(Year B, Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2018; Gospel Reading from John 6:1-15)
“Jesus said, ‘Have the people sit down.’ Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted.”
– John 6:10-11 (ESV)
The miracle recorded in this Gospel reading is the only one aside from the Resurrection that is recorded in all four Gospel accounts. This is notable, since the Apostle John in the rest of his Gospel seems almost to take great pains to not mention miracles worked by Jesus that are recounted in any of the other three canonical Gospel accounts. In fact, the only other one that is written about outside of John (in Matthew and Mark) is Jesus walking on water.
Why is this? A reader of John’s Gospel will note pretty quickly that it is very different in style from the other three Gospels. Whereas Matthew and Luke start off with accounts of the nativity, and Mark jumps straight into Jesus’ ministry, John talks about the Incarnation, explicitly saying that Jesus “was with God and was God.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke recount Jesus’ parables in an effort to communicate the hidden wisdom God intended to reveal to those whose eyes and ears and heart were opened; John’s Gospel contains seven “I am” statements, intended to get Jewish readers to recall the name of God told to Moses: “I AM THAT I AM.” Where Matthew, Mark, and Luke are focused on Jesus’ actions and what he did and what he said, John is intent on what it means.
So why is it that John records this miracle when he leaves out most of the others? In John’s Gospel, all miraculous works are signposts to reveal the hidden truth about who Jesus is as not just a prophet, but as the Word of God Himself. In contrast, miracles in the other three Gospels reveal in general terms the authority and power given to Jesus to do wondrous things (again, the difference between “what happened” in the synoptics, and “what it means” in John). For John to record a miracle meant that it had significance in revealing the Messianic character of Jesus. In my thoughts, these may have been the miracles that John himself, when looking back on his time as Jesus’ disciple and then Apostle, was most impacted by in coming to his conclusions about and faith in Jesus as the Son of God.
The revelation of what the feeding of the five thousand means in terms of Jesus’ messianic character actually comes later in chapter 6, after the end of the reading. One of the seven “I am” statements recorded in John is “I am the bread of life” and is said after the crowds who had been fed come looking for Jesus and asking – somewhat surprisingly – for a sign so that they would believe his teachings. They seemed to think that receiving bread from a prophet was just something that disciples of a prophet were supposed to expect, citing their fathers’ receipt of manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:4, 15). Jesus reveals to them that he is something greater than manna – not the miraculous provision of food, but he himself is the true bread.
In all of the accounts of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, the Gospel writers use language that make it clear that the multitude didn’t just get a subsistence portion – Matthew says “they were filled,” John says they ate “as much as they wanted.” The miracles in John’s Gospel seem to serve the same purpose as the parables of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Just as what was a meager portion was turned into an abundance, the man who was described as “meek and lowly of heart” is in reality the Word of God that sustains and gives life and meaning to the Creation. Additionally, this miracle, I think, is a prefiguring of the Eucharistic feast. As mentioned above, this miracle leads to a teaching moment where Jesus reveals that he is the Bread of Life. The imperfect (meaning, incomplete, not fully realized) miracle of manna was made complete not by a bigger banquet of choice foods, but by the Bread of Life being given freely to any who believe in Him.
Aside from the theological import, this miracle shows us the depth of God’s care for His Creation. In Matthew’s account, it says that Jesus had compassion on the multitude, and that was his motive for feeding them from the loaves and fishes. The story of God’s actions on behalf of His people is steeped in accounts of His Providence (which itself is rooted in God’s quality of being Gracious). This provision is presented in one of two basic ways – either by removing a need or an obstacle or by fulfilling a need, sometimes beyond what was needed in a way that forces the recipient to goggle and renders the recipient speechless at what has been given. When either of these are accomplished by means that defy possibility, you have a miracle.
I encourage you to think about the multitude this week as you face your individual daily trials and obstacles and needs. Think about what it would be like to be just one in a sea of people and starting to all get hungry. Remember that even though they were in a remote, barren place, Jesus not only was able to feed them, he wanted to feed them. This is the God we serve and love and worship: one who is not just powerful but is also loving and compassionate.
Grace and peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.