Elisha, through the power of God, fed a hundred men with twenty barley loaves and fresh grain, and had some over. Jesus of Nazareth, through the power of God, fed five thousand men (to say nothing of women and children, Matthew adds) with five loaves and two fish, and twelve hampers of scraps were collected afterwards.
The implication is clear and the people draw it immediately: if Elisha was something, then this man is far greater. Not just a prophet, he is the prophet who is to come into the world.
The eyes of all creatures look to God for nourishment, Psalm 144 tells us, and he gives them their food in due season. The eyes of God's human creatures look to him for far more than bodily food because they know that they live not on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
The prophets are those human beings chosen by God to carry his word to the people, to speak to them on behalf of God, and so to nourish them in heart and mind and soul. In feeding the people as he does, Jesus is acting as a prophet, doing something traditional while teaching them something radically new about the kind of prophetic service he has come to offer.
The remainder of John 6 is a long interpretation of this sign that Jesus gave and that the people half understood. Not only a prophet, he is 'the bread of life'. In other words he is not only a bearer of the Word of God, he is himself that Word. Echoing the rich traditions of the wisdom literature of the Bible, Jesus will present himself as Sophia(Wisdom), the one who summons the people to his banquet, to feast with him on the Word of God that nourishes their hearts and minds and souls.
He will go what seems like a step further and invite them to feast not just with him but on him, to eat him as the 'living bread', totally consumed by them, taken inside, appropriated and made to be part of their bodies. A due season not anticipated by human beings has arrived. Ezekiel 34 had prophesied that a time would come when God would feed his people himself. But that God would feed his people on himself: how could anybody have imagined such a thing?
Jesus of Nazareth, more than a prophet, is the Word of God become flesh. Because he is the Word, we live from him. Because he is the Word become flesh, he places himself at our disposal, subject to the vulnerabilities and ambiguities to which all flesh is heir.
Some of his listeners, scandalised at the direction of his interpretation, will leave and stop going with him. They might have continued to follow him if he agreed to be their prophet-king. But they could not continue to follow him as the prophet-servant giving his flesh and blood for the life of the world.
Psalm 144 continues:
you open wide your hand, grant the desires of all who live.
The sign first given at Tiberias continues to be given in the Eucharist. The bread of life is offered to the people as the Word is proclaimed. The living bread nourishes them as they eat his body and drink his blood.
It is a sign, in the first place, of generosity and limitless love. The little boy who makes his brief appearance in this gospel story is remembered for his willingness to share what he had brought. The Son of God is remembered for his great act of love when he opened wide his hands on the cross, gave up his spirit and so granted the desires of all who live.
It is easy for us to understand and admire the imagery, the symbolism, involved in this talk of bread. It is more difficult to realise the mystery it makes present: that we become one with him as we eat his flesh and that we are identified with him as we drink his blood.
Because of this mystery the Letter to the Ephesians can say 'there is one Body', as there is just one Lord and one Spirit. Through living in that Body, which is his Church, we experience the generous love of God and are made able to live in charity and selflessness, in gentleness and patience.