Year B: Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The story of the “Loaves and Fishes” or the “Feeding of the Multitudes” appears six times in the Gospels. We see it twice in Matthew, twice in Mark, once in Luke and again in the Gospel of John. As we have seen, the Gospel of Mark is the primary focus of the Cycle B readings. However, because Mark is the shortest of the Synoptic Gospels, we read some of John’s Gospel during Cycle B as well.

 Multiplication of the Loaves

John 6: 1-15

After this, Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee [of Tiberias].  A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. The Jewish feast of Passover was near.  When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people recline.” Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So, the men reclined, about five thousand in number. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.”  So, they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat. When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.” Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Jesus is always integrating the physical and spiritual dimensions of life. Have you experienced events that for you, were clear signs of God’s power and presence in your life? If yes, has that experience continued to “spiritually” sustain or feed you? In what ways?
  2. Material gifts diminish with use and spiritual gifts multiply with use. Where have you seen spiritual gifts multiply as you put them to use in your life?
  3. In what ways do you “feed the hungry?” Where do you find opportunities to feed the hungry either relationally or literally?
  4. Do you tend to look at life through a lens of abundance or scarcity? What do you think shapes this view?

Biblical Context

John 6:1-15
Carol Dempsey OP

The 2 Kings narrative sets the stage for John’s Gospel that features Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five barley loaves and two fish. Seeing the crowds gathering around him, Jesus expresses his desire to feed all the people. In contrast to the synoptic accounts of this story (Matthew 15:33; Mark 6:37; 8:4), Jesus takes the initiative. By posing a simple yet rhetorical question to Philip, he advances his concern for the people: “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” (John 6:5). Jesus’ question is similar to the one Moses asked of God in the desert (Numbers 11:13).

The notion of Jesus’ question being a ploy to test Philip, followed by the statement that Jesus knew what he was going to do, is a comment made by the Gospel writer who seems to be providing some sort of analysis of the situation at hand. Such comments tend to muddle the essential story rather than providing clarity. Jesus’ question to Philip is a genuine one. Philip’s response to Jesus is also genuine. The crowd is vast. Feeding everyone is humanly and financially impossible.

Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, offers a possibility, but even five barley loaves and two fish will not be sufficient to feed the crowd. Interestingly, both of today’s passages from 2 Kings and John mention the same kind of bread. Elisha’s servant fed 120 people; now Jesus will feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish.

Once again, because the people share, scarcity becomes abundance and mindfulness guards against overconsumption. After feeding everyone and always wanting to stay “under the wire” in order to continue his mission and ministry, Jesus retreats to the mountain. In the biblical world, mountains are frequent places of solace, solitude, prayer and the encounter with God.

This Sunday’s readings remind us that we live in a world of abundance. When the global human community learns to share and embrace a life of virtue, maybe then world hunger can be eradicated. Such “miracles” happened once; they can happen again.

Restoring Our Soul

John Shea

I have been told of a tombstone that simply reads” “It’s always something. And it always is. Our barn burns down; the job offer arrives, but it means moving to another city; our taxes are raised at the same time as our salary is reduced; our son calls at one in the morning from the police station; our spouse is suddenly sad and cannot explain; our doctor’s office calls and leaves a message on the answering machine that they want to redo the blood test—and on, and on, and on. Indeed, life may be quiet, but we always add, quite sure of our foresight, that it is a quiet before the storm.

When we face challenges, we instinctively reach for the resources we need. Usually this means marshalling finances and networking with fellow workers, fellow sufferers, and friends. When it is appropriate and serious enough, we go “the whole nine yards” and reach into the spiritual realm. We expect help from God and/or the collective prayers of others. Emails regularly arrive with requests for prayers. What the Spirit is supposed to do is often spelled out in precise detail. But what exactly is spiritual help?

Although we tell ourselves it won’t happen, sometime, we hope against hope and expect divine intervention. This does not have to be an angelic revelation or even a full-blown theophany. It can be a behind-the-scenes manipulation of events. When things suddenly shift and go in our favor, we have no problem in saying, “Thank God!’ Sometimes it is just a religious knee-jerk reaction, but other times it is a genuine conviction that the Great Puppeteer was at work.  Spiritual help is construed as an outside agent changing the outer flow of events. As long as we feel helpless in the face of “it’s always some- thing,” we will seek greater powers to get things done.

However, spiritual help may not be directly about problem solving, about effectively engaging “it’s always something.” It may be directly about restoring a foundational disconnect. We are always out of touch with our souls to some degree. Spiritual help reestablishes this connection. Once we are situated more fully in the home of our soul, we can engage “it’s always something” with more thorough comprehension and more sustained will.

When we are each restored to our soul, our potential for handling ‘it’s always something” is maximized. But, according to the suggestion hidden in the story of the loaves and the fishes, the maximizing effect is incremental. It begins by taking what soul consciousness we have, however immature and undeveloped. Then we acknowledge the groundedness of our soul in the Source and open to its influence. This allows the qualities of the Source to pass through our souls into our intellect, will, and affections. Now our actions are soul informed. In symbolic language, we are now distributing our loaves and fishes. With each distribution more Spirit is released. Since it is the nature of Spirit to give itself, it grows and becomes more fully present in mind, will, and affections. Therefore, the first action unfolds into a second, the second into a third, and on and on. As Lao Tzu says about the Spirit, when you draw upon it, it is inexhaustible” (Tao Teh Ching)

Our soul is restored by exercise. With each exercise, its influence multiplies. Since it is our true identity, we feel satisfied. We need not worry about scarcity. There is no scarcity in the Spirit (John 3:34). We should be thankful to all the disciples who gathered up the abundant fragments. Otherwise, we may have forgotten how to cooperate with the Source who is restoring our soul.


Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.