18th Sunday – Two Kingdoms, Two Meals

Feeding the multitude, by Ambrosius Francken

Isaiah 55:1-3, Matthew 14:13-21

We have before us this familiar scene from the gospel, commonly called the ‘Feeding of the five thousand’. It is one of the narratives which can provide rich food for an Ignatian style contemplation of the Scriptures (here, for example). It must have been an equally important source of reflection and fond memory for the apostles and the early Church, judging from the fact that it that it was one of the few scenes all the four gospels record. 

This beautiful vision of the people gathered round Jesus, hearing the Word and eating this meal which satisfies is set in contrast to another meal, another scene very different from this. Matthew begins by narrating how Jesus goes into the wilderness to be alone, because he has just heard of the death of the death of John the Baptist. It is one of the places where the humanity of Jesus is beautifully visible, in both the love and the pain he feels as he grieves for John the Baptist. This was his cousin, someone he loved, the one who inaugurated his mission. But John also represented a key pillar of the particular constitution of Israelite life – the Prophets; he was the greatest of them. And he has just been executed by Herod, as a direct result of Herod’s lust, pride and his need to please people. But this was not simply a tragic incident. The monarchy was another key pillar of Israel’s life and vital part of the covenant God had made with David. It was through David’s kingdom that God was going to bless Israel and the whole world. All prophets subsequently looked forward to its renewal, as we see from the first reading (Isaiah 55:3). But this key institution was now occupied by a trespasser – Herod – who was not of the line of David and thus, an illegitimate king. His power was guaranteed not by God but by the Romans. Something so central to the life of Israel, so important as a channel of God’s action, was corrupted at its core. Now, in his execution of the greatest of the prophets, he had just subjugated Prophecy, snuffed out the voice of God, in Israel. Or at least he tried to, following in the footsteps of his father, who had killed the innocents.

             The people are in a heightened state of unrest. They are leaderless, under oppression and suffering. The last of the pillars, the priesthood was not faring much better, also influenced by the Romans. All their key institutions, which were meant to guarantee their life, bless them, provide order in their life and keep them in touch with God were corrupted at their core. Whence, comes their help? They respond in different ways, from violence to passive resistance to resignation. Still others are simply lost. With one prophet killed, they all flock to another, who seems to wear a similar mantle. At a time when Jesus, feeling the pain of his loss and the exhaustion of all his ministry tries to find a deserted place with his closest disciples, come a multitude, seeking solace in their pain. The people are looking for a solution. They want an answer to their problems.

         And Jesus has compassion on them. Jesus’ immediate reaction is that of compassion. He does not feel sorry for himself, think of his own weariness, he is simply moved by compassion. The word used images a movement of the entrails, a movement that comes from the deepest part of the person. He does not turn them away, he first answers their particular need, gives them the immediate help they long for – he heals their sick and comforts them. That is just the immediate solution – what of the larger institutional, systemic problems? There are many who want Jesus to become a king – to overthrow Herod and the Romans. They do not fully grasp that this is the true Davidic King, but they see that he would be a good figurehead to lead a rebellion against Herod. They want to establish the kingdom – the rightful kingdom God had promised them, but through the only way man knows. Violently. They want Jesus to correct the things that have gone wrong, the systemic problems. And Jesus does something very different. He makes them sit down and teaches them at length. What is he doing? He is inviting them to first become disciples, taking the position of a disciple, learning at the feet of the master. He will come as king to renew all things, but first, he wants to be king of their lives, individually. He is changing their view causing them to see things God’s way. 

Many times, we want a solution to our problems, problems which are very real. They can be immediate – someone being sick, not having money to cover the bills and what not. But we take a step back and realise there are systemic issues which make us miserable. Especially at this time, there are plenty of doctors and nurses who are overworked and exhausted; the number of systemic issues in the health care system are easy to pick out. It requires change. There are teachers who find their work which they love, is constantly frustrating with the way the system is built. Officers of the law who find they are not equipped to deal with what they are being sent out to do. There are of course, countries where problems can be far worse. Where even the idea of a peaceful life is a distant dream and lawlessness reigns. Where those who are meant to guarantee the law are the first to violate and abuse it. And, like the Israelites, we want to cry out to Jesus – come, become king – destroy these failed systems, change them, cast out those who are failing it. But to us, like Israel, God asks us to sit down at his feet instead, to hear his voice, so he can comfort and feed us. He asks us to allow him to set our lives right first. It is not simply his teaching, but the fact that he is present there, with them which makes the difference. They experience the outflow of his compassion. His love. And in the midst of all the death, the problems and everyday danger, they begin to experience life and communion as they sit together and he feeds them. The meal which feeds everyone probably came from one person or maybe one small family. Five loaves and two fish. Having listened to Jesus all this while, there is one family, which lets go of the little that they have for themselves, not knowing what they themselves will do. They are not ashamed that it is so small nor do they demand an explanation of how this would help with so many. The little they have is given in simple trust. And in the mercy of Jesus, it feeds a multitude. The multitude find peace and comfort in a wilderness where nothing exists. The scene opens with chaos and panic and unrest. It ends with the people in order, seated, at rest, enjoying food together they eat and they are satisfied. 

                       This incident in the gospels is a prefiguration of the Eucharist. He takes the little bread that is offered, blesses, breaks and gives it to the disciples, all things which he will repeat as he institutes the Eucharist. The people come to Jesus, they hear the Word and they are fed a meal – the once harried and scattered people, become one body, in communion. This reality is the Church, which comes to exist through the overflowing mercy of Jesus. It is the desert where there is space for the Word of God to be heard, where one can be fed and be satisfied, in the Eucharist. The Body of Christ himself. Here, two thousand years later, just as the crowds encountered Jesus, one can still touch the mercy of God physically and be embraced by it. Maybe your experience of the Church in its ministers and institutional practices has not been very positive. Maybe, much like its first ministers, the apostles who wanted to send the people away, you were not welcomed by its ministers today. But even in the midst of its fallible and failed ministers, God will never fail to provide himself a witness. He will never leave this space without his presence and he himself waits to enlighten, feed you and give you rest.  Here, in the Eucharist, he remains, as a living memorial to the mercy that flowed out in abundance from his pierced heart on the Cross. The Church has no greater purpose than to be this space for God’s people to encounter this Mercy, to hear his Word and be fed by his own life. It is not a place of earthly power, where the corruption and injustice in the world can be combatted on like terms. Whenever it tries to do so, using worldly means, it will inevitably become corrupted itself. 

This is not of course, a license for passivity. Neither is it to avoid any kind of activism or peaceful work for reform or justice where needed in our societies. The gospel demands that we work to bring God’s kingdom on earth. We need to constantly pray, asking God to bring his justice and peace where it doesn’t exist. But it starts by sitting as a disciple, letting him be king in our lives. By giving the little that we have and can do to Christ. Without that, the fight would be too much, the journey too long. We can easily become discouraged and worse, the monsters that we seek to extinguish, ourselves. What are the five loaves and two fish you want to give to Jesus? However humble, Christ can use it to bring about change in our worlds. In the space of this desert, to those who come, whatever might be their present suffering, they can find consolation in his presence and touch his body, just as the people did in that wilderness. In the midst of the worst man can do, God gives us a meal. We can eat and be satisfied. We can find peace even within our sufferings and strength for the work to bring God’s kingdom on earth, even as we journey to the promised land where all will be renewed.

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