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17th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Ages 9-12): Counting the Signs

Updated: Jul 25, 2021

(Begin by reading the Gospel. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)

In the Gospel reading last week, Jesus has compassion on the crowd of people. He sees their need for a shepherd, their desire to be led. He begins to teach them. We know he loves to teach people about the Kingdom of God. His vision of the Kingdom--God's vision--is so beautiful, so desirable, that the people want more. They hunger for the Kingdom. So Jesus shows them more.

Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.

We could read this account like a newspaper article written by St. John. He tells us where this account takes place: up the mountain. He tells us who this account is about: Jesus sitting with his disciples. He tells us when this account takes place: near the celebration of the Passover, the most holy meal of the Jewish people. But St. John does not tell us the why of the account. St. John thinks we can read the signs.

Photo by Adam Kring on Unsplash

What is the sign of the mountain? In the Bible, when people go up a mountain, they have an encounter with God. We will have to consider how this account is an encounter with God.

What is the sign of Jesus sitting down with his disciples? In ancient times, this is what learning looks like. Students do not learn from teachers in schools. Instead, they sit down and listen at the teacher's feet. On the mountain, sitting down with him, listening to Jesus teach--is this the encounter with God? We notice that in this account, Jesus does not teach with words. Yet still, we listen for what we are being taught.

What is the sign of the Passover festival? The Passover is the celebration of the saving action of God in the history of the Jewish people. It is the most holy meal recalling the moment when God saves the twelve tribes of Israel from slavery, gives them the Word, and feeds them with manna in the desert. It recalls the beginning of the covenant between God and the newly formed Chosen people of God. Celebrating the saving action of God in the past allows the Jewish people to live the moment in the present, and look forward to the moment when God's saving action is complete. In some way, the Passover festival itself is an encounter with God.

When Jesus looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” ...Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

There are a number of strange things happening here. First, Jesus asks a strange question. When he sees the large crowd, why does Jesus ask where they are to buy bread for them? Apparently, Jesus wants to feed the people. He must believe that the people are hungry. How does he know that they have not eaten? How does he know that they do not have food of their own? And why on earth does he feel that it is his responsibility to feed all these people?

The other strange thing is Philip's response. We notice that he does not answer Jesus' question. Jesus asks where are they to buy bread, but Philip answers a different question. Philip answers the question, "How much would it cost to buy bread for these people?" He answers the question, "Do we have enough to buy bread for these people?" He answers the question, "Is it possible to feed all these people enough?" And Philip's answer is no. No way. Not going to happen.

Perhaps the unanswered question is also a sign.

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

Andrew does not answer the question either. He points out that there is a ridiculously small amount of food available. Obviously, five loaves and two fish are not enough to feed a crowd of people. We wonder why Andrew even bothers to mention them. It is almost as if he is pointing out the impossibility of feeding so many people.

Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.

This may also be a sign. When St. John says that Jesus tells the disciples to make the people sit down, he uses the Greek word anapesein. This word describes people sitting down to eat. It is the same word used to describe what Jesus and the disciples do at the Last Supper when they sit down to celebrate the Passover. We have to wonder if St. John wants us thinking about holy meals. In any case, we can tell that Jesus is preparing to feed the many people, even though Philip and Andrew agree that it is impossible.

Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

Everyone who comes, everyone who sits down to eat--everyone gets bread, and everyone gets fish. Everyone eats until there is no more hunger.

When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

It seemed obvious that there was too little, that there was not enough, that feeding the people was impossible, but now everyone is fed and there is food leftover. In one sense, it is true that there is not enough; indeed, there is more than enough! There is an abundance of food.

Not only an abundance, but twelve baskets full. We imagine that each of the twelve apostles went about collecting the leftovers into a basket. But we also know that twelve is a number rich in meaning in the Bible. God saves all twelve tribes of Israel from slavery, gives them the Word, and feeds them with manna in the desert. God makes the covenant with all twelve tribes, making them the newly formed Chosen people of God. All twelve together suggests unity, it suggests wholeness--something complete.

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

We would say that this is a miracle. The people know they have seen a sign. That is what miracles are--signs of the Kingdom of God. But which sign have the people seen? There have been so many! Let's go back and review the signs written in bold.

There is the sign of everyone fed, and no more hunger.

There is the sign of not enough becoming an abundance.

There is the sign of 12, of unity, wholeness.

These are the signs of the Kingdom of God complete. This is the vision of God.

There is also the sign of the holy meal,

the sign of listening to Jesus teach,

the sign of a saving action of God.

These are the signs of an encounter with God.

But what are all these signs pointing to?

There are two other signs written in bold. The sign of the unanswered question, and the sign of "when he had given thanks". We have not thought about this last one yet. The Greek word that St. John uses here is eucharistēsas. We know this word. Eucharist.

Photo by Sylvain Brison on Unsplash

“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” At the Eucharist,

at the holy meal,

where we listen to Jesus teach,

where we participate in a saving action of God.

At the Eucharist, where we encounter God.

“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” At the Eucharist,

when everyone is fed,

and we look forward to a time when there is no more hunger,

a time of abundance,

a time of unity, wholeness, when the Kingdom of God is complete.

“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” At the Eucharist,

that beautiful, desirable vision of God.

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