The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Isaiah 55:1-3 + Romans 8:35,37-39 + Matthew 14:13-21
What do you think is the meaning of Jesus feeding a crowd of more than five thousand people with only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish? Was Jesus simply showing his power to work a miracle—demonstrating his power over material things? Of course that was a part of it, but this miracle of feeding the five thousand has far more to tell us about Christ than simply this.
Being compassionate, Jesus was certainly concerned with the physical well-being of the people who had come to hear him preach. Just how deep Christ’s compassion was is made obvious when we consider again something the first verse of this passage tells us: Jesus is told about the hunger of the crowds right after he had heard of the death of John the Baptizer, and had withdrawn by boat to a deserted place by himself. If we were to take time to imagine this, we could very clearly see just how human Christ was, responding in grief and perhaps anger at the death of his own cousin. He withdrew from others to be by himself. And yet, even at this point in his life, the needs of others pressed upon him. His response was that of God himself: he turned to help those in need.
We could look at this compassion of Jesus and see in it an example for ourselves. As Christians, we are called to walk in the footsteps of Christ, to imitate Him—and especially to imitate the sort of self-sacrifice that he shows in this passage, the sort of self-sacrifice that came to full expression in his death on the Cross. But this passage is not so much about our need to imitate Christ. We all have our limits. Very likely, if we experienced the death of a close relative, we’d be little help to others. None of us can expect to match the depth of Christ’s self-sacrifice.
But again, that’s not the point of this passage to begin with. In this event in Christ’s life we don’t see an example for us in the response of Jesus as much as we do in the response of the crowds themselves. The crowds seek out Jesus, because they know that they are in need. But what kind of need do they really have?
Being compassionate, Jesus was certainly concerned with the physical well-being of the people who had come to hear him preach. But he knew the people in the crowds better than they knew themselves. Christ had a much deeper concern for their spiritual well-being. He had reminded them that their ancestors, whom God had fed in the desert by sending bread in the form of manna, had died. His divine Father, Jesus told them, had sent him to be their spiritual bread which would allow them to live for ever. If they would eat this bread by accepting him and following his commandments they could enter into God’s eternal kingdom of love.
In today’s first reading Isaiah says in the name of the Lord, “Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.” This is the same message which Jesus conveyed to those people gathered near the Sea of Galilee. He brought his meaning home to them in a concrete way by giving them physical bread to satisfy their bodily hunger. But at the same time he revealed that he was the spiritual bread which God had sent to bring them eternal life.
The crowds naturally had a spiritual hunger. Perhaps many of them were not even aware of this hunger inside of them, inside their souls. Unfortunately, many of us today as well aren’t even aware of the hunger in our souls.
Perhaps you’ve read or heard over the past week about the U.S. Congress passing legislation radically changing the welfare system in our country; the president plans to sign this legislation into law. The mere fact that this law has the support of both houses of Congress and the president says something significant about our general attitude in this country to the idea of helping others to obtain their daily bread.
On the one had, we realize that there is a need to help those who are truly in need. But on the other hand, we realize there is a need for people, wherever possible, to work for the bread they eat. We recognize both of these needs, and as a society we have to try to balance them. There is disagreement, of course, about whether the balance should lead more towards this side or the other, but we do find some sort of general agreement that there has to be some sort of balance between the two.
What you’re more likely to find agreement over, though, is the matter of oneself being on welfare. Ask a crowd of people what sort of welfare should be offered to others, and there will surely be disagreement. But ask that same crowd whether they themselves would like to be on welfare, and there will be little or no disagreement. No one likes the idea of being dependent on an other, and most are willing to work as is necessary to feed themselves and their family.
We like to be independent. We don’t want to depend on others. That’s a fair ethic to have when it comes to the material world, since God gave us an intellect, memory, and will in order to be stewards of the material world with Him. But it doesn’t work when it comes to the spiritual life. We can’t create grace as we do material things. When it comes to the life of the soul, we are completely dependent upon God. If we have a hard time accepting the idea of relying on others, we’ll have a hard time understanding how much we need God’s grace in our lives. Sometimes the best prayer we can offer is simply to cry out to God and tell Him how much we need Him in our lives.
In other words, we are all dependent upon the welfare given through the Church. To deny this dependence is to be proud, and results in our starvation. We are the crowd of people in the gospel passage, hungering spiritually, even if we confuse that hunger for some other type of longing. When we watch Christ, we see that God never fails to turn to us when we are in need. If Christ, exhausted in this world by the grief that came with the news of his cousin’s death, would not fail to satisfy the hunger of the crowds, how could he now in heaven be deterred from helping us in our need? Neither death nor life, trial or distress, hunger or nakedness, danger or the sword can separate us from the love of God.
None of us can deny that there is often something missing in our lives. We have to turn our understanding to God, to realize His life as the source of all the good in our lives, and to recognize His life as the fulfillment of all the needs in our lives. If our first appeal is not to Him, our reliance on others or on ourselves will be in vain.