Sunday Scripture: Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

This is the second of my posts talking about the theology of the Sunday readings. This post relates to the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). If you want to know how and why this came about, please read the first post here.

This Sunday is the feast of St. Martha of Bethany and also  the third anniversary of my daughter Ruth's death on 29th July 2009. It is a difficult day and we always go to Mass and listen carefully to what God is telling us through sacred Scripture.

The theme this Sunday could best be described as:

The Bread of Life

The readings are:

  • First Reading: 2 Kings 4: 42-44
  • Psalm: 144: 10-11, 15-18; Response: v. 16.
  • Second Reading: Ephesians 4: 1-6
  • Gospel: John 6: 1-15
First, a little preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them.

2 Kings is the second part of the Deuteronomist's chronicle of the rueful story of Israel's decline from the height of magnificence under Solomon to the depths of ruin in the Exile. Everything that Solomon constructs in the beginning, the Babylonians destroy in the end. The books are the fourth part of what tradition calls the Former Prophets (Josh, Judges, 1-2 Sam, 1-2 Kgs). In fact the division between Sam and Kgs is arbitrary and varies in ancient manuscripts. There is a simple three stage chronology to the two books: 1). The reign of Solomon (1 Kgs 1-11); 2). The kingdom divided into Judah and Israel (1 Kgs 12 to 2 Kgs 17); and 3). the kingdom of Judah (2 Kgs 18-25). It's not just a monotonous chronicle however, the Deuteronomist redactors chose what to emphasise. For example, they devoted fourteen chapters in the middle of their text (1 Kgs 16:23 to 2 Kgs 8:24) to the dynasty of Omri in Israel (884-841 B.C.) while dedicating only a few lines to each of the forty-year reigns of Jehoash (835-796 B.C.) and Manasseh (687-642 B.C.) in Judah (2 Kgs 12:1-22' 21:1-18). This is not because they were particularly interested in the Omirides however, the text is carefully arranged so as to make the missions of Elijah and Elisha the centrepiece of the whole work (1 Kgs 17 to 2 Kgs 13:21). Prophecy is in fact the key for unlocking the treasure-house of God's purposes in history; this is not a social or political history, so much as a theological one.

Kings brings us to a climax in our search for an answer to the question dominating the whole Deuteronomic History: "Why did God allow the Assyrians to destroy Israel and then the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple?" We can grasp the response of the sacred authors by focusing on three themes that form the primary undercurrents of Kings:

1. The mission of kingship
2. The importance of the Temple; and
3. The role of prophecy.

Our reading this week concerns the prophet Elisha's multiplication of bread.

Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.

Ephesians, as we saw with the last post, was traditionally accepted to have been a letter written by St. Paul. He twice identifies himself thus (1:1 and 3:1). However it's authorship was first questioned by Erasmus of Rotterdam in the sixteenth century and since then there has been much dialogue regarding this matter. Today it is widely accepted that Ephesians was written in Paul's name by one of his disciples who wished to honour the apostle by developing his doctrine and applying it to new situations in the Church. Indeed Ephesians is the most doctrinal of all the Pauline corpus. The letter is dated either early 60's (if you believe Paul wrote it), or late 90's. It constitutes Paul's mystagogical catechesis for the newly baptised, its towering theme is the "mystery" of Jesus Christ once concealed but now revealed (1:9; 3:4; 9). The mystery is the divine plan of vocation and predestination, redemption, and the recapitulation of all things in Christ.

The Gospel According to St. John is deep. It was the last one written, it used to be thought in the second century, but recent fragments were dated at 120 A.D. from Egypt, which means the Gospel had to have been written for some time by then, in order to have circulated so far away from Asia Minor (from modern Greece all the way to Africa). Some have argued for a date as early as 60 A.D. due to description of the sheep gate of Jerusalem in the present tense ("there is...") which was destroyed by the Roman sacking in 70 A.D. I think this Gospel was written by the beloved disciple, John, one of the sons of Zebedee (Mt 4:21) for lots of reasons. I think he thought long and hard about what had happened and then wrote this incredible account, so rich in detail and deep in theological significance. Known as the spiritual Gospel in the ancient Church, this is a book of magnificent beauty & artistry. The richness of its expression and imagery has made it one of the most celebrated books in Christian history. Much of it is dedicated to the heavenly identity and mission of Jesus, perhaps the master key that unlocks the Gospel as a whole is the revelation of God as a family. Nearly every chapter is marked by familial language that explains the inner life of God as well as our relation to God through the grace of divine generation.

The divine family of God revealed as Father, Son and Spirit is the towering mystery of the Fourth Gospel. The heart of Jesus' message is that the children of men are invited to become the children of God (1:12). This new life begins with a spiritual rebirth in Baptism (3:5) and is sustained as the Father nourishes us with divine food and drink (6:32, 51; 7:37-39), educates us in the truth (8:31-32; 16:13), and protects us from spiritual danger (17:15). Christ models the life of divine Sonship to perfection (13:15), showing us how to worship the Father (4:23-26), how to obey his commandments (15:10), and how to love our spiritual siblings (13:34). We are not left orphans (14:18) after Christ returns to the Father (20:17) because his presence dwells with us and even within us (14:17-18, 23). Our full union with the Trinity awaits only the coming of Jesus Christ, who will return in glory to escort the children of God into the house of their heavenly Father (14:2-3).

Drawing them all together:

This Sunday we jump to John's Gospel and begin a wonderful catechesis on the Bread of Life. The Gospel story this week is the multiplication of the loaves, the only miracle, besides the Resurrection, that is recorded in all four Gospels (c.f. Mt 14:13-21; Mk 6:32-44; Lk 9:10b-17). Matthew and Mark tell of an additional feeding of four thousand (c.f. Mt 15:32-39; Mk 8:1-9). In order to properly grasp what is being taught here it is useful to understand that the account in John forms the preface to Jesus' extensive discourse on the "bread of life" in 6:35-59, the masterclass on the Eucharist. We are going to be hearing quite a bit about this in the coming weeks. John 6 begins with the hunger of the people who have been listening to Jesus—He does not send them away empty, but feeds them with the "necessary bread" that we require in order to live. But Jesus doesn't stop with satisfying their physical, biological, material needs. The miraculously multiplied bread draws the reader back to the miracle of manna in the desert, while simultaneously pointing beyond itself to the fact that man's real food is the Logos, the eternal Word, the eternal meaning, from which we come and toward which our lives are directed.

In fact, this entire chapter is centred upon the contrast between Moses and Jesus. This is why we read "This is indeed the prophet who has come into the world!" (Jn 6:14) between the multiplication of the loaves and the attempt to make Jesus king. This background allows us to understand the greater depth in Jesus words on the bread of life: it is to fulfil Deuteronomy 18:18, when Moses foretells the coming of Jesus: "I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him". The miracle of multiplication calls to the people's memory of the great gift of the manna in the desert. Moses gave bread from heaven; God Himself fed the wandering people of Israel with heavenly bread. Moses could only bring God's word to men because he spoke face to face with God, "as a man speaks to his friend" (Ex 33:11; c.f. Deut 34:10). Of course Moses wasn't allowed to see God's face (Ex 33:18; 22 f.) his limits are clear. However, at the end of John's prologue, we learn that "No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (Jn 1:18). Only the one who is God sees God—Jesus. If Moses only showed us God's back, Jesus, by contrast, is the Word that comes from God, from a living vision of Him, from unity with Him.

Bread is ever-present in our lives and in the life of the world. Everyone eats it daily, and whether a basic load of some wonderful product of an exotic bakery, we need it and love it. Some have nothing else to eat: it is the very staff of their lives. In the Bible it is also ever-recurrent: it is mentioned 287 times in the Old Testament, and 95 times in the New Testament. Jesus teaches us to pray daily for it in the fourth petition of the Our Father, as the central symbol of our existence. He is inviting us to pray for our food and thus turn our care over to God ("Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat"—Mt 6:25). "Daily" in this petition renders the Greek word epiousious which has been interpreted in an eschatological sense to mean bread for future days. This means that the petition for bread is in anticipation of the world to come, asking the Lord to give already "today" the future bread, the bread of the new world—Himself. St. Jerome's Vulgate translation of the original Koine Greek into Latin hints at this meaning by translating epiousious as supersubstantialis (i.e. super-substantial), thus pointing toward the new, higher "substance" that the Lord gives us in the Holy Sacrament as the true bread of our life. Indeed, the Early Fathers of the Church all saw the fourth petition as Eucharistic.

This is the theme that the readings today focus on, stressing that it is of enduring significance to our faith. Each of the stories follows the same pattern of the holy one making God's presence felt in the provision of nourishment. Famine and hunger are staved off in ancient times because of the approach and compassionate response of Elisha: "He served them, and they ate and had some left over." Elisha's dialogue with his servant prior to multiplying the bread for the man from Baal Shalishah echoes through Jesus' conversation with His disciples prior to His feeding of the five thousand. The Gospel tells us of Jesus' concern for the people who have been following Him, hungry to hear His words. His love extends also to their physical needs. The miraculous act of feeding the five thousand shows concern, compassion, generosity—and indeed, saving power.

Both the stories of Elisha and Jesus bear witness to salvation at work, and the words and actions alert us to the dynamics of God's plan, and the nature of His love. The Psalm makes this clear, and in wonderful poetry tells us of God's character, shows us the place of the individual in the marvels of creation and salvation. "The eyes of all creatures look to you and you give them their food in due time. You open wide your hand, grant the desires of all who live." The bread stories introduce us to the spiritual implications if this use of bread: the central focus of the Eucharist in the liturgy. This bread links us to the God who provides: He gives the fruits of the earth; He gives Himself as the Bread of Life. All who partake become part of His saving Death and Resurrection, made one with each other in sharing of the same bread. Even if in looking at the world in all its sorrow and injustice, we may be tempted to see these stories as wish fulfilment, the witness of Paul directs us to reflect accurately, making the unity of the Spirit the towering theme of 4: 1-16. Although a prisoner, he saw the marvel of God's saving plan, and his instructions to selfless generosity are born out of our participation in the mystery of the Bread of Life and the unity of the Spirit we have as children of the one Father. Because believers are baptised into one body (1 Cor 12:13), their union is displayed in the oneness of the faith (creed), life (code), and sacramental worship (cult). The Church is equipped to preserve this unity through the hierarchical leadership appointed by Christ (Eph 4:11-12). Paul's vision of a unified Church mirrors that of Jesus in Jn 17: 6-26 (CCC 172-73, 814).

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