17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – 25th July 2021 — Gospel: John 6,1-15
Liberator Par Excellence
The multiplication story begins with a chronological indication of the feast of the Passover at hand (Jn 6,4). This is not a piece of information, but a highlight of the theological significance of this episode. The evangelist wants this passage to be read in the context of the grand celebration of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. In this context, John emphasizes repeatedly that Jesus is the New Moses. In chapter 5, Jesus complains that his opponents did not understand what Moses had written (Jn 5,39-47). This is a shallow and superficial understanding of Moses. Now chapter 6 intends to show a deeper and fuller understanding of Jesus in relation to Moses. That’s why, John, describes that these events are taking place at Passover, one of the great events associated with Moses. For the Passover was a festival of national liberation from a foreign oppressor. The crowds see Jesus as a liberator and in revolution they want to make him king.
John draws the parallel between the multiplication of the loaves and the event of the Exodus. The events of supernatural feeding and of salvation from the sea are joined together, just as the crossing of the sea and the manna in the wilderness were part of the story of Moses. Jesus, like Moses, is crossing the sea (Jn 6,1) and it is to be noted that there is no boat just like in the Exodus. Like Moses, Jesus is accompanied by numerous people and wins their trust by performing great signs (Jn 6,2). Crowds follow both because of the signs they have seen. It is interesting that, while Moses prophesied and won over the plagues, Jesus produced abundance and healing. Just as Moses was on the mountain and often taught his people, twice Jesus goes up to the mountain and sits down with his disciples (Jn 6,3 & 15). It is on the mountain that Moses and Jesus had their personal experience with God. There is “testing” here (Jn 6,6), as there was in Exodus (Ex 16,4).
Like Moses, Jesus fed the multitude in the wilderness with one important difference. When Moses asked God, “Where am I to get meat to give to all these people?” (Num 11,13), Moses genuinely wanted to know. In contrast, when Jesus asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” (Jn 6,5), Jesus’ question is rhetorical, for “he himself knew what he was going to do” (Jn 6,6). Moses needed God to provide the people with food; Jesus knew he would provide it.
Jesus commands that the pieces be gathered up so that nothing is wasted, just as Moses commanded in Exodus (Ex 16,19). When the Israelites attempted to store the leftover manna, it perished. But the abundance Jesus provides remains available. At the end, the crowd acclaims Jesus as “the prophet, the one who is to come into the world” (Jn 6,14). The crowds see Jesus as a kind of Moses, but they do not see beyond that. Jesus is a Moses-like figure that fulfils prophetic reference: “I shall raise a prophet from their midst” (Deut 18,18). When the Samaritan woman is confronted with the profundity of Jesus, she also acknowledges Him as a prophet (Jn 4,19).
The narrative of the multiplication of loaves is not about bread, or of the eucharist, rather it is about who Jesus is. And John uses Moses as a reference point for this revelation and proclaims the greatness of Jesus by recalling the greatness of Moses. Jesus, as the new Moses, begins with humanity, a new departure, a passage from slavery to freedom, from an unsustainable and inhumane condition to real life, from nothingness to abundance. The goal of the journey of Moses was the land of Canaan – land flowing with milk and honey, that of Jesus is the true promised land, the kingdom of God in which – as the prophets announced – all will have abundant and free food (Is 25,6).