Yesterday’s Gospel, that for the 17th Sunday in Year B, began the Church’s reading of chapter 6 of John’s Gospel.
Jesus went off to the other side of the Sea of Galilee – or of Tiberias – and a large crowd followed him, impressed by the signs he gave by curing the sick. Jesus climbed the hillside, and sat down there with his disciples. It was shortly before the Jewish feast of Passover.
Looking up, Jesus saw the crowds approaching and said to Philip, ‘Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?’ He only said this to test Philip; he himself knew exactly what he was going to do. Philip answered, ‘Two hundred denarii would only buy enough to give them a small piece each.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, ‘There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fish; but what is that between so many?’
Jesus said to them, ‘Make the people sit down.’ There was plenty of grass there, and as many as five thousand men sat down. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and gave them out to all who were sitting ready; he then did the same with the fish, giving out as much as was wanted.
When they had eaten enough he said to the disciples, ‘Pick up the pieces left over, so that nothing gets wasted.’ So they picked them up, and filled twelve hampers with scraps left over from the meal of five barley loaves. The people, seeing this sign that he had given, said, ‘This really is the prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, who could see they were about to come and take him by force and make him king, escaped back to the hills by himself.
A story that starts of so promisingly ends with Jesus fleeing for the hills.
- Why does the crowd want to make him king?
- Why does Jesus flee for the hills?
Why does the crowd want to make him king?
They want to make him king because they find in him the fulfilment of God’s promises. He sets the sick free from their illness; he liberates prisoners from slavery to sin; he feeds the hungry. God comes with his prophet to set his people free. Is Jesus a new Moses? Maybe the closeness of Passover might put the idea in people’s heads. But, more than a prophet, they want a king!
They want setting free from their oppressors, sickness, sin, hunger and especially the Romans. So they want a king – a new Maccabean, a new Solomon, a new David, a new Saul. But they have forgotten what the scriptures teaches… Israel is not well served by its kings. Saul was a bad king; David an adulterer who had such promise but did not deliver; Solomon who had wisdom amongst the nations but whose kingdom collapsed after him; and the Maccabees who won back Israel but lost it again, amidst corruption and all the rest. But the crowd ishungry – for a new king. There is the saying ‘third time lucky’, but this is getting ridiculous.
Why, faced with this enthusiasm for his coronation or kingly anointing, does Jesus flee for the hills?
In his baptism he received the anointing that made him Priest, Prophet and King. And his Kingship is lived out in service and love – in sacrifice, the gift of his Body and Blood as John makes clear in the rest of chapter 6.
Israel has its king – as I Samuel makes very clear. And it is God.
Jesus is already the faithful son of the Father. He proclaims the nearness of the kingdom, but not in anything as vapid and passing as a new monarchy, rather a kingdom firmly established in the fatherhood of God.
He shares the first fruits of the kingdom, but people are greedy for ‘more’. They seek to take the kingdom by force and not receive it as gift.
They have received so much, been fed to the full but they are still hungry, for finally they are not satisfied by what God offers.
Photograph of statue of Jesus teaching in the hills of Galilee, Domus Galilei. (c) 2012, Allen Morris