(See the readings for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 25)
God is gracious and good. “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs,” is the response for this Sunday’s liturgy. The providential care of the Lord is regularly at work. Sometimes we recognize it, sometimes we do not. Yet his care for us is ever present. His gifts to us are abundant.
Jesus’ feeding of the large crowd is an example of God’s gracious care. The account of this miraculous feeding is given in all four of the gospels. The details vary in each but common to most is that there is a vast number of people, they are gathered to be with Jesus, they are in a place where food is scarce, there is a minimal supply of bread and some fish, Jesus tells the apostles to provide the food for the people, Jesus prays over the loaves and fishes giving thanks, the food is distributed, all ate until full, and there was an abundance of left overs.
The episode reminds us of Jesus’ concern for the flock he has gathered. His compassion, like the bread and fish, overflows in graciousness. In his great care, he provides.
The miraculous activity finds precedence in God’s saving activity of the past. Perhaps the most memorable example is of the Lord providing manna for the Israelites after they had been freed from Pharaoh and were journeying through the desert. Another example was when the prophet Elijah visited the widow at Zerephath (1 Kings 17:7-16).
You may recall the story. When Elijah arrives at the widow’s house during a famine she is ready to prepare the last meal for she and her son. There is only a handful of flour for a small cake or biscuit. Elijah tells her “Do not be afraid.” He asks her to make the loaf for him and to trust in the Lord’s providence for “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the Lord sends rain on the land.” And it happened.
Another account comes in today’s first reading from 2 Kings. There are similarities between this encounter and the one in the gospel. Someone has barley loaves, there are a lot of people to be fed, no one except Elisha or Jesus knows how the feeding is going to happen, all eat and there are left-overs. The differences between the two accounts help highlight the role of Jesus. Elisha was dealing with 20 barley loaves, Jesus with five. Elisha fed 100 people, Jesus thousands.
While in the 2 Kings account there are “some left-overs” in the gospel there are “twelve wicker baskets full.” The point here is that God’s saving activity in the covenant with Israel is preparing for an even greater revelation of his compassion and care through his Son.
God’s love and mercy are manifest in all these accounts. He sees his people in need. He is moved with compassion and actively provides what they need. The response for today says it well: “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.”
Yet we do see a progression of some magnitude and will continue to see this in the weeks ahead. Jesus comes from the Father. Jesus reveals the Father’s love and mercy, his compassion for and his providential care of his people. He does this not just by what he says or preaches or teaches; not just by what he does but in his very person.
The gospel passage today comes from the Gospel according to John, chapter six. This section of the Fourth Gospel is often referred to as the Bread of Life Discourse. For three of the four following Sundays the readings follow sequentially from this section of the gospel. The greatness of God’s love and mercy become even more manifest and incredible as the weeks go by. Not only does he provide food for the body, he provides food for the soul.
Ultimately, Jesus will offer himself as the Bread of Life. In him, all the needs of humanity are satisfied, and in abundance. And so our response will not only be: “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs;” but “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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