Our Gospel passage from John is set shortly before the Jewish feast of Passover. In Jesus's time this was always a tense holiday period, particularly in Jerusalem, because it was widely believed that the Messiah would make his appearance at Passover time. We know that in Jerusalem there were occasional protests and riots and men claiming falsely to be the messiah during Passover.
There were various expectations -- not always consistent with each other -- about the coming of the Messiah. For some people the longed-for Messiah was primarily a political figure. He would be a king of David's line who would liberate the people from Roman rule and oppression.
For other people the Messiah was primarily the longed-for prophet -- like a second Moses or Elijah of old. As prophet he would set affairs right between God and the people, involving a major reform of the temple. Whatever the mix of expectations, naïve or sophisticated, the political and religious establishments would be threatened.
To help us understand this Gospel, the church presents us with a first reading about Elijah. This involves a little-known story set at Passover-time, about Elijah feeding one hundred men on twenty barley loaves. How large a barley loaf was uncertain but perhaps we should think of them like bread buns. So the lad that Andrew finds in the Gospel has sufficient bread for himself and perhaps enough for two, but certainly not enough for a picnic with five thousand guests.
Barley was harvested about Passover time, and the Passover feast was originally in part a thanksgiving festival for the barley harvest, as well as celebrating the liberation of God's people from slavery in Egypt. It may be significant that usually only the very poor ate barley bread, and that most people ate wheat bread. The wheat harvest was later, about Pentecost.
The early Church told this story, as with all the stories in the Gospels, at many gatherings but particularly when gathered together for Mass. It is no surprise then, that there are many allusions to the Eucharist in John's telling of this story of the multiplication of the loaves. This miraculous feeding is not a Eucharist, but John wants his listeners (and ourselves) to reflect on the meaning of the Eucharist when hearing this story. Indeed soon after this passage, John reflects extensively on Jesus as the bread of life.
So this story should lead us to reflect on our Eucharist and our Eucharistic church community. Jesus feeds the crowds - the poor and those seeking health and wholeness. Is this a model of our local church community gathering for Mass? Jesus sits on the mountain as teacher. Do we listen to him? Do we allow ourselves to feed on the Word of God? Do we receive God's grace in the sacraments?
The disciples gather twelve baskets of fragments. We may notice that the Greek word here translated 'fragments' is used in early Christian documents for the Eucharistic bread. This super-abundance of food is a reminder of the messianic banquet when all will be feed abundantly. The Mass is a promise of this banquet, a promise, a foretaste, of heaven.
The story also has resonances of the story about Moses in Numbers chapter 11 where Moses feeds the people with manna in the desert and quails from the sky, after they have complained that they have not enough to eat. The crowds who have been feed realize that Jesus is indeed the Messiah -- 'the prophet who is to come into the world' -- and want to acclaim him as king. They want him to challenge the political and religious establishment, with all its corruption and oppression, by force. This is not Jesus's way, and so he escapes to the hills before the crowd force him to be king.
Jesus is not a one-off political leader. Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the true king, but he will live out his kingship in a very different way by dying for the people upon the cross, as we read later in John's gospel. Then in Jerusalem the fickle crowd will deny that they have any king but Caesar. Jesus must die, so that he may rise again and liberate us from our sins. He is our Passover.