17th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Year B

Throughout John’s gospel Jesus’ miracles are referred to as “signs”. What might the signs of healing and feeding reveal about Jesus?

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First Reading: 2 Kings 4:42-44

  • This story clearly prefigures the feeding miracles recorded in the Gospels; there is, though, one clear difference. Notice how Elisha adds to his instruction to distribute the food: “the Lord says this, “They will eat and have some left over.”” This kind of divine statement is absent from the Gospel accounts because the Lord is himself the one performing the sign.
  • Notice the difference in scale between Elisha’s action of feeding 100 men and Jesus’ of feeding many times that number.

Psalm: 144(145):10-11, 15-18

  • This psalm extols the generosity of God in providing for the needs not just of humanity but of all creatures; we see this provision in the bounty of creation.
  • That same creation should lead us, as the psalm reminds us, to speak of the glory of God’s reign. How often, though, is this the case? Do we stop to thank God for his generosity?

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:1-6

  • Last week we heard of the reconciliation brought by Jesus; this week Paul urges us to protect and preserve that unity of the Spirit (notice how the Spirit comes to the fore).
  • We can preserve that peace by living lives worthy of the gospel, which Paul defines here as bearing with one another in love and selflessness, with gentleness and patience. These are qualities that we should pursue.

Gospel: John 6:1-15

  • Throughout John’s gospel Jesus’ miracles are referred to as “signs”. This could be because, for John, the purpose of these miracles is not to demonstrate the power of Jesus per se, but to point beyond themselves to something that reveals more of who Jesus is. With that in mind, what might the signs of healing and feeding reveal about Jesus?
  • John also tells us that this feeding miracle took place shortly before the feast of Passover; is this just a chronological marker, or might it have some significance?
  • There is a progression to note in this passage: at the beginning the crowds were impressed with Jesus’ healings, impressed enough to follow him to see what else he would do. But after this feeding miracle, they became so impressed that they decided to proclaim him as king.


We take a break, now, from our journey through Mark chapter 6 to leap across to John chapter 6: a lengthy discussion on Jesus as the Bread of Life, which begins today with John’s account of the feeding of five thousand.

Mark has his own account of this event, which if you read through the whole of Mark chapter 6 you’ll be able to see, so it’s worth pondering for a moment where we are in our overall journey through Mark and why this miraculous feeding falls here.

Mark began this section of Jesus’ story by retelling his return to Nazareth and his encounter with the people in the synagogue. That was followed by Jesus continuing his teaching ministry in the nearby villages and sending out the Twelve to do the same, including the miraculous signs of deliverance and healing.

We then have, rather randomly it might appear at first, the story of the death of John the Baptist. That story is skipped over in our Sunday readings; to hear it at Mass you’d need to go to its appearance in the weekday cycle or the feast of John the Baptist’s death. But it’s a familiar story nonetheless: Herod’s wife Herodias had her daughter dance for Herod at a banquet, impressing the king so much that he offered her anything she chose. At Herodias’ insistence the girl asked for the head of John the Baptist on a dish, which the king reluctantly granted. John the Baptist’s disciples then collected John’s body and buried it.

Immediately after this horrific event, Mark tells the story of the feeding of the five thousand; the story for which we have John’s version today.

Why is that context significant?

Mark has laid the groundwork for us so that we should keep a few things in mind. He’s been talking a lot about miraculous signs, especially healings. Don’t forget that at this point Jesus has sent the Twelve out; they return just before the feeding of the five thousand.

In the death of John the Baptist we’re also presented with a king hosting a lavish banquet; a feast that is riddled with malice and excess, and ultimately murder.

Place that in juxtaposition to Jesus. He, too, hosted a banquet; not for a select group of the rich and powerful, but for all who were hungry, providing food enough that everyone was satisfied.

Herod was a ruler, so too did the people recognize through the sign Jesus performed that he was the true king; the king prophesied by Jeremiah as we heard last week.

Death also looms over both stories. John connected this miracle – or sign, the word John preferred – to the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist; the body and blood of Jesus, broken and poured out for us. John the Baptist, too, as Jesus’ forerunner suffered death, but his could not provide food or drink: his death, like his whole life, was a sign pointing forward to Jesus.

If we put all of these pieces together, we can see this miraculous sign in the wider context of Jesus’ unfolding ministry: it’s another piece in the jigsaw which builds up the image of the face of Jesus until, like the crowds who witnessed the feeding of the five thousand, our eyes are opened and we gasp at the realisation of who Jesus really is. And that realisation isn’t once only, we’re invited every time we read these stories to encounter the face of Christ anew and to be nourished by that encounter.


  • Catechism of the Catholic Church, 523: John the Baptist
  • Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth vol. 1: preface on pursuing the face of Jesus
  • Pope St. John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia