18th Ordinary Sunday (Year A)
First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-3 Second Reading: Romans 8:35, 37-39 Gospel Reading: Matthew 14:13-21
“THE HAND OF THE LORD FEEDS US; HE ANSWERS ALL OUR NEEDS.”
A story is told of a farmer whose farms were full of corn. Every morning on waking up, he prayed aloud to God that the needy would also be supplied with corn. But when anyone in need asked for a little of his corn, he would always say that he had none to spare.
One day after hearing his father pray for the poor and the needy, his little son said to him, “Father, I wish I had your corn.”
“What would you do with it?” asked the father.
The child replied, “I would answer your prayer.”
The farmer had compassion for the needy. He prayed that their needs be supplied. But his compassion was without corresponding action. It took his son to point out the in-congruence of his situation and thus his prayer.
Today is the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In one way or another, all of today’s Scripture Readings emphasize the provident goodness of God, who feeds all of creation and satisfies the desire of every living creature. In the First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Isaiah utters words of consolation to the people in exile. We hear the voice of a hospitable God who invites all to a sumptuous banquet where the hungry, the thirsty and the poor could feast freely and richly. It is an offer of abundant life as well as a call to listen to His word. The love of a nurturing God made manifest in Jesus Christ is strongly underlined in today’s Second Reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. St. Paul avows that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Indeed, we conquer overwhelmingly all trials and difficulties through him who loves us. We are consoled that God is our support and strength. In the Gospel Reading from St. Matthew, Jesus miraculously feeds five thousand people in a deserted place with five loaves and two fish. He shows his great concern towards people who had left everything and stayed with him to listen to his word. “The hand of the Lord feeds us; He answers all our needs.”
Now, the most prominent characteristic of Jesus which stands out clearly in the Gospels is his compassion. He is always compassionate to the poor & the weak, to the sick & the suffering, to the sinners & the outcasts, to the hungry & the thirsty. Today's Gospel Reading, which speaks about the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, is a good example of this - Jesus is moved with pity for the crowd who followed him on foot from their towns to listen to him and who are tired & exhausted, hungry & thirsty.
On its own, the miraculous feeding of the five thousand is a marvelous account of one of the greatest and most attested to miracles, as it is recorded in all the four Gospels, and astonishingly twice in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Certainly, each version is shaped in slightly different way according to the particular concerns of the Evangelist. We don't generally find six accounts of nothing! If one is looking for the 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 him/her. Of course, different approaches are often taken in relation to these miracles to interpret them. But to put them in context is to open up a whole new layers of meaning and depth.
Today, we have the account of the event from Ch 14 of St. Matthew, but there is another account of what is essentially the same miracle in Ch 15. In today's version there are five thousand men with five loaves and two fish and in Ch 15 we find four thousand men with seven loaves and few fish. Considering today's reading in St. Matthew's context we find that Ch 14 begins with his 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 his 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 of 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. “The hand of the Lord feeds us; He answers all our needs.”
What a difference! St. Matthew sets these two banquets beside each other precisely in order to make this contrast between a banquet offered by a worldly, brutal & selfish king and the banquet of a loving & generous Savior 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 Heaven. 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 fulfillment of his role. He died knowing that he had completed his task and paved the way for the Savior of the world.
But this is not only context in which this wonderful miracle is set. If we look back into the Old Testament, we find the great prophet Elisha performing very similar thing in the 2nd Book of the Kings. He has only twenty barley loaves, but he satisfies the hunger of one hundred men. “The hand of the Lord feeds us; He answers all our needs.”
That's looking back into the pages of the OT, 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. So, St. Matthew is telling his audience something about their own Eucharist. This miracle is clearly therefore a foreshadowing of the Last Supper. The abundance of the twelve baskets of leftovers represents the twelve tribes of the New Israel, presided over by the twelve disciples.
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. That's why St. Paul very loudly and clearly says in the 2nd Reading from his Letter to the Romans - “Brothers and sisters: What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or peril, or the sword? No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Again, while 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 resonance. But it goes still beyond this, for as with everything Christ does, it refers also to the Kingdom of Heaven, which will come into its fulness at the end of time. Jesus also compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding banquet - “ The Kingdom of God may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast …,” for which all are invited. This is also what we hear in the 1st Reading of today, taken from prophet Isaiah, where God is inviting all who are hungry and thirsty to eat and drink free of cost, even him who has no money. This is God's invitation to each one of us to His heavenly banquet. A sumptuous banquet is offered by Him - wine and milk and bread, all without cost. Here, the imagery is lavish in the extreme. “The hand of the Lord feeds us; He answers all our needs.”
In conclusion: Just as Elisha's miracle foreshadows Jesus' miracle in Galilee, which in turn foreshadows the Last Supper, the Eucharist we now celebrate, which again in turn foreshadows the Banquet of Heaven; actually not foreshadows it, but already enables us to begin participate in it. Now, partaking in the Lord’s Supper nourishes the spiritual life of the believer. Much as ordinary or material food strengthens and helps our bodies to grow, Eucharist promotes the spiritual growth begun in us at baptism. Just as we cannot hope to survive without material food, the Eucharist is necessary for our growth in the life of faith. We can see now something that can only be described as a great crescendo building up over the centuries which will come to its fulfillment on the Last Day. And this breathtaking crescendo is a tremendous up-swell of goodness, beauty, generosity and self-sacrifice. It is a wave of love that wants to catch up all of humanity and bring it to its fulfillment 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 of Heaven. It was a token of God's great concern and magnanimous love for us. It was a pledge of his promise to open for us the way to eternal life. “The hand of the Lord feeds us; He answers all our needs.” And this is the Good News of today.