We are coming to a turn in the road this coming weekend, as the Church Liturgy takes a break from our year-long exploration of the Gospel of Mark; Ordinary Times Sundays 17 through 21 in the B Cycle are devoted to Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John, a unified whole sometimes referred to as the “Breads Discourse.” Late in August we will return to the Markan narrative, though the mood of that Gospel will show significant change. Before leaving Mark, though, a short summary of the recent weeks might be helpful. A lot has been reported over the last three Sundays: Jesus runs into stiff opposition in his home town, so much so that Mark makes the surprising observation that Jesus could not work miracles there due to his family and neighbors’ lack of faith. Other evangelists writing after Mark would smooth this harsh admission by saying that Jesus would not do miracles in Nazareth. On the following Sunday Jesus sends the Apostles out on mission to do precisely what Jesus himself had been doing, invoking the Father’s power to cure the sick and expel demons. Last Sunday we learned that the Apostles were euphoric over the works that “they” had done, without apparent recognition of the Father’s power. (Mark 6:30)
The Markan scholar Father Francis Moloney observes that the sixth chapter of St. Mark is something of the high water mark for the followers of Jesus; from 6:30 forward the apostles’ faith and understanding seems to wither in the face of growing opposition to the message, among other things. Moloney traces this downward spiral right through the end of the Gospel, when the very last of the faithful women flee from the empty tomb and “tell nothing to anyone.” (Mark 16:8) This pattern of gradual abandonment of Jesus will be followed closely when the Markan narrative resumes in several weeks.
I have not had an opportunity to research the thinking behind the insertion of St. John’s Gospel at this juncture in Year B. There is a statistical logic to consider: Mark’s Gospel is barely sixteen chapters and would labor to cover the liturgical demands of an entire church year. Likewise, the powerful Gospel of John does not have its own cycle year, and aside from major feasts and occasional inclusions does not appear very often in the Sunday liturgy. Catechetical exposure alone might account for this summer anomaly.
Perhaps the more significant question is a theological one: did the editors of the Lectionary wish to develop a thematic connection between the narrative of Mark and the Breads Discourse of John? The more I look at the texts side by side, I am beginning to think so. Mark’s Gospel of last Sunday concludes with mention of Jesus’ pity for the vast crowd in front of them, described by Mark as “sheep without shepherds,” an oblique but cutting reference to the inexperience of the Twelve. Jesus attempts to feed them, so to speak, by “teaching them at great length.” (6:34)
Here the narrative switches to next week’s Gospel of John (6:1-15) where Jesus also faces a large crowd that causes him concern. We have not talked much about the structure of St. John’s Gospel; in its makeup this Gospel is considerably different from the three “Synoptic” Gospels and particularly Mark’s. John has very few miracle accounts, perhaps a half-dozen, and in about every case a miracle is a starting point for a “discourse” or critical teaching narrative. John’s Chapter 6 will focus entirely on the life-giving nature of Jesus himself as the bread sent from heaven. In typical Johannine style, the evangelist begins with a miracle familiar to most of us, the “miracle of the loaves and fishes.” This miracle appears in all four Gospels; confidence in its historical roots is rather high.
There are some curious features easily overlooked: John reports that the “Jewish feast of Passover was near” (a gateway to several Hebrew Scripture themes). John reports that while Jesus “knew well what he intended to do” he puts the disciple Philip on the spot about the logistics of feeding this very large group. John observes that Jesus was “testing” Philip. Why the test? Was the Johannine Jesus as frustrated with the Twelve as the Markan Jesus after the apostolic preaching/healing crusade? It is hard to say. It is also worth noting that Jesus did not feed the crowd; he overfed them, with a dozen baskets of bread and fish remaining. The number twelve is too specific to be happenstance; that Jesus instructed the disciples to collect the leftovers leads me to think that this miracle was intended for their purposes of faith along with the crowds. The Bread from Heaven, evidently, is not a food of sustenance, but rather a feast of unlimited proportions.
An interesting parallel exists between Mark’s and John’s accounts of crowd reactions. For much of the early portion of Mark’s Gospel—consisting heavily of healings and exorcisms—Jesus attracted enthusiastic crowds because of these signs. Hard instruction, as Jesus delivered in Nazareth, cost him many followers, notably his family and neighbors. In John’s description of the miraculous feeding, the crowds are so delirious that a coronation of kingship on the spot was a very real consideration. However, in the next Sundays through the dog days of summer, Jesus will elaborate on the real food of eternal life, his own body and blood, with its attendant demand of faith. On the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, the Breads Discourse will end with a radical change in crowd reaction: “From this time on, many of his disciples broke away and would not remain in his company any longer.” Like Mark, John will note the empty places at the table.