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?


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