SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
1. Famine memorials retain the power to touch something deep within us. Many parts of the world have monuments to 'An Gorta Mór', the Irish Famine of the 19th century which claimed nearly one million lives. Rowan Gillespie's emaciated carved figures haunt passers-by on Custom House Quay on the banks of the Liffey and the 'Coffin Ship' memorial in County Mayo easily conjures up ghosts of those who were forced to seek some frugal existence across the seas, rather than certain death at home. The Highland Clearances resulted in famine and homelessness, a scar far from obliterated from the Scottish psyche. Other countries have similar traumatic memories. Finland has a number of touching famine memorials e.g. Kirkkotie Churchyard.
Sadly, famine - the tragedy of large numbers of humans suffering from hunger is not just the matter of memory. Many countries are afflicted by famine. Today, in our own relatively affluent nation, many experience hunger, not least very young children. Efforts to remedy this problem meet with varied responses. Perhaps the malicious vandalism of the mural depicting Marcus Rashford was not just anger at a missed penalty, but resentment of his relentless focus on child hunger. On the other hand, the Foodbank in our own town, while sadly, very necessary, is well supported by people who care that their neighbours go hungry.
Vandalised Marcus Rashford Mural
Helensburgh and Lomond Foodbank
2. The First Reading this Sunday is from the Second Book of the Kings (4: 42-44). In the preceding paragraph we are told that there was a famine in Gilgal. The 'brotherhood of the prophets' witnessed the miracle of the poisoned soup and then we move into the short account of the multiplication of the loaves.
'A man came from Baal-shalisha, bringing Elisha twenty barley loaves and fresh grain in the ear.' Elisha insists that this be given to the people - the hungry. Understandably, the servant asks, 'How can I serve this to a hundred men?' Elisha repeats his order, 'Give it to the people to eat', he insisted 'for the Lord says this: "They will eat and have some left over." He served them; they ate and had some left over, as the Lord had said.' (4;43-44)
A convincing sign of the care of God for his people is this account of Elisha bringing God's compassion to bear on those suffering from the effects of that famine.
For us, of course, we see a clear prefiguration of the miracles of Jesus when he multiplies the loaves - on more than one occasion.
Tintoretto: ' Elisha's Multiplication of the Loaves' c. 1577
Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice
4. The scene is simply set: a large crowd of people has been following Jesus. Jesus is concerned for them. Jesus draws his disciples into the drama of the event. He casually asks Philip, 'Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?' (Jn 6;5) The editorial note which follows puts us in the picture: 'He only said this to test Philip; he himself knew exactly what he was going to do.' (6;6 It is important to John to make it clear repeatedly that this Jesus is divine. He is the Son of God.
We then see two very different approaches to the challenge facing them. On the one hand, Philip quite reasonably is exasperated and says basically that six months' work would not give enough money to pay for the amount of bread needed. Andrew would have been similarly stumped, perhaps making the point dramatically shows just how little there is: 'There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fish.' (6;9) Then comes the memorable remark: 'But what is that among so many?' Jesus does not enter into discussion - whether this was a statement of the desperation of the situation, or perhaps being not a little ironic. Instead, he demands a pragmatic response to a situation of need. Hunger needs to be satisfied. Jesus will do just that and our previous exposure to Elisha's actions should prepare us for what is next.
Mosaic showing the multiplication of the loaves
Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
6. We also have to see the sign. We had the benefit of reminding ourselves of what had happened in Elisha's feeding of the crowds. We had the opportunity to see the desperate (cynical?) attitude of the apostles and we have seen Jesus' simple, direct intervention to meet human need head-on. We cannot help but see the eucharistic significance. As eucharistic people, we have a very clear hint that Jesus expects us to follow in his footsteps, not least when we encounter situations of need. Of course, we applaud the work of individuals and charitable groups, but we have to apply ourselves also to the daily challenges of meeting all the various types of hunger that we recognise in those around us: 'Jesus said, 'Give them something to eat yourselves.' (Mk 6;37)
'Coffin Ship' Famine Memorial,
Murrisk, Co. Mayo
'Flight of the Highlanders'
Highland Clearances Monument
Finish Famine Memorial,
"Victims of the Hunger Years Known to God"
Elijah ascending in the fiery chariot leaving his cloak with Elisha.
Carving in the Vatican Railway Station - with shrapnel marks from
'Allied' Bombing on 5th November 1943
3. Over the past weeks we have been following the Gospel of Mark for Year 2 of the Lectionary. This Sunday, however, we move to the Gospel of John. The part of Mark's Gospel that we would have read, is actually his account of the first multiplication of the loaves, but John gives greater detail and so the Lectionary follows that account, to give us as much information as possible.
Exceptionally, each of the four Gospels carries a version of this miracle - Mark actually has two. There are variations in the detail.
Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves, Tabgha
5. Jesus' instructions to the apostles must have tested their faith more than somewhat. He tells them to make the people sit down. (In Mark's version we are told that they sit in prasiai - the Greek word for rows of vegetables. We can imagine 5000 people sitting in these straight rows all along the hillside!) Then we have intentionally eucharistic language: 'Then Jesus too the loaves, gave thanks, and gave them out to all who were sitting ready; he then did the same with the fish, giving out as much as was wanted.' (6;11) If we compare this with the account of the last Supper, we see the similarities. 'Then he took the bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them.... He did the same with the cup....'(Luke 22;19-20)
Our reading of the Elisha miracle prepares us for what happens next. Jesus is careful to tell his apostles to collect the scraps remaining: 'Pick up the pieces left over, so that nothing gets wasted. So they picked them up and filled twelve hampers with the scraps left over from the meal of five barley loaves and two fish.' (6;13) In the account in the Book of Kings, we read: 'They will eat and have some left over. They ate and had some left over as the Lord had said.' (2 Kgs 4; 43-44)
John takes the trouble to underline the point that the people understood what had happened: this was the work of the Messiah. This was a sure sign that Jesus was the Christ:'The people seeing this sign that he had given said, "This surely is the prophet who is to come into the world.'' '(6;14)
So clear is the sign that John tells us that Jesus knew that the crowd were about to take him by force and make him king. So he has to escape back to the hills by himself.
Multiplication of the loaves.
Alabaster, Coenraed Norenberch,1600-13,
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Where to get bread? An ever-pressing question
That trembles on the lips of anxious mothers,
Bread for their families, bread for all these others;
A whole world on the margin of exhaustion.
And where that hunger has been satisfied
Where to get bread? The question still returns
In our abundance something starves and yearns
We crave fulfilment, crave and are denied.
And then comes One who speaks into our needs
Who opens out the secret hopes we cherish
Whose presence calls our hidden hearts to flourish
Whose words unfold in us like living seeds
Come to me, broken, hungry, incomplete,
I Am the Bread of Life, break Me and eat.
Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite
'Parable and Paradox'
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