This little story from the Elisha cycle is not widely known, but it has become quite important in recent New Testament scholarship because it provides the literary prototype of the miraculous feedings in the Gospels.
The pattern of the feeding narratives is largely the same: (1) food is brought to the man of God; (2) the amount of the food is specified; (3) it is objected that the quantity is inadequate; (4) behaving as master of the situation, the man of God ignores the objection and commands that the food be distributed; (5) the crowd not only have enough to eat but there is some left over.
Responsorial Psalm: 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18
Psalm 145 is used quite frequently as a responsorial psalm, but this is the only time this particular selection of verses is used on a Sunday. The second stanza obviously connects with the Old Testament reading and the Gospel, and the common theme of both is further underlined in the refrain.
In accordance with common critical opinion, we take Ephesians to be the work of a second-generation Paulinist thoroughly steeped in the Apostle’s teaching.
There is a close connection, however, between the two parts of the document. The first part sets forth the unity of Jew and Gentile in the one body, providing a look back at the achievement of the Apostle himself, while the parenesis begins with an exhortation to unity.
But the exhortation to unity leads back into a further reminder of the theological grounds for the appeal. The “ought” is based on an “is.”
There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all Christians, and therefore the writer, speaking in the Apostle’s name, can exhort his readers to be what they are. As in Paul himself, the imperative rests upon an indicative.
Unity is both a gift and a task (German: Gabe and Aufgabe). The imperative to unity is therefore like the imperative to individual sanctification: “Become what you are.”
As we have seen, part of the background for this familiar story is provided in the less familiar story about Elisha. The same points that we enumerated in the Elisha story reappear in the Johannine feeding and provide the basic framework for the narrative.
But there are other motifs in John, such as the Eucharist and the eschatological or messianic banquet. Note the acts of Jesus: took, gave thanks (the Hellenistic equivalent of “blessed,” which Mark still preserves in one place), distributed.
And when the text says that the people were filled, we have a word that is used elsewhere for the repletion of the messianic banquet.
In the ensuing discourse in the synagogue at Capernaum (see next Sunday’s reading), the evangelist develops yet another aspect of the symbolism of this story, namely, the Moses/manna typology. But this typology is scarcely evident in the story itself as John received it from his tradition.
The concluding verse appears to enshrine a genuine historical reminiscence not recorded in the Synoptists. It is impossible to ascertain precisely what happened in the feeding, but it is clear from all the Gospel accounts that it represented a crisis in the Lord’s ministry.
We know that at some stage Jesus broke off his Galilean ministry and went to Jerusalem, and in all the Gospels the feeding is a pivotal point in the narrative. This shows that its central position is due not merely to Mark’s arrangement but goes back to earlier tradition.
In Mark’s first version of the feeding, we are told that Jesus packed the disciples off in a boat while he dismissed the crowd. The reason for this becomes clear in John’s note here: it was to prevent the disciples from being infected by the dangerous nationalistic messianic enthusiasm of the crowd.