Sunday, August 3, 2014
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 14:13-21 (New American Bible, Revised Edition)
13 When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns.14When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.15When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”16[Jesus] said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.”17But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”18Then he said, “Bring them here to me,”19and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.20They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over—twelve wicker baskets full.21Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.
What a curious coincidence: I am starting to write these lines on the date on which some Churches traditionally celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi. And, no doubt, today’s liturgy has a deep Eucharistic mood. The idea of a banquet as a sign of God’s communion with his people or with some of the outstanding characters is recurrent in the Old Testament. And it implies, not only closeness and warmth, but also conveys the generosity shown by God, who offers salvation “for free”. The image is used by the prophets too: in the case of Isaiah, in today’s reading but also in 25:6-9: “The Lord… will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines…” as a sign of his designs of blessing and peace. Let us remember that, from the Exodus from Egypt, the most important celebration was the Paschal dinner, as a remembrance of their delivery from slavery and their birth as a people elected by God to live with the dignity of a free nation. The context for today’s liturgy is quite meaningful: the ending of Matthew’s chapter 13 was Jesus’ rejection by the people of his own village; and his remark “A prophet is not without honour except in his own place (13:57) is an anticipation of the rejection and death of the Baptist at the hands of Herod. Just as his baptism by John (Matthew 3:13-17) had provoked Jesus’ retiring to the desert to be tempted, this event makes him withdraw “to a deserted place by himself” (14:13), perhaps to mourn over John’s death or to pray in solitude as on some other occasions. But there is no time of rest for a saving Messiah: when he sees the crowds, his feelings of pity and mercy are stronger than his desire for silence, and he cures the sick. It is quite meaningful, too, that Matthew, so much interested in doctrine, does not mention any teaching as Mark does (6:34), but only Jesus’ healing activity. In this setting, Jesus will be moved to pity once again: even if the disciples suggest the dismissal of the crowds as a solution for their hunger, Jesus prefers to make them assume the responsibility of finding a way out of that troubling situation. ‘Do not rely on me, and do not try to get rid of the problem just by sending them away’: “Give them some food yourselves” (14:16). The point in this passage (as in the other five accounts of the multiplication of bread and fish) is not to discern if it was a real miraculous “multiplication”; if it was a “secular” prodigy: when the community shares what they have, even if it is only five loaves and two fish, there is enough food to feed a crowd; or whether it was just a symbolic meal what they had. In any case, there is something that the evangelist makes quite clear. First, it is Jesus who solves the problem: “Bring them here to me” (14:18). And, quoting his own text, he shows how the Beatitudes are not simply “wishful thinking”, but statements of the actuality of the Kingdom of God: those who were hungry were in fact “satisfied” (Matthew 5:6 = 14:20), and not only with “righteousness”, but with real bread and fish. Again, we should recall the Eucharistic dimension of the banquet: not only in Jesus’ gestures, the same used to describe both those of the multiplication and the Last Supper, but also in one of the oldest Greek terms used for the Eucharistic celebration: the “klásis toû ártou”, the breaking of bread.
Our approach today should be focused on two different aspects of the readings: both the material and spiritual dimension of hunger, and our responsibility concerning both realms. To what extent does our Eucharistic celebration reflect and encourage our concern with the needs and problems of our society? To what extent do we reflect the spiritual dimension of the Eucharist in our secular activity on behalf of our less favoured brothers and sisters? Are we conscious of the double risk we run: reducing our Christian community to a charitable NGO, or becoming simple preachers of an ethereal, detached Christian talk without effective action? Humble and limited as our resources may be, do we believe God’s action is more powerful than our assets and means? How often do we hide behind the unjust conditions of our society so as not to take personal attitudes of social and political commitment?
Pray for those who suffer from physical hunger, whose survival is at risk: that a more just distribution of world wealth may contribute to the solution of their endemic problems. Pray for those whose abundance prevents them from seeing the tragedy of nations doomed to permanent states of famine: that we may be conscious of our responsibility and devote our efforts to any effective action on their behalf. Let us pray for those who suffer from spiritual hunger and thirst: that they may find in Jesus an in our personal witness to him the true bread of eternal life.
Having centred our attention on the multiplication of bread and fish, we have put aside the reading from Romans, one of the most comforting and personal expressions of Paul’s feelings of trust in God’s love and saving designs. We should turn to it whenever we feel distressed because of the many, great or small, reasons to lose heart. Paul knows quite well how difficult it is sometimes not to feel isolated, abandoned, as if God were too far from our concerns. Read the text with calm and in a climate of inner silence, and try to understand the greatness of a God who, through Jesus Christ, will never be far from us.
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón, Roman Catholic priest, Archdiocese of Madrid, Spain
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