You might not agree with me, but I think that it is a pity that in our Lectionary we do not
have much longer extracts from the Gospels!
So often on a Sunday we have read to us wonderful
stories about the life of Jesus or one or other of his miracles and yet they are mostly presented to us as isolated incidents
completely out of context.
Today we have a good example in the feeding of the Five Thousand. On its own it is a marvellous account of one of the greatest and most attested to miracles. But to put it in context is to open up whole new layers of meaning and depth.
I say that this is one of the miracles most attested to because it is recorded in all the Gospels and astonishingly twice in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.
Today we have the account from Chapter 14 of Matthew but there is another account of what is essentially the same miracle in Chapter 15. In today’s version there are five thousand men with five loaves and two fish and in Chapter 15 we find four thousand men with seven loaves and a few fish.
If you are looking for historical evidence for a multiplication of loaves then six accounts of it in the pages of the New Testament surely ought to be enough to satisfy you!
There are two approaches often taken in relation to these miracles. One takes a reductionist view and downplays the miraculous content altogether in order to say that the real miracle was to get the people to share their food with one another.
We ought to put this out of our minds straight away for it reduces one of Christ’s greatest miracles to the level of the merely trivial.
The other approach often taken by scholars is to heighten the importance of the symbolism stressing the numeric significance of the five loaves, the two fish and the twelve baskets, etc. Again if you go down this road then the simple fact of the miracle is easily lost.
Now while clearly there are strong symbolic elements in the story we mustn’t let them get in the way of what actually occurred. You don’t generally find six accounts of nothing! Symbols are fine but they must be connected to an actual event and it is on that we must focus.
But what about the context I mentioned earlier? Well, Chapter 14 begins with Matthew’s account of the banquet at which John the Baptist was executed. This was an old-style royal banquet of the worst kind.
Herod is there with his cronies enjoying the best food and drink the kingdom has to offer. There is debauchery, arrogance, rivalry and scheming; and the upshot of all this is that the head of John the Baptist is triumphantly brought in on a plate.
This paragraph ends and the next one opens with our text today and has Jesus going to a lonely place. But finding himself followed by the throngs of people he takes pity on them and feeds them in a miraculous meal drawn from five loaves and two fish. All are satisfied; they are fed both physically and spiritually and there was an astonishing amount left over.
What a difference! Matthew sets these two banquets beside each other precisely in order to make this contrast between a banquet presided over by a worldly, brutal and selfish king and the banquet of a loving and generous Saviour to which the poor are invited. He is deliberately making a direct contrast between the values of this world and the values of the Kingdom of God.
Herod’s squalid banquet does nothing for anyone, least of all Herod who comes out of it with a guilty conscience. All who participate in that banquet come out the worse for it; except perhaps the one reluctant guest, John the Baptist.
For him it meant the crown of martyrdom. It meant the fulfilment of his role. He died knowing that he had completed his task and paved the way for the Saviour of the World.
But this is not the only context in which this wonderful miracle is set. If we look back into the Old Testament we find the great prophet Elisha performing something very similar in the Second Book of Kings. He has only twenty barley loaves but he satisfies the hunger of one hundred men.
Matthew’s readers would have been familiar with this incident and of course understood that however great the prophet Elisa was Christ is in a different league altogether.
That’s looking back into the pages of the Old Testament, but we must also look forward to the Last Supper to which the Feeding of the Five Thousand also alludes. There are clear Eucharistic references in the text such as Jesus taking the bread raising his eyes to heaven, blessing it, breaking it and giving it to them. This miracle is clearly therefore a foreshadowing of the Last Supper.
We who are familiar, as Matthew’s readers also were, with the frequent celebration of the Eucharist realise that what happened in the Upper Room is multiplied throughout the world and down the ages.
The bounty of God, the great outpouring of his love, the constant nourishment that he gives us is not restricted to that lonely place by the Sea of Galilee or within that Upper Room in Jerusalem. It reaches out to us now in the sacrament we celebrate this morning and connects us to him in an unbreakable bond of love.
In reflecting on the Feeding of the Five Thousand we look back to the time of Elisha and we look forward to the Last Supper and find definite resonances. But it goes beyond this for, as with everything Christ does, it refers also to the Kingdom which will come into its fullness at the end of time.
Just as Elisha’s miracle foreshadows Jesus’ miracle in Galilee, and it in turn foreshadows the Last Supper, the Eucharist we now celebrate; so this in turn foreshadows the Banquet of Heaven. Actually not foreshadows it, but already enables us to begin to participate in it.
You can see now something that can only be described as a great crescendo building up over the centuries which will come to its fulfilment on the Last Day. And this breathtaking crescendo is a tremendous up-swell of goodness, truth, beauty, generosity and self-sacrifice.
It is a wave of love that wants to catch up all of humanity and bring it to its fulfilment in God.
That simple meal on the side of the lake did not simply fill the bellies of those five thousand people; it was a sign of the Kingdom. It was a token of God’s love for us. It was a pledge of his promise to open for us the way to eternal life.
Digest of Articles from Catholic Blogs and Websites
August 3, 2014
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A—August 3, 2014
Today, Jesus has pity on a vast, hungry crowd; the miracle He performs has profound Eucharistic meaning.
Gospel (Read Mt 14:13-21)
Our reading begins with a description of Jesus’ response to the news of the death of John the Baptist: “He withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by Himself.” Surely He had withdrawn to mourn in solitude the martyrdom of His cousin, whom He had once described as the greatest man born of woman (Mt 11:11). John died at the whim of people who refused to listen to the prophet’s call to repentance (read Mt 14:1-12). A fancy birthday party, in a palace filled with guests and fine food, ended in the death of the precursor to the Messiah. Upon hearing this, Jesus heads for a place as far from a scene like that as He can get, a “deserted place.”
Eighteenth Sunday: The Culture of Life
The Gospel reading for this Sunday begins with Jesus hearing the news of the death of John the Baptist, murdered, as you know, by Herod as part of the plot of his wife, Herodias, to protect her position at court. You know the story. Herod had been riveted by John the Baptist’s prophecy and had been listening to the Baptist’s condemning Herod’s present marital situation. Herod had met up with his brother Philip in Rome and fallen in love with Philip’s wife. He then divorced his own wife, Phasaelis, daughter of a King Aretus of Nabatea, and stole his brother’s wife. Most likely, she changed her name to Herodias.
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A
Gospel Matthew 14 : 13 – 21
Place our sufferings, disappointments and cares into the hands of Jesus, and he will work great marvels in our lives. This is not merely a nice saying meant to give comfort to someone during a time of distress, it is the reality of God’s care for us in every aspect of our lives. In the Gospel for today this can be seen in how Jesus deals with the news of John the Baptist’s death, the multitude that sought him out and His concern for providing food for the crowd.
Sharing in God’s Eternity
When I was young, even three and four years old, I used to cry at night thinking about death and eternity. It was a feeling as if the wind has gotten knocked out of me and a huge weight was being pressed upon me. Even now, a feeling of terror can come over me when I think of eternity in relation to time. How can our lives which are so limited and passing endure forever? Forever itself seems to be an insolvable puzzle that twists the minds in knots. If I think of eternity, just sheer eternity, it makes me want to crawl under a rock and hide!
Solomon’s Wisdom: On the Necessity of Reading the Old Testament
Once I had dinner with another priest. As we were eating we talked about the Bible. “I preach the same homily every weekend,” he said. “Really?” I asked. “And how are your collections?” While we were at it, he justified himself by declaring that it was no longer necessary to preach on the Old Testament. “Why do we need to talk about that dusty old book anymore? Jesus nullified it. Every word of it. End of story. Leave it on the shelf. Or use it as a doorstop or as a paperweight.”
How God is Present in Us
We have taken it for granted that God, then, is present somehow in the soul by grace. We have now to consider what sort of a presence this really is. Do we mean absolutely that God the Holy Spirit is truly in the soul Himself, or do we, by some metaphor or vague expression, mean that He is merely exerting Himself there in some new and special way? Perhaps it is only that, by means of the sevenfold gifts, He has a tighter hold on us and can bring us more completely under the sweet dominion of His will.