Setting Up the “Grassy Places” (John 6: 1-15), 17th Sunday
To shake off some of the dust of familiarity from this very familiar scene in the Gospel (the multiplication of the loaves), let’s set it against its deeper backdrop.
First off, there’s the condition of these people who have gathered around Jesus there on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The scholars tell us they were from the peasant class, the bottom rung of the society there in Palestine, economically, socially, and prestige-wise (actually, 90% of the population). They were what we might call today, “subsistence people” – living from day to day, not sure of where tomorrow’s meal was coming from, no standing or clout in the community, marginalized and invisible in most every way. And, we hear they were very hungry.
Secondly, the time of year at which this happened– “The Jewish feast of Passover was near.” The gospel of John is full of these little asides/details which can seem like throw-away lines, but which turn out to be clues, windows onto what’s really happening in the scene.
So this time, Passover. It was the time of Yahweh’s coming to his enslaved and cast-aside people there in Egypt, leading them through the perils of the Red Sea across to a safe and secure shore, feeding them in the desert. And all along holding out hints of this “promised land flowing with milk and honey.” Here’s the time setting for this scene.
Third, the location where Jesus asked them to sit down and rest– it’s described as “a grassy place.” That is, a kind of fertile, green, lush, soft meadow — out there in the midst of a mostly bleak and rocky shoreline. It’s an oasis, a place to put down your burden and rest, a spot to fill up again, a watering hole in a stony desert.
All these seemingly insignificant details are put there to set up the bigger horizon, the backstory against which this miracle in the desert is to be viewed.
These no-account, heavily taxed people who are following Jesus? They are to be seen against the backdrop of God’s people huddled there in Egypt, longing for relief and release. They too are out there walking in the rocky desert, with no political connections or standing in society, under daily pressure from their subsistence life-style, and not knowing where their next meal (their “daily bread”) is coming from.
What does Jesus do? He feeds them in the wilderness.
And he does it inside a kind of paradise setting in which they can feast, feel safe, eat to their hearts content, start to talk to their neighbors, and not have to worry about tomorrow’s meal (because “there were twelve wicker baskets filled with the leftovers from the original five barley loaves and two fish.”)
So we see that these people, normally invisible and never included in “society circles,” are being given the honored places at a lavish banquet, being held in a lovely flowing oasis, nobody rushing them to get off the premises, all they can eat, and no worry about tomorrow.
Viewed against this bigger horizon, this scene is not just of a kind of miracle that supplies a need. It’s a picture of God in Jesus, once again coming to walk with His people in their wilderness, feeding them in their hunger, giving them green and restful pastures in the middle of which they can once again come in touch with their best selves and indeed with one another. Hopefully, they’ll go out and do the same kind of saving/healing thing for other wandering, hungry, cast-aside people they might encounter along the way.
All of this filling-in surely does bring more depth and color to the scene. That is, it highlights the setting up of this “grassy place” where God’s people can prosper, and connect not just with one another but also with the God who’s providing all these blessings out of his love for them?
And might it also suggest other scenes, ones that would duplicate it? Like one I saw at the end of the Nightly News this past week. The camera homed in on a summer camp a foundation has set up for hospitalized and severely handicapped children. The sessions last for a week, they’re free, transportation and helpers and staff and parents included. The camp is in the mountains, with lake and pool and entertainment and good food and campfires and night time stories – nothing but the best. For many of the children, it’s the first chance they’ve had to be in the outdoors all summer –and indeed, the first chance they’ve had to be together.
Isn’t this one of those “grassy places,” now brought into the 21st century? Isn’t it one of those places where Jesus “is asking the people to recline, sit down in the soft green meadow, and feed themselves to the filling point from God’s bounty?” Doesn’t it – and many other scenes like refugee centers and free clinics and legal aid offices – tease out the deeper meaning of this picture of Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves, His feeding of the five thousand, His establishment of the new community?
As His followers, Jesus would have us do likewise. And that is, contribute what we can to the establishment of those grassy places, those lush and safe meadows where people not only get fed, but also have their eyes opened to who it is underneath it all who is doing the feeding. (Put into the language of our Vincentian Family, these are those green spaces along the rocky shore where God’s poor can sit and rest and eat.)
Here are the banquet halls, those foretastes of the heavenly feast, where we can begin to see past the loaves on the table to the real giver of these loaves. They are the places where we’re best able to see through the gifts down to their Giver, the all loving Father of Jesus Christ who walks with and sustains and leads His people in the wilderness.