Monday of Week 18 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 14:13-21

The announcement of John the Baptist’s death is followed immediately in Matthew by the feeding of the 5,000 in the desert. Matthew says that Jesus, on hearing of his cousin’s tragic death, withdrew by boat to a desert place by himself. He clearly wanted time to reflect. He knew that, if things continued as they were, he too would be facing trouble.

However, the crowds knew where he had gone and followed along the shore on foot and:

When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

His own troubles were set aside as he saw the greater need of the people. We have here, of course, an image of our God, filled with compassion for all of us and anxious to bring us healing and wholeness.

As evening comes down, the disciples suggest that the people be sent to neighbouring villages for food. It is the first mention of the disciples’ presence. In Mark’s version of this story, the disciples had accompanied Jesus in the boat at his invitation, so that they could all have a period of quiet away from the crowds. Jesus’ response is simple and to the point:

They need not go away; you give them something to eat.

They reply:

We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.

This, of course, is a sign of the future. It will be the responsibility of Jesus’ followers to give the people the nourishment they need for their lives. At times, their resources will seem very inadequate, but time will show that wonders can be done with very little. Just look at what St (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta achieved with nothing of her own.

The people are then ordered to sit down on the grass. Jesus takes the loaves and fish, looks up to heaven in the direction of his Father, blesses the food, breaks it, gives it to the disciples who in turn distribute it among the people. The whole action clearly prefigures the Eucharist and leads up to it.

It is not explained how it all happened, but “five thousand men”, not counting the women and children also present, had their fill. Matthew alone notes the presence of women and children. As Jews did not permit women and children to eat together with men in public, they would have been in a separate place by themselves. And what was left over filled 12 baskets – a perfect number symbolising abundance and also the number of the Apostles.

There are two clear lessons. First, that God takes care of his people. We can read the feeding in two ways. On the one hand, we can simply take it as a miraculous event, pointing to the divine origins of Jesus. On the other hand, there is another possibility with its own meaning. Once the disciples began to share the little food they had with those around, it triggered a similar movement among the crowd, many of whom had actually brought some food with them. When everyone shared, everyone had enough – a picture of the kind of society the Church should stand for. Some might say that this is explaining away the miracle, but it also makes an important point for us to consider in our own lives.

The second lesson is that it was the disciples and not Jesus who distributed the bread and fish. And so it must be in our own time. If the followers of Jesus do not share with others what they have received from him, the work of Jesus and the spreading of the Gospel will not happen.

Lastly, and as already mentioned, there are clear Eucharistic elements in the story – especially the ritualistic way in which Jesus prayed, blessed, broke and distributed the bread. The breaking of the bread (a name for the Mass) is very important because it indicates sharing and not just eating. The Eucharist is the celebration of a sharing community. If sharing of what we have in real life is not taking place, then the Eucharist becomes a ritualistic sham, like:

…whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful but inside are full of the bones of the dead… (Matt 23:27)

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