Jesus feeds the 5,000 in John 6

The lectionary gospel for Trinity 9 in this Year B is John 6.1–21, and it takes us from famine to feast—metaphorically and literally!—as we move from the sparse verses about Jesus’ ministry in Mark 6 to the lavish feast of both the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus walking on the water in John 6. Whilst we might have struggled to find a sermon on last week’s readings, there must be material for several in this week’s!

The challenge in reading this passage relates to the meaning of the text in its context, and the devotional and theological use of it by later readers. The chief theological question is whether this text is ‘eucharistic’, that is, providing a back story (as it were) to early church practice of celebrating Communion. But there is also the devotional question raised by popular readings: is this story primarily about the boy who offered his meagre lunch, or is the focus more on what Jesus does with it?

The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle of Jesus that is related in all four gospels, and the Fourth Gospel’s is the longest account, followed by Mark, with Luke’s and Matthew’s both being about two-thirds of the length of Mark’s. The account in John 6 has a different setting from the Synoptics, since it has focussed on the activity of Jesus in Jerusalem in John 5, where the Synoptics have related the sending out of the Twelve and their return, which is not mentioned in the Fourth Gospel though the account fits with it. We can see hints of the dovetailing of the accounts, for example in the language of John 6.1 ‘Jesus went to the other side of the Sea…’; this reference makes no sense on its own (since Jesus has been in Jerusalem) and so must be read in parallel with the events in the Synoptics, and in particular with Mark.

The synoptic gospels consistently refer to the lake as the ‘Sea of Galilee’, but our passage adds to this appellation the name that became popular in the later first century, ‘Sea of Tiberias’ (here and in John 21.1). This shifts our attention from the region as the place of fulfilment of OT expectation (Is 9.1–2 as cited by Matt 4.15), and towards this as a region occupied by a foreign power and the place of power struggles between kings. We will therefore not be surprised when the theme of kingship arises prominently at several points in the passage.

The ‘great crowd’ (ὄχλος πολύς) reminds us of this theme in Mark, and Jesus ‘healing the sick’ which they have seen and heard again relies on our familiarity with Mark and the other synoptics, which all relate these healings immediately prior to the feeding event. Rather than describing these as expressions of Jesus’ compassion, or demonstrations of the coming of the kingdom, the Fourth Gospel characteristically labels them as ‘signs’, things which are not an end in themselves, but point to something greater. (The text doesn’t even actually mention ‘healing’; literally, they ‘saw the signs he was doing on the sick.’)

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