The miracle of an abundance of food around the time of
Passover comes to us twice this week, both in the Second Book of
Kings and the Gospel of John. We will be reading from John for
the next several weeks, celebrating the 'bread of life'
discourse, for which this miracle sets the scene. John makes the
mention of the time of year explicit, but the miracle of Elisha
does it by saying that the loaves were of the first fruits of
the barley harvest. Passover was, in part, a feast of the barley
harvest. In this way John invokes the miracle of Elisha, who was
the disciple and successor of Elijah, the prophet who was to
return at the end of time. The miracle in the Gospel is
therefore another sign of the arrival of the kingdom of God
today, the end times. The psalm supports the image of God as the
source of all the food we eat.
The second reading is Paul's call to unity for the Ephesians.
While it is less well known than the passage in first
Corinthians, it is a beautiful meditation on how unity and right
living is required not as a something we need to live in order
to gain God's favor, but something we live because we have
already been loved and called by God. The gift of God's love
fills our lives, and so we respond by living in God.
We see them almost every day: people who have lost their way and just can't seem to hold it together. Some of them are members of our family. The truth that we see in today's readings is that we all need help at different times, that none of us really has it all together, and that we all need a shepherd, we need Jesus. The power of the Christian tradition and of the Jewish tradition from which we take the readings from the Old Testament comes from this basic fact. Faith is not something extra that we do in order to win points with God and gain admittance to heaven. Faith is who we are; it is what founds our lives and helps us to hold it together. We may long for heaven, where things will all make sense, but for this time and in this life, it is faith in the shepherd of Israel, the good shepherd who is Jesus, that holds our life as precious, helps us to do what is right and makes us worthy to come to Communion.
So Jesus looks on us with compassion and gives us his life as the compass for our own. God comes to shepherd us by sending Jesus and so the wonderful hymn of trust contained in Psalm 23 is our song of gratitude. The letter to the Ephesians reminds us of how Christ as destroyed barriers and brought the deep peace that will keep us true to his name and guide us home at the last. We who were without a shepherd are now sheep of one flock in Christ. In age of the church we can hear the call of the one who knows us and trust as he leads us through death to life.
If the Scriptures proclaimed on the Sundays between Christmas and Lent focus more on the call to follow Jesus and to be his disciples, the period after Easter could be characterized as the season of the mission. Amos does not claim any special talent as a prophet, but rather is preaching at the house of God only because God sent him. Paul hammers this point home, speaking of destiny and choosing and salvation. The Gospel brings this word of mission to the time of Christ, when he sends out the twelve to do his work.
The great temptation is to equate success with God's favor. When we try to do right and succeed, then God is on our side. Today's readings present a second opinion. In the first reading God tells Isaiah that it does not matter whether or not his prophecy is successful; all that matters is that the people will know that God has visited them. The message is repeated in the second reading when Paul speaks about the thorn that plagues him; God's grace is all he needs. And even Jesus, when he comes to Nazareth meets opposition and the astonishing passage which says that because the people did not receive him, he was unable to work miracles.
The words of the psalm are words that anyone in the position of failure could use. No matter how things are going, we fix our eyes on God and accept whatever challenges come our way. So whether we are successful or not, whether we have an easy time in life or a struggle, the basic rule still applies: God is our focus, God is our life.
We have all heard people say, especially in the event of an untimely
or unexpected death, that death must have been God's will. To this
common theology, today's readings proclaim a resounding “no.” In
the first reading from Wisdom, two important claims are made. First,
God created life, and death was not part of the created order. Secondly,
death comes into the world as a result of the fall, “by the envy
of the devil.” Our God is a God of life, since “God did not make
death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.”
The two stories in Mark develop these ideas. In the first miracle,
Jesus heals the woman afflicted with hemorrhages, and in the second,
Jesus goes to the house of a synagogue official and brings the official's
daughter back to life with the touch of his hand. In these Gospel
narratives, Jesus affirms the teaching of Wisdom. God desires life,
and in the presence of Jesus, death has been conquered and the created
Clearly, death is still with us, but Paul, in the second reading,
offers hope that this situation is only temporary: “…[T]hough he
was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you
might become rich.” Jesus, by his willingness to suffer the pain
of poverty and death, has opened the way to the restoration of God's
created order. That order is not yet restored completely, but in
the promise of Christ we know that death, even now, no longer has
the final word.