Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sunday 18: Jesus Feeds the Crowds

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year "A") – July 31, 2011 - “EAT WHAT IS GOOD, DELIGHT YOURSELVES IN RICH FOOD” - [Texts: Isaiah 55:1-3 [Psalm 145]; Romans 8:35, 37-39; Matthew 14:13-21]

In the Bible, the banquet is frequently used as an image to describe God's care for humanity.  This explains why, at key moments in history, divine-human relationships get sealed by means of a celebratory or sacrificial meal.

This was the case when Israel came forth from Egypt and at the covenant-making ceremony of Sinai.  Biblical sages spoke of coming to dine at the feast as a symbol for imbibing God's wisdom (“incline your ear, and come to me; listen so that you may live”).

In his ministry, Jesus celebrated friendship meals with outcasts and sinners as a sign that the Kingdom of God was breaking into the world in a new way.  Likewise, all four gospels depict Jesus feeding crowds in the wilderness with loaves and fish multiplied for thousands.  Mark and Matthew depict this wilderness feeding event as occurring twice.  Once it appears in a setting with Jewish overtones and, in the second instance, with hints of a Gentile context.

The gestures of Jesus in these feeding miracles (looking up to heaven, blessing, breaking, giving) suggest that these privileged moments were seen by the Church as anticipations of the sacrificial meal of the Eucharist that, later on, Jesus would leave as a memorial of the “new covenant” in His blood.

Lastly, both Old and New Testaments herald a coming eschatological banquet when, at the end of time and freed from anything that would diminish their joy, God's people would share a meal in total harmony and peace.

Isaiah's oracles of salvation, found in today's first reading, address the situation of the Israelites who were returning to Sion (Jerusalem) after the humiliation of their exile in Babylon.  Isaiah proclaimed that the only true “return”—one which included the opening of a door to Israel's gentile neighbours—was a return to God's ways instead of human ways.

God's way is that of salvation which is being offered as a free gift: “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price”.  It is an offer of the food that God alone gives (“eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food”).  This fare is the teaching of the Word of God that in the ministry of Jesus would foretell his gift of the food that is the Eucharist.

God's nourishing word calls for attentiveness and receptivity.  God's victuals, which are true instruction, demand discipline: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me....”   Ultimately feeding on and clinging to God's instruction is what truly satisfies human hearts (“listen, so that you may live”).

Immediately before narrating the multiplication of the loaves for the thousands, Matthew had told of King Herod's banquet, which culminated in the beheading of John the Baptist (14.1-12).  It is an image of the worst sort of evil that humankind can muster.  Faced with the hostile power of the kingdom of this world, Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself”.  Jesus does not respond to evil with violence but with a search for solitude, just as, later on, He will seek seclusion for an opportunity to pray (14.23).

The mini-drama of the miracle of the loaves has three parts.  It opens with a notice that Jesus had compassion for the crowd “and cured their sick”.  This so enthrals the people that they are reluctant to leave.  Though they are as yet uncommitted to Him, Jesus encouraged them to stay with him till evening.

Then comes Jesus' dialogue with his disciples.  He challenges them, “you give them something to eat”.  They do not appear sarcastic, as in Mark's account (6.37), but simply volunteer their lack of resources, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish”.  Finally, in the miracle, the extravagance of messianic times replaces the hunger of God's people (“all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full”).

As they feed on God's provisions, Christians come to understand Paul's teaching that nothing (“famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword ... nor things present nor things to come”) can separate them “from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”.


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