Jesus is the GOAT
Year C, 17th Sunday Ordinary Time | 2 Kings 4:42-44, John 6:1-15
Although I don’t follow much sports news or discussion, there is a term from this world that I find interesting: “goat”. Goat, spelt just like the animal, is an acronym that stands for the “greatest of all time”. In different sports, fans and commentators argue that a particular athlete is the “goat”. In basketball, some content that LeBron James is the goat. Who should be deemed the greatest of all time in a given sport is hotly debated. What is constant in these debates, however, is that whenever an athlete of extraordinary ability arises, people try to assess his or her talents by comparing the athlete to past stars. For example, LeBron James is compared to Michael Jordan. Some argue that the former is the goat, while other hold it is the latter. Early Christians followed a similar strategy. In trying to explain the life and mission of Jesus, they often compared and contrasted him to famous religious figures of the past.
|Inside the Church of the Multiplication (Tabgha, Israel), which marks the place of the miracle described in the Gospel. Note the mosaic of the loaves and fish in front of the altar.|
In the Gospels, Jesus is regularly likened to great historical leaders of Israel. In an attempt to describe his extraordinary life and mission, authors often compared Jesus to individuals with whom their audience were familiar. This method of comparison is often described as “typology”1. A kind of typology happens in sports. Remarkable athletes are compared to historic greats we can call “types”. This is only natural as current exceptional athletes share similar talents and skills with past stars. The same process happens in other fields. For example, we might say that because of her powers of deduction and reason, a certain journalist is like a new Sherlock Holmes (the type). Likewise, for the Gospel writers, comparing Jesus to other individuals must have come naturally since Jesus behaved in a way similar to religious figures from Israel’s past. At the same time, Gospel writers inserted certain clues or markers that made the comparison of Jesus with past religious figures more explicit. Unless we are familiar with the Old Testament, many of these typological cues pass by us unnoticed. Typological comparisons are quite common in the Gospels and help us better understand who Jesus is.
This Sunday’s Gospel, taken from John, in which Jesus performs a miracle and feeds the multitude (John 6:1-15), is an important example of typology. To help the reader better understand the person of Jesus and the significance of his actions, the Gospel draws out comparisons between Jesus and religious figures from Israel’s past. The Church gives us a hint at one such comparison with the choice of the First Reading (2 Kings 4:42-44). In the Gospel, Jesus is likely being compared to Elisha as both multiply barley loaves to feed a crowd. This comparison should provoke the reader to consider other ways in which Jesus is similar to Elisha. As a result, readers who know something about Elisha will get to know Jesus better. For example, both Elisha and Jesus are successors to other great figures (Elisha to Elijah and Jesus to John the Baptist). Both Elisha and Jesus are greater than their successors. Both are itinerant prophets who works miracles and have disciples. Both are single and acknowledged to be righteous. Another figure to whom Jesus is compared to in the Gospel is Moses (next Sunday’s readings make the connection explicit). A few clues point to this comparison. Just as Moses would often ascend a mountain to encounter God, at the start of today’s Gospel, Jesus went up the mountain. After the miracle, the people speculate that Jesus is truly “the prophet, the one who is to come into the world” (Jn 6:14). In this, the crowd is expressing the expectation that God would eventually send into the world a prophet who was like Moses (cf. Deuteronomy 18:15). Jesus’ miracle happens at Passover, a feast associated with Moses. Like Moses fed the people with the gift of manna (via God’s intervention), in the Gospel, Jesus feeds the people with bread. This connection is made more explicit later in the chapter (Jn 6:30-32). Further, right after the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus walks on the Sea of Galilee, an event which is reminiscent of the miraculous passage of the people of Israel through the Red Sea. The Gospel today clearly suggests to the reader that Jesus is a new Moses. Jesus brings a new law and works a New Exodus from sin and death. Assuming we catch the clues in the Gospel, the typological comparisons of Jesus to Elisha and Moses help us better understand who Jesus is and what he does for us.
For us Christians, the typology in which Jesus is compared to past religious figures is unlike typologies from sports and other fields in important ways. First, Christian typology is not just about making a comparison, like saying that some athlete has skills that are like those of a past star. Rather, it helps us describe the plan of God throughout history. For us, types in the Old Testament like Elisha and Moses, although of immense and lasting value in God’s plan, prefigure or prepare for Jesus. Who these figures were and what they accomplished is fulfilled in the life and mission of Jesus. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “typology indicates the dynamic movement toward the fulfillment of the divine plan when ‘God [will] be everything to everyone’” (CCC 130). Second, although Jesus is compared to various past religious figures, the Gospels make is clear Jesus cannot be adequately described by these types. The Gospel of today hints at this reality. Jesus is a prophet like Elisha but he is so much more. While Elisha fed 100 with 20 barley loaves, Jesus fed over 5000 with only 5 loaves. Jesus is a leader like Moses, but he is so much more. After the people recognize Jesus is a prophet, he withdraws because he knew they were going to make him a king. It does not seem that Jesus is rejecting the title of king. Rather, he withdraws because he does not want to be the kind of king that people expect. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ brand of kingship is only made manifest on Golgotha. Jesus is a king who suffers and dies for his people. His crown is of thorns; his throne is the cross.
Through the use of typology, the Gospels convey the exceptional nature of Jesus. Unlike typological comparisons in sports, however, in which the identity of the “goat” is up for debate, among Christians there was no argument. Through its use of typology, today’s Gospel challenges us to hold the following truths close to our hearts: 1) Although Jesus is like figures from the past (Moses and Elijah), all comparisons come up short. 2) In God’s plan, Jesus fulfills all the types to which he is compared. 3) Jesus is truly the greatest of all time.
1 For a concise summary of the use of typology in the New Testament, see “Typology” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 783-784.