17th Sunday – Year B (July 29th)
17th Sunday – Year B (July 29th)
Readings: 2 Kings 4: 42-44
Psalm 145: 10-11, 15-18
Ephesians 4: 1-6
John 6: 1-15
Our God is one who feeds the hungry. That is true and important – but we need to be careful, the more so as we shall be spending the next month of Sundays taking up the Church’s invitation to consider what it means to call Jesus the ‘Bread of Life’. For there are two mistakes that we can make with regard to the generosity of God. The first is to assume that God is a God of magic, one who does impossible conjuring tricks, if only we will shout loud enough. The other mistake is to imagine that God is in it for the money, or feeds us for any other reason than that God loves us. The mark of God’s generosity is that it cannot be forced by anything that we do, and that it demands no recompense.
The first reading tells the story of a present that was given to Elisha, the rather disconcerting ‘man of God’ who succeeded Elijah. The source of the present is Baal-Shalishah, which is just the name of a place; but a Hebrew reader would have noticed that the place carried the name of the pagan Canaanite deity whom Israel was supposed to avoid like the plague. So there is already something of a question-mark hanging over our heads as we listen. Soon there comes another, as we are told that Elisha gives instructions: ‘Give it to the people, and they shall eat’. We already know that there are only twenty barley-loaves, and we share the reservation of Elisha’s servant who asks ‘Why give this to a hundred men?’ However Elisha is dependent on God: ‘Thus says YHWH – “eat and be satisfied”.’ Inevitably it happens: ‘They ate, and were satisfied, in accordance with YHWH’s word’. And it is all effortless, and no payment is required. That is how God works.
The psalm knows this well: ‘All your creatures shall praise you, YHWH, and your loved ones shall bless you’. The point of it all is the unfailing generosity of God, to which our only possible response is grateful singing: ‘They shall speak of your kingship; they shall proclaim your greatness’. The rest of the psalm may be familiar to you as grace before meals; it is often so used in Benedictine monasteries, and you could do worse than recite it gratefully the next time that you eat.
The second reading is quite clear that faith in God does not entail being magically spirited out of all possible inconveniences, for the author is in prison, and uses that grim fact, not to arouse sympathy, but to encourage his addressees to be united, in response to God’s spirit ‘in the chains of peace’, as he puts it, punning on the fact of his incarceration. ‘One Body, one Spirit’, because there is only, and above all, ‘One God and Father of all’. These are words to reflect on prayerfully this week.
The gospel is John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus had planned a private session of teaching for his disciples, but was unable to proceed because of the crowd, and (at nearly Passover time) they need to be fed. So he sets a little trap for Philip, about how to buy loaves of bread. Philip thinks of a large sum of money and doubles it, and proves it’s impossible. This becomes clearer when they inspect the available resources: ‘five barley loaves and two fishes’. Effortlessly Jesus gives his instructions, takes the loaves, ‘gives thanks’ (perhaps that is the most important thing here) – and not only were they all ‘sated’, but they filled ‘twelve baskets of fragments’ with the leftovers. There is, of course, no charge. But the people ‘saw the sign’, and got it wrong. The sign was simply an indicator of the truth about Jesus. But they could only grasp it in terms of a power game. So Jesus, ‘knowing that they were going to come and kidnap him to make him king’, beat a hasty retreat. God’s generosity to the hungry (and we are all hungry) is beyond anything that we can imagine.