Sunday of week 18 of Ordinary Time

Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-3; Romans 8:35.37-39; Matthew 14:13-21

THE GOSPEL TODAY OPENS with Jesus withdrawing to a “lonely” place with his disciples. We are told that this happened on receiving the news of John the Baptist’s execution. We know that Galilee in those times was quite heavily populated and Jesus had become already a well-known figure. What was the reason for this withdrawal? It could have been to provide a period of rest and reflection for Jesus and his disciples, a time for the disciples to be taught by Jesus. However, a more obvious reason was to avoid possible danger after the execution of John the Baptist. It is worth noting that Jesus had no streak of recklessness nor did he go out of his way to court opposition or suffering. Several times the Gospel records Jesus prudently getting out of the public eye when things were getting too hot.

Deep compassion

However, on this occasion, Jesus and his companions were observed slipping away. So while they made for the other side of the lake by boat, “the people…leaving the towns, went after him on foot”. When Jesus stepped ashore, he was faced with a large crowd of people. His immediate reaction was one of deep compassion and he began to heal the sick among them. This contrasts with Mark’s version where Jesus’ compassion leads to teaching the crowds. The healing, of course, in its own way was a kind of teaching, as the teaching was also a kind of healing. Jesus’ aim was always to restore people to wholeness in body and spirit. That is the meaning of salvation.

We might reflect ourselves at this juncture on how we react to sudden and unexpected calls on our time and energy. Are we always filled with compassion for those who ask for help? Especially if those asking are strangers or people we do not particularly like? How many real opportunities for bringing some wholeness into a person’s life have been lost because a request was made in conflict with plans that I had made, not least religious plans? (Remember the priest and Levite who ignored the mugging victim on the road to Jericho because they were on the way to the Temple?)

There are two reactions possible to calls for help. On the one hand, I can completely ignore such calls when they conflict with what I have planned to do. In this case, I always put my own perceived needs first and I am not going to put myself out for others. Once this gets known, you won’t often be asked for help but it is hardly the Christ-like response.

On the other hand, I may be one of those persons who cannot say No. In which case, I put aside what I have planned and go to help the person, even though I do not want to do so, and may feel highly resentful. On the outside I will be all smiles while on the inside I am in knots of anger and frustration. The final outcome of this kind of response is “burnout”. If I am one of these kinds of people, it is very important for me to be seen as a helpful person and I will make any sacrifice to preserve that image. Such persons need to be needed and, deep down, they are answering their own needs rather than those of another.

Obviously neither of these responses is appropriate and they are not the ones that Jesus made. It requires great sensitivity and discernment to know when we are required to show compassion by giving all the help we can, even at some inconvenience, and when we show equal compassion by making people stand on their own feet rather than resort to manipulating others in their dependence. I am not responsible for saving the whole world. I will have to watch many people going without my help. But there will be times when I am the only person who can help this person now. Recognising these moments needs a combination of honesty and firmness.

Give them something to eat

There are times, like today, when Jesus immediately responds to the people’s needs. There are others when, in spite of their requests, he either withdraws to a solitary place alone or goes elsewhere (cf. Mark 1:35-38, John 6:15).

Another reason why we are often reluctant to give help is that we think we have nothing to give. As the day wore on the disciples became anxious about the crowd. “It is getting late, this is an isolated place, send them back to the towns for food,” the disciples urge Jesus. “There is no need for them to go; give them something to eat yourselves,” Jesus tells them. “But we have only five loaves and two fish,” they answer. Jesus is teaching them self-confidence and urging them to share the little they have. They will be surprised how far it will go. And, if we do the same, we can be pleasantly surprised too. We, like the disciples, are called again and again to be mediators between Jesus and others, offering the little we have with total generosity.

Jesus then took the bread and fish, raised his eyes to heaven (towards God his Father), and said the regular Jewish blessing on the food. He then began breaking the bread and gave it to his disciples to distribute. Lo and behold! The crowd “all ate as much as they wanted” and there were even 12 full baskets left over. The 12 baskets clearly represent the 12 tribes of Israel now under the 12 disciples who are part of the New Israel. They will become the 12 sources of God’s generous concern for his people.

Matthew says that there were about 5,000 men, not including women and children. This means, according to some commentators, that there could have been as many as 20,000-30,000 people present. They represent the people of Israel being fed, with echoes of the manna and quails during the years in the desert (Exodus) and the multiplying of oil and bread by Elisha in the Old Testament.

The food that Jesus gives is a clear symbol of all our needs being fulfilled and fulfilled in abundance. And the miracle itself is a symbol of the Eucharist, the sacrament of unity and sharing of the broken bread as a sign of a community that shares and provides in abundance for the needs of its members. Alas! our Eucharists are so often an empty symbol of the intended reality!

Why so many hungry?

If God really cares, why are so many needs still unfulfilled? Why is there so much hunger, so much loneliness, why are there so many without homes, without food, without education, without…? Can we really take the First Reading seriously? “Come to the water all you who are thirsty; though you have no money, come!” Where does such a world exist? “Buy corn without money, and eat, and, at no cost, wine and milk.”

The next sentence is much more to the point. “Why spend money on what is not bread, your wages on what fails to satisfy” – especially if that money could be spent on bread for others and on needs that can be satisfied. “Listen, listen to me and you will have good things to eat and rich food to enjoy.” Yes, if we really listened to the Lord, especially to the Lord Jesus in the Gospel, we would discover that there are ways for everyone to have their needs satisfied in abundance.

Paul can say in the Second Reading, “nothing can come between us and the love of Christ, even if we are troubled or worried, or being persecuted, or lacking food or clothes, or being threatened or even attacked. These are the trials through which we triumph… For I am certain of this: neither death nor life…nothing that exists…can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord”.

Three lessons

The Gospel and these two readings, then, are saying:

a. That God really cares about his people and that there is enough and more for everybody;

b. That the ups and downs of life, whether they are spiritual, emotional, physical, or material, whether they are personal tragedies or natural disasters, are basically unavoidable but are in no way a contradiction of God’s loving care for us. In fact, these things are in their own way necessary for us to grow in our awareness of where true peace and happiness lie;

c. That a great deal of God’s care and compassion devolves on our own shoulders. A great deal of the human suffering in the world has been caused by human agency and can be relieved by human agency. Jesus did not feed the crowd directly. He left that to his disciples. He still does. It is too easy to blame God, too easy to blame governments, too easy see these things as other people’s problems. But they are also ours, they are mine.

That is the meaning of the Eucharist we celebrate here today, namely, that as Christians we commit ourselves to share, to work with God in communicating his compassion to all. God is a caring person but, much of the time, he needs my co-operation to show people just how caring he really is.

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