A Great Crowd Followed Him — 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

SCRIPTURES & ART: “Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king,he withdrew again to the mountain alone.” (John 6:15)

James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Multiplication of the Loaves”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Multiplication of the Loaves” (photo: Public Domain)

Today the Church begins four Sundays (interrupted only by the Solemnity of the Assumption on Aug. 15) focused on the Holy Eucharist. The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the theme of today’s Gospel, provides the opening for Jesus’ broader teaching about the Eucharist found in John 6. For these four Sundays, we interrupt this year’s relatively continuous reading of Mark’s Gospel to tap the Johannine teaching.

Jesus has acquired a large following (John 6:2) because of his reputation as a miracle worker. The event occurs near Passover (verse 4), a clear allusion to the unleavened bread and sacrificial lamb of that feast. That Jesus will be crucified at a future Passover is not coincidental.

Jesus tells his Apostles to feed the crowd. They demur, asking where they would obtain the bread (verse 5). They also fret about the costs and how they could possibly cover it (verse 7). Very clearly, God has to take the initiative, which was his plan all along (“He himself knew what he was going to do” — verse 6). 

The Eucharistic allusions are clear. The verbs John selects to describe what Jesus did with the five loaves and two fishes parallel the institution of the Eucharist: He “took … gave thanks … gave …” (verse 10). 

The leftover remains fill 12 baskets, not just a coincidence with the Twelve Apostles who are the representatives of the 12 tribes of the New Israel, that is, the Church.

Jesus tells his Apostles to address the people’s hunger. He has them take charge of that task. And they are the ones who gather what Jesus distributed.

It’s rather “clerical,” considering these men would be the Church’s first clergy. He does not have the crowd doing things nor does he ask for a collective deliberation about how to address the people’s hunger. Jesus relies on his Apostles.

That element deserves emphasis today because, particularly in the wake of the shutdown of Mass ostensibly because of COVID-19 and the current fashion of criticizing “clericalism,” there are many voices in the Church that see the priestly nexus to the Eucharist as some kind of clerical “privilege” that needs to be shattered. That ideology is far removed from what Jesus does in today’s Gospel. It also removes us far from the Church’s long tradition of recognizing the intimate intersection of the sacraments of the Eucharist and Holy Orders.

Today’s Gospel closes with the first suggestion of how the Eucharist would be misunderstood. The crowd that has just been fed “saw the sign Jesus performed” (verse 14) misunderstand it. Interpreting Jesus’ mission through their own theological lenses — a powerful ruler who would put Israel back on the top of the worldly heap — they plan “to come and make him a king by force” (verse 15), causing Jesus to withdraw.

Jesus’ miracle, prefiguring the Eucharist, is intended to point beyond itself to the Eucharist, not to leave his followers at that preliminary point. But people are often content with “bread and circuses,” being fed and being entertained: a long line of politicians can attest to temporal success by promising those things … and a lot of other goodies. And no small number of contemporary theologians — particularly those styling themselves “liberation theologians” — seem to think that the Church’s mission to the “poor” is also primarily focused on satiation of temporal needs and wants, soft-pedaling (if not ignoring) the bigger religious message. 

Jesus’ withdrawal from the crowd mirrors what we have seen all this year in the Markan “Messianic Secret” — why Jesus constantly (and seemingly counterintuitively) tells his Apostles not to proclaim what they have seen or witnessed. Jesus does this because he is aware that, prior to the Resurrection, their temptation to conflate Jesus’ message with their own this-worldly Messianic expectations is too great. 

But this is not the first misunderstanding of the Eucharist. Just as the multiplication of the loaves is not “Jesus’ Plan for Hunger Relief in Israel” so, as he turns to explaining the “Bread of Life” on coming Sundays, his listeners will again reject his message as he presents it. At the end of the whole Discourse on the Eucharist found in John 6, which we complete Aug. 22, the crowd that fills the hills today will dwindle to a handful, as a mass desertion of those who find Jesus’ Eucharistic teaching “a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (verse 60).

I chose James Tissot’s “La multiplication des pains” (The Multiplication of the Loaves) to illustrate this week’s Gospel precisely to underscore Jesus’ fleeting Eucharistic popularity. John says that “a great crowd of people” (verse 2) followed Jesus, who saw that “great crowd coming towards him” (verse 5), numbering “about five thousand men” (verse 10). Matthew (14:21) notes the five thousand men do not include the “women and children” there, too.

Mark (6:40) and Luke (9:14b) speak of the 5,000 subsequently dividing into groups of “fifty” or “a hundred” when they are fed. That detail serves to emphasize the size of the crowd: there would have to have been 100 clusters of 50 people each to make 5,000, a formidable number.

Tissot’s painting underscores the sheer size of the crowd. We see chains of people along the terraces of the hill. The numbers so dominate the scene that Jesus himself, his head covered, is almost obscured at the rocky crag on the upper right. Almost all of the people are seated, but for those bearing bread baskets and apparently a few stragglers on the far left just arriving up the hill. The size of Jesus’ following is underscored by the barrenness of the other hillsides in the distance, e.g., on the left.

That Jesus’ action is life giving (the “Bread of Life”) is also stressed by the fact that we see greenery and vegetation on the hill where the people are (“There was plenty of grass in that place …” John 6:10) in contrast to the adjacent countryside. White and whitish hues — the typical color palette of the artist who had visited the Holy Land and tried faithfully to capture the countryside — dominates the scene, which is given “life” by the introduction of other colors by the grass and the garments of living people. 

Next to the people, the most common element in this painting are rocks. Apart from depicting the landscape, there may be another theological allusion at play here. When the Devil tempts Jesus during his fast in the wilderness, he first presses him to turn the stones lying around him into bread. This Devil’s bread of power is not the “bread of love” Jesus distributes.

Failing at that temptation, the Devil then tempts Jesus to presume on God’s protection by recklessly jumping off the Temple roof, assuring him by perversion of Scripture that his Father will send his angels “to bear you up on their hands lest you strike your foot against a stone” (Luke 4:11, quoting Psalm 91:12). In Jesus’ world, there is an autonomy of created things: stones can remain stones as the Father wills, but Jesus can transform bread because of love. In that world of love, Jesus need not be front and center — as he is not in this painting — but that does not diminish the fact that everything happening in this painting does because of him. The Devil’s sin is pride; Jesus is anti-pride, Divine humility.

That humility does not, however, ignore truth. Just as Jesus removes himself from the crowd’s temporal designs, so he will leave the door open in his “Bread of Life” discourse for those who listen to reject and leave him over the Eucharist … as has happened multiple times in the Church’s history, most significantly in the Protestant Reformation. But we’ll turn to those disputes in coming weeks.

People use hand sanitizer before entering St. Peter's Basilica.

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Under the new order, Catholics attending liturgical celebrations at the Vatican will be an exception to the vaccine rule. People will be allowed to access a liturgy “for the time strictly necessary for the conduct of the rite,” while also following distancing and masking rules.