for five weeks.  In Mark, we have read that Jesus went out to the wilderness with the disciples, and the crowds found them.  Next, Mark will tell us about the feeding of the five thousand.

But John’s Gospel fills in deeper details missing from the other three Gospels.  He tells us about the bread of life discourse that follows the feeding of the five thousand (though on the other side of the lake).  So the Lectionary takes us over to John 6 during August of our year of Mark.


The first reading tells us that with twenty barley loaves (John will specify that Jesus uses barley loaves, too), Elisha miraculously feeds a hundred people.  The miracles are similar—but the similarity brings out the difference, since Jesus feeds 5,000 with only five barley loaves.

Our reading from Ephesians is on the other side of Jesus.  At first it seems to have nothing to do with the loaves.  In fact, like John, it points us beyond.  The crowds search for loaves; Paul is “a prisoner for the Lord.”  He urges us “to live in a manner worthy of the call,” which means humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, love.  The food Jesus offers is not bread but love.

And so he calls us to “the bond of peace.”  Of course it’s silly when people pretend the feeding of the five thousand is just about sharing; such naturalism is precisely the opposite of what the Gospels are asserting.  But the grain of truth in it is that the Church is united, as Paul says elsewhere, by the one loaf.  Through the Eucharistic bread we receive the “one Spirit,” who is “the one hope of your call . . . over all and though all and in all.”  The Eucharistic Jesus is the bond of peace.


John takes us through the transition from bread to Ephesians.

The humor begins when Philip says, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.”  Two hundred is precise but bizarre.  Five thousand divided by two hundred is twenty five; a day’s wage for a laborer obviously can’t feed twenty-five families, not even “a little.”  Perhaps John is pointing out how stupid our earthly calculations are.

There is a boy—I don’t know why our translation doesn’t tell us he is a “little boy”—with five barley loaves and two fish.  My dictionary tells me Middle Eastern loaves are traditionally about seven inches across and less than an inch thick.  It’s not a lot of bread for people who have been hiking—small enough for a little boy to hold, maybe enough food for his family.

Worldly poverty

John gives us two details missing from the other Gospels.  He tells us they are “barley loaves,” not the wheat loaves that are sometimes required for Temple worship (because they’re nicer) and that Jesus seems to use to feed the disciples on the beach at the end of John’s Gospel.  In Revelation, a hawker calls “a measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny”: this is the cheap stuff.

But the word for fish he uses is not the ordinary ichtus, as in the other Gospels, but a word that means “relish”—which for them usually meant some sort of fish paste.  The fish isn’t more food, it’s a condiment.  In short, this is the food of poor people.

So too they sit on the grass, and the word John uses isn’t the normal word for eating (there’s been a lot of eating in the Gospels lately), but one used for cattle.

Their existence is barely human, or at least very poor: chasing after cheap bread, lying on the ground, eating their fill, stupidly calculating how much they have.

Jesus tells them to gather the left overs “so that nothing will be wasted.”  I guess that’s nice—but it’s not like they’ll go hungry without the leftovers.


Two interpretations:

Holy Poverty

First, they want to make Jesus their king because they have bread.  In a couple verses, Jesus will say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.   Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”  We need to move from Elisha to Ephesians, to seek higher things.  Jesus doesn’t want to be our bread savior, he wants to fill our hearts with love.  The Eucharist doesn’t satisfy our bellies, it fills us with the love of God.

Second: he is recreating the Exodus: out in the wilderness, receiving bread from heaven, all the way down to “Let no one leave any of it over till the morning” (Ex 16:19).  Jesus is going to talk about that, too: how he is perfecting the work of Moses, by leading us from the bodily exodus out of bodily slavery with bodily food to the perfect liberation, and perfect thanksgiving, of the kingdom of heaven.

In what ways do you beg barley loaves when Jesus wants to fill you with greater things?

Sixteenth Sunday: Out and Back

In this Sunday’s Gospel, the Apostles return from their apostolate, and Jesus provides for them.

The text of the Gospels is bottomless.  On the surface, they come back from their journeys, and he says, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile.”  That makes sense and is, obviously, endless richness for prayer.  But as we ourselves come away into this deserted place of Scripture, we find Jesus saying and doing more.

The opening words have too much, I’ll only point toward their richness.  “The apostles gathered together.”  But “gathered together” is “synagogued,” that’s just the Greek word.  Jesus has been going through the synagogues teaching, and when he sends them out to continue that mission, they come back and synagogue with him.  It’s both ironic, because perhaps they should be in other synagogues—and wonderful, because they know that Jesus is the true synagogue.

Apo- means away, and “apostles” means “sent out,” though before “sent” the root seems to mean “set”: they are “sent out” because they are “set apart.”  So again, there’s a double irony.  First: when he sets them “apart,” they come “together.”  Second: the Greek word for synagogue starts with the idea of movement, being “led” together, but ends in stability, being “set” together—while “apostles” starts with the idea of being “set” and ends in the movement of being “sent.”

I don’t want to make this too complicated.  Let me just say two things.  In general, there is always more in the text, the Gospel is worth pressing into.  And in this particular, there’s a wonderful dynamic relationship between going out, being sent by Jesus, and coming back together with him, a circular movement out and back, over and over.  That’s the life of the apostle, missionary disciple.


And that’s the theme of the rest of the Gospel.  Ironically, they go away to a deserted place to rest—and when they get there, a huge crowd is waiting.

Sosthenes, Apollo, Cephas, Tychicus, Epaphroditus, Cæsar and Onesiphorus of 70 disciples (Menologion of Basil II).jpgWith his splendid humor, Mark underlines the irony.  He gives the quaint detail that before they left, the apostles “had no opportunity even to eat,” because of the crowds.  But what happens immediately after our Sunday reading ends is that Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.”  The Apostles think they don’t have enough; they are going away to the desert place to get some time for themselves—and Jesus turns it upside down, and makes the desert place the place where they will have to provide, not by resting but by relying on him (as they serve a huge meal: hard work).  Out and back, synagoging and apostling.

Even funnier: Mark says “they went off in the boat.”  Then he adds the detail that the crowds “hastened there on foot . . . and arrived at the place before them.”  After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus is going to walk on water.  But almost a more awesome miracle is that the crowds walk on land faster than the boat can go on water.  Before the miracle of Jesus providing bread comes the miracle of Jesus providing hungry mouths to feed.  The desert place is not the place of recharging, it’s the place of harder work—but more divine work.  Out and back, synagoging and apostling.

And it is all rooted in the heart of Jesus: “When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them.”  (“Heart was moved with pity” is a Greek word that means “spleen” or “bowels.”  It’s more visceral than our romantic “heart”: his stomach churns for them—a nice line for hungry crowds.)  When we rest our heads on the heart of Jesus, when we go to his desert place, more than crowds, we discover his hunger and thirst for the crowds, his infinite love.


The other readings are also worth more words than I can give them.

File:St Petrus und Paulu Bellenberg - Kanzeltürbild Jesus als Guter Hirte.JPGIn our Gospel, Jesus says “sheep without a shepherd”—and Jeremiah blames shepherds “who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture.”  There’s a lovely ambivalence in Jeremiah’s prophecy: “I will appoint shepherds,” the Lord says, he will send apostles.  But “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock,” he will send one shepherd, a king.  Out and back: the shepherds who stand on their own are bad shepherds.  Only Jesus is the good shepherd: and those who synagogue and apostle with him, who lay their heads on his heart and are filled with his stomach-churning love.

In Ephesians, Paul’s words about the Law are harsh: “abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims.”  (Worse: “legal claims” is in Greek literally “dogmas.”)  Now, Paul is the last one to abolish right doctrine or morals.  But he does say we must go deeper.  Our “peace,” our “reconciliation,” our coming “near” are not by signing up for divisive party lines, but being drawn by “the blood of Christ” and becoming “one new person” with him, finding “access in one Spirit to the Father.”  The only Christian doctrine and morals are the ones always rooted in union with Christ.

True union with Christ fills us with a hunger that leads us back out to his apostolic work in the world.

Do you ever have false union, prayer that doesn’t lead you back?

Fifteenth Sunday: Against Clericalism

AM 7:12-15, PS 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14, EPH 1:3-14, MK 6:7-13

Clericalism turns everything inside out.  It seems to take ministry seriously, but it is like an inversion of ministry—whether the ministry of the Word or of sacraments—where people value the wrong authority.

Our Gospel reading this Sunday is about the Apostles—the original clerics.  The Lectionary warms to the theme with the prophet Amos.  Just before our reading, “Amaziah, priest of Bethel”—someone with status—has just told the king, “Amos has conspired against you.”  Now he says to Amos, “Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah.  There earn your bread by prophesying.”  Amaziah thinks of the ministry of the Word as a kind of careerism, full of plots and earnings.

Amos says, “I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.  The Lord took me from following the flock.”  I am nobody.  My authority is from the Lord, and I speak only his word.  Between Amos’s and Amaziah’s views of the prophet is all the heresy of clericalism.


Our Epistle is the opening hymn from Ephesians, one of the richest hymns in Scripture, far too much for my limited space here.  The riches God offers us in Christ are superlative: “Every spiritual blessing in the heavens,” “Holy and without blemish” (Latin, immaculati—what we believe about Mary is just a statement of the power of grace in all of us), “Adoption in love,” “Forgiveness,” “Riches of his grace lavished upon us,” “All wisdom and insight,” “Knowing the mystery of his purpose,” “Sealed with the Spirit,” “Redemption,” “God’s possession.”

But it is all in Christ: “To sum up all things in Christ,” “            Blessed us in Christ,” “chose us” in him, “adoption through Jesus,” “in his beloved,” “Redemption by his blood,” “the favor set forth in him.”  What we believe about Christ and what we believe about grace go hand in hand: if we believe he is awesome, we believe he can do great things for us; if we lose sight of him, we lose sight of grace.

And thus we are, “Who first hoped in Christ,” “Heard the gospel of salvation,” “believed in him.”  And above all, “for the praise of the glory of his grace”—my wife has been reading the amazing Carmelite mystic St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, who wanted the Latin for this phrase to be her name: laudem gloriae, the praise of his glory.  Let me be nothing else.

Clericalism is instead the praise of our own glory.  Ironically, many of our alternative strategies for great parishes—from focusing on ushers to clever homilies, etc.—just shifts to a clericalization, and clericalism-ization, of the laity, replacing the praise of his glory with constant self-reference.


As always, it comes to a head in the Gospel.  Jesus sends them out two by two.  On the one hand, he gives them high spiritual authority—“authority over unclean spirits.”  On the other hand, right at the start, “two by two” keeps them humble, as if they need a chaperone.

Their packing list is funny.  “Take nothing for the journey but a walking stick”: going to be doing a lot of walking.  “No food, no sack, no money in their belts.  They were, however, to wear sandals.”  Gonna need those sandals, you’ll be doing a lot of walking.  “But not a second tunic.”

They are sent.  It’s not that there are no clerics, or that there is no work for them to do.  The Apostles are given authority and they are expected to use it—expected to hit the road and walk hard.

But they are also expected to rely entirely on God.  This isn’t about their great strategies, it isn’t about their material or social or intellectual wealth.  To take the sandals and walking stick but no money is both to make a radical act of trust that Jesus will provide, and to accept an awesome responsibility to bring Jesus to others.

(The Lectionary is going to skip it, but the next story in Mark’s Gospel is Herod thinking John the Baptist has risen from the dead: despite the Apostles going two by two, everyone knows it is One whom they represent.)

“Shake the dust off your feet.”  Matthew adds a threat—“It will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah”—but Mark keeps it simple.  If they don’t hear you, move on, leave them behind and go.

And they go, preaching repentance, driving out demons, anointing with oil (a first sacramental representation of Christ’s power and authority, delegated to them), curing the sick.  Christ is powerful, and he works in them, works only he can do.  But only when, like Amos, they renounce their own credentials and become nothing but the praise of the glory of his grace.

How are you over-complicating the ministry Christ has given you?

Fourteenth Sunday – Power in Weakness

EZ 2:2-5, PS 123:1-2, 2, 3-4, 2 COR 12:7-10, MK 6:1-6

The theme of our readings this Sunday is “power made perfect in weakness.”  That is the heart of true devotion to Mary.

The Yaroslavi Virgin With Child (15th century, Tretyakov).jpgNow it must be said at the beginning, Scripture is not setting out to lead us to Mary, but to Jesus—and in fact, true Marian devotion leads us always past Mary to Jesus.

Our Gospel has Jesus’s neighbors saying, “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?  And are not his sisters here with us?”  The Gospel’s aim is not to teach us about the perpetual virginity of Mary—in fact, though her perpetual virginity is important, it is not the central thing we need to know about her.

(That said, we read elsewhere about “Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses” (Mt 15:40): half the women in the Gospel seem to be named Mary, but here it appears that James and Joses, the names of Jesus’ first two “brothers,” are children of a woman not identified as the mother of Jesus.  Paul refers to “James the Lord’s brother”: one of the apostles, the James who is not the brother of John but is called “son of Alphaeus,” and who became head of the Church in Jerusalem, was known by his blood relation to Jesus.  But the author of “Jude” (i.e., Judas, the third of the brothers in Mark’s list) calls himself “a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (Jude 1:1), but John’s Gospel seems to refer to the same one of the Twelve as “Judas (not Iscariot)” (Jn 14:22).  Well, the point is, there are a lot of relationships here, and all we can conclude is that it’s not clear who is literally brother to whom.)

The real point is contained in the first line: “Is he not the carpenter?”  The claim they are making is not that Mary has other children.  The claim is that Jesus is one of them, truly man.  God can’t be man!


Revers Poganovo Icon.JPG

Ezekiel’s vision

Our first reading is the opening of Ezekiel.  In chapter one he sees a vision of God’s glory.  Now he is sent to the Israelites, “rebels who have rebelled against me,” in their exile in Babylon.  We see that God’s people often resist his word.  And that he continues to pursue them.  Man is sinful; God seeks out man.

So too, Paul is given “a thorn in the flesh.”  We don’t know what that thorn was: it could be a temptation, a physical malady, maybe an annoying member of his Church.  It doesn’t matter.  God wants to show him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  “When I am weak, then I am strong”—because Christ is my strength.


That’s the point of our Gospel.  Jesus is power in weakness, God in man.  We tend to separate them, as if the choice is between Ezekiel’s divine majesty or his fallen Israel.  But Jesus is both.

The Gospel has some nice touches.  They say, “What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!  Is he not the carpenter?”  A carpenter, of course, works with his hands, to do humble things.  “We know those hands!”  God cannot be in those human hands.

But God is—and the end of the reading says, “He was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.”  A funny line: he couldn’t, except that he did?  Part of the point, at least, is not that he couldn’t do mighty deeds—but that he only did them through those hands.  They reject the humanity of God—and he acts only through it.  Just as Ezekiel’s rebellious house cannot believe that the mighty God comes through such a miserable little prophet.

Jesus “was amazed at their lack of faith.”  We learned last week that Jesus can feel power going out of him, and the other thing the locals cannot believe is his lack of wisdom—so it’s odd that he would be surprised at their lack of faith.  Not much surprises Jesus.

Testa di Cristo redentore.jpgInteresting, though: it also says, “Many who heard him were astonished.”  It isn’t the same word.  That word means something like, “hit with a hammer,” dumbstruck.  The word for Jesus is literally about wonder, about pondering, studying, gazing.  And I don’t want to make too much of a preposition, but Mark doesn’t use the normal preposition for this verb here: Jesus marvels “through” their lack of faith.  He sees right through them, understands them.  He isn’t dumbstruck, he’s wise.


All of this is the true meaning of Mary.  We look to Mary to be dumbstruck that God could become man.  We turn their words inside out, and ourselves marvel: “What kind of wisdom has been given him?  What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!  Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary”—and one of us?

The point of Mary is not that she’s so awesome.  The point is that she is so small, so weak, she lets us see in Jesus Christ the strength of God pouring through human weakness.  God became a baby.  And then, by becoming weak, he made us strong: the Mother of God is holy, because she is full of grace: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Where do you find yourself thinking you need to make up for God’s weakness?