When running for election or trying to become more popular when in office, some politicians like to present themselves as being in touch with the lives of ordinary people. So, for instance, they might take part in an easy interview for a popular magazine and carefully staged photographs of taking part in or helping with a family meal, or playing with their children or doing something else. However, sometimes, the project can backfire. Remember ‘Two Kitchens’ Ed Miliband? An affair may later come to light or they fail to know the cost of a basic household item – like the cost of a litre of long-life milk in Aldi, or a tin of baked beans in Lidl, or their favourite sourdough loaf from Waitrose … and from then on the good they do is overshadowed by this embarrassing gaffe.
According to one Scripture commentator – John J Pilch – the early Christians had a similar toe-curling moment of embarrassment when they heard of Jesus asking Philip “Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?” Evidently, Jesus should have known this but didn’t. The embarrassment, Pilch says, was felt by early Christians so much that a later [editorial] comment was added: “He only said this to test Philip; he himself knew exactly what he was going to do”. Hmm …
If this is true, we might ask how Jesus could not know such a basic thing as where to buy bread and, perhaps, the cost of the bread as well. Although St John does not mention it here, the other Gospels record that several women disciples of Jesus provided for him “out of their own resources”. So it quite reasonable to suggest that, this being the case, Jesus – an itinerant preacher, with no obvious source of income and who described himself ‘having no place to lay his head’ – was a ‘kept man’ by these women. Their care and support of him made possible his ministry. So while it might be true in some cases that ‘behind every good man is a woman’, in this episode we might say: ‘behind every good man is a woman rolling her eyes.’
The bread that Jesus eventually blessed and distributed was made from barley. Back then barley was the most common grain used for bread. As a crop it could survive extreme heat and water shortages better that wheat (from which most of our bread is made today). It also could ripen quicker. As it was the cheapest and most plentiful, it was considered as the bread of the poor, their primary form of daily nourishment. The same bread would have been used by Elisha story in the First Reading, in both events it being the equivalent of today’s cheapest basic plain white loaf. The fish was probably the most common type of edible fish in the Sea of Galilee, very like tilapia (also known as St Peter’s Fish) that we can buy today and which is cheaper than other white fish. And, more than likely, it wasn’t fresh but preserved as the event took place inland.
For the next four weeks the Gospel each Sunday will consider what this feeding of the 5,000 meant at the time and how it was presented to early Christians. In John’s Gospel it is the fourth of seven ‘signs’ Jesus gives to reveal his identity and is described there in the style of the Prophet Elisha doing something similar in the First Reading.
In this sign given by Jesus, the common and cheapest food of his time for poor people is used by him to teach that just as it sustains them physically, God offers a another, a lasting ‘food’ through him to satisfy a deeper hunger in us. This is the hunger for the true meaning of life that only Jesus, the Bread of Life, can satisfy. He will argue with his fellow Jews and appeal to them not just to look back in history to how God miraculously fed their ancestors … but see now, before their eyes, how God wants to ‘feed’ them now.
As grandparents and older people come to know, there is a hunger that can never be satisfied by how much we have, the size of our investments, the location of our house, the model of car, the size of TV screen, new kitchen or bathroom, conversion of the attic or whatever. Jesus teaches that only in him, the Bread of Life, can this deeper hunger be satisfied.
Holy Name, Jesmond
25 July 2021