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Take and Eat

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Eighteenth Sunday of the Year. fr Peter Harries brings out the rich symbolic meaning of the feeding of the five thousand.

Matthew today tells us of Jesus feeding of the five thousand men. After hearing of the death of John the Baptist, Jesus has withdrawn to a lonely place where he could be away from the crowds. Yet the crowds find Jesus, and Jesus, always compassionate, heals their sick.

As evening approaches, the disciples want to send the crowds away to buy food. Jesus however feeds the crowd with the five loaves and two fish that the disciples have with them. A miracle. Dried fish, I am assured, is the ancient Galilean equivalent of cheese or ham, what you usually nibble in your lunchtime sandwich.

Those who scoff at miracles might try to suggest that Jesus persuaded everyone, by his charismatic example, to belatedly share their picnic lunches with each other. Such reductionism and minimalism misses the whole drama of being in the wilderness with no food, just like during the Exodus of old. It also sidelines the rich vocabulary of the story. Matthew has told us that Jesus took the bread and fish, blessed them, broke them and distributed them to these hungry crowds. Taking, blessing, breaking and distributing. Later in the gospel Matthew will tell us that Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the apostles to eat. The same vocabulary, the same actions, perhaps more obvious in the original Greek to the early Christian congregations listening to Matthew's gospel. The same as we do at Mass today, where the priest, in the name of Jesus, takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and distributes it to the people of the Messiah.

This story of the feeding of the five thousand then is told us as deeply symbolic story, a historic incident that points us forward to the Eucharist, the Mass.Remember also that the Mass is a promise of the feast of the Messiah at the end of time, or heaven. However the story also reminds us of the Exodus far of in the past history of God's people, when God fed the people in the desert on manna after their escape from slavery in Egypt. Matthew through this story and many others in the gospel shows us that Jesus is the new and greater Moses. Moses had been the leader of God's people centuries previously, and, traditionally, the person to whom the Law was revealed. Matthew is telling us that Jesus is truly the Messiah, the giver of the new law of love, the Saviour of God's people, come to inaugurate God's kingdom.

What a contrast with the decadent meal Matthew has described a few verses earlier. Salome scandalously (implausibly?) dances for the bigwigs at Herod's court and entraps Herod into executing John the Baptist. A meal served with deceit and obsession with power. In contrast Jesus feeds the sick who he has cured along with their friends and companions showing that he is the Messiah.

Isaiah in our first reading has spoken of a time when God will invite the poor to buy corn without money, and at no cost drink wine and milk. Jesus lives out this prophecy of the rule of the Messiah, as he feeds this crowd of old on five loaves and two fish, as he feeds us on the Eucharistic bread which is his body, on the wine which is his blood, as a promise of our heavenly destiny.

Matthew's emphasis in telling the story involving five thousand men, while saying nothing of women and children, grates on our modern sensitivities. Surely women and children were present? Possibly Matthew is simply telling us this story in language deliberately echoing the book of Exodus in the Old Testament, where only the men are explicitly numbered. Or perhaps there is more. Matthew may possibly want to suggest that the crowd was principally five thousand able-bodied blokes of fighting age. Blokes who believe that Jesus is the Messiah and right now are preparing to be his victorious army, getting rid of the hated Roman occupiers and their collaborators including Herod. If so, the blokes may have been very disappointed. The kingdom of God that Jesus preaches, is not a kingdom created and protected by military force. Jesus teaches the reign of God, a reign over our hearts and minds, a kingdom of peace, integrity and justice, not a kingdom of war, oppression and famine.

Readings: Isaiah 55:1-3 Romans 8:35,37-39 Matthew 14:13-21

Peter H. Harries O.P.

Peter H. Harries Peter Harries is chaplain to the University College London Hospitals NHS Trust.


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