Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ 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?’ 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. 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.
In Christian art, angels are depicted with wings; they are imagined sitting in the air. But we belong on the earth; we sit on the ground. In today’s gospel passage Jesus invited the people to sit on the ground.
Sitting on the ground is a symbol of poverty and powerlessness; it means we have no illusions of grandeur. We don’t often sit on the ground nowadays, and almost never at Mass. But when we are at Mass we are spiritually those disciples in today’s reading, sitting on the ground in humility and simplicity, sharing our poverty and (because of it) sharing the Lord's gift. Miracles seem to happen in situations of scarcity rather than plenty. Where there is plenty there is no need of miracles. Where there is plenty you don't have to struggle, you don't have to come up against realities too painfully, you just ease your way through with a cheque book. But in the story those people had almost nothing. There were only five loaves to feed thousands. John says they were barley loaves. This was the cheapest kind of bread; in fact barley was really considered animal-feed. It is only the very poor who would eat barley loaves.
The miracle is that some kind of abundance came from that poverty. This is not the crude ‘gospel of prosperity’ that you sometimes hear from radio and television preachers. No, John would be sickened by such an interpretation. He is not talking about business, but about the Eucharist. Whatever divides us from one another (greed, self-sufficiency, illusions of grandeur) divides us also from God and God's gift.
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