|Words from Fr. Frank Cordaro|
Aug 4, 2002
Eighteenth Sunday Ordinary Time 2002
Is 55: 1-3, Rom 8: 35, 37-39, Mt 14: 13-21 ISAIAH 55:1-3
You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat: This week’s first reading from the book of Isaiah comes from the hand of Second Isaiah. Over a hundred years separate the prophet Isaiah from this anonymous author whose writings are found in chapters 40-55. Second Isaiah embraces many of the same themes found in the original prophet’s writings, chapters 1-39, plus many new themes invented by Second Isaiah that address the tragic and dire situation he and Israel found themselves at the time. Second Isaiah’s prophetic ministry took place during Israel’s 70- year captivity in Babylon (modern day Iraq). At no other time in their history as a people and a nation had Israel been brought so low. Virtually on the verge of extinction, their beloved city of Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed. All of the living relatives of King David’s family were killed, all of its armies wiped out, its wealth stolen, and tens of thousands of its citizens dead. The Babylonians took those who survived into captivity. By all accounts the people of Israel should have disappeared from the face of the earth, and the remaining Jews in captivity assimilated into the dominant culture and society of the Babylonian Empire.
It was the task of Second Isaiah to make sure this did not happen. Picking up on the universonalist themes of the First Isaiah, Second Isaiah reminded his fellow captives that God still had a mission for them to fulfill. Those who remained faithful were still God’s chosen people with a mission to lead all the other nations of the world to the ways of God. Second Isaiah was the one who invented the theological concept of redemptive suffering. The suffering that the Israelites were enduring in captivity in Babylon went beyond the simple explanation of punishment for their sins. According to Second Isaiah, their suffering took on redemptive qualities for all the nations of the world. This theme of redemptive suffering is found in the four Suffering Servant songs found in Second Isaiah’s writings. These Suffering Servant songs provided the four Gospel writers with a literary template, a genetic code for their theological understanding of Jesus’ suffering and death. This week’s text comes from chapter 55, the last chapter of Second Isaiah’s contribution to the book of Isaiah. Just before this chapter, Second Isaiah is predicting the return of the Jewish people to their beloved homeland. In chapter 55, Second Isaiah paints an imaginary picture of the blessing that will come with their return. Building on First Isaiah’s image of a great banquet at the End Times (Is. 25:6), Second Isaiah tells his fellow Jews, who have been faithful in captivity that a great banquet awaits them upon their return to Jerusalem. This is a message to a people who have known only grinding poverty and oppressive captivity for 70 years. Second Isaiah tells them at God’s invitation a great banquet is being prepared for them in which they will not need to pay for a feast for which they have already paid by virtue of their faithfulness. It will be a feast that will give them abundant life and more! God promises to renew with them his everlasting covenant, the benefits assured to David. God’s promise to David of a Kingly Dynasty that will last forever is now transferred by God to the whole people of Israel. They are a people set aside from all other people with a mission to redeem and save all the nations of the world! This is an ideal reading to set up this week’s Gospel. Matthew 14:13-21; Give them some food yourselves: The last three weeks we have been dealing with Gospel parables in which the telling of a story delivers the Gospel message. In this week’s Gospel, we are back to the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel in which the narrative conflict, the dramatic action, staging, and details tell the story and deliver a parable-like message. In this week’s Gospel, we have one of the six mass-feeding accounts recorded in the four Gospels. One of the criteria that scripture scholars use to judge an event in Jesus’ life as being important and historically likely to have happened is how many times it appears in the four Gospels. By this criterion, the feeding of the masses is one of the most significant and historically likely things that Jesus did. Appearing two times in Matthew, two times in Mark, and once in Luke and John, the account of Jesus’ feeding the masses taps into a rich scriptural tradition of God’s abundance and desire to meet peoples’ basic needs, especially hunger, both in the here and now, and for certain, in the age to come. Each of the six accounts is told differently with its own points to make.
This week’s account of the feeding of the masses is part of a narrative conflict Matthew sets in place. It is not an accident that Matthew tells the story of the beheading of John the Baptist right before he writes of this account of Jesus’ feeding of the masses. The opening words of this week’s Gospel connect the two events, ‘When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist’. Taking my lead from these connecting words, I’m going to explore the meaning of this account of Jesus’ mass feeding by comparing and contrasting the two events and feast they report.
THE MAIN CHARACTERS:
The main character in the account of the death of John the Baptist is King Herod. The main character in the account of the mass feeding is Jesus.
EVENT AND PLACE:
In both, a feast takes place. The celebration of King Herod’s birthday is the occasion of the feast that leads to John’s death. The place is Herod’s royal palace, a place at the center of socio-economic and political power. The occasion for the feeding of the masses is the peoples’ needs. The place for this feast is a deserted place, far from the center of socio-economic and political power, a place at the very margins of society.
The guests at Herod’s birthday feast were definitely attending a "top down" affair. By invitation only, all the guests are from the ruling class; the richest and most powerful people in Herod’s domain are the guests at Herod’s feast. They come from the top ten percent of the population. The guest list for Jesus’ feed was open-ended, no invite necessary, open to the public. It was clearly a ‘bottom down’ affair. Where Herod’s birthday feast could not have had more than a few hundred people in attendance, Jesus’ feed numbered ‘about five thousand men, not counting the women and children’, easily a crowd of ten thousand total. They were made up of mostly the marginal, no-account people, the ninety percent of the population who were poor.
FOOD, OF WANTS AND OF NEEDS OF SATIFACTION:
The food at Herod’s birthday feast must have been plentiful, ‘fit for a king’, the best that money and power could provide. There must have been plenty of meat dishes, fresh fruit and vegetables, desserts of all kinds, and lots and lots of wine. Herod’s guests did not come to the feast hungry, as hunger is understood by those so poor they can’t remember what a full stomach feels like. Nor did they have any great unmet needs. They did, however, have many unmet wants. Like any group of people from their socio-economic class, being a guest at such a feast created opportunities for promotion and advancements. Important contacts were made at such events. People were either seeking favors or giving favors, all of which was wrapped up in a tight honor, shame, social ethic in which everyone knew their social status and place.
The crowds that showed up at Jesus’ mass feeding were people who had many real needs. Many were sick; all knew real hunger. They were too poor and marginalized to be thinking of socio-economic advancement. Their day-to-day existence was filled with the struggle for survival. Getting their basic needs met and keeping themselves healthy to do what they had to, simply to survive, was the best that the crowd could muster. The food Jesus and his disciples gave the crowd was basic: bread and fish. The text says they ate their fill and were satisfied.
Herod’s guests left their feast filled but probably not satisfied. Only when real needs are met can true satisfaction be experienced. Trying to meet perceived wants will never bring true satisfaction, it will only create more wants.
The dramatic action at King Herod’s feast centered on the King. He was the main focus of the story. Everyone played to him. It was his birthday party. All of his guests were invited. Their invitations were based on their relationship to him. And in this world where the rich and powerful live, and do their thing, fulfilling their wants, greed and lust are cherished virtues. Herod’s wife gets her daughter to dance for Herod and his drunken guest. This was not a schoolgirl dance recital. This was a gathering of mostly men. A few women who were in attendance were either of high estate or prostitutes, or both. The Herodian women were known for their promiscuity. The dance was meant to elicit lust. Herod got into the spirit of the dance and promised the girl anything she wished. Now caught between the game of honor and shame, Herod could not back down from his offer. The girl turns to her mother for advice. The mother helps her husband out of a social jam. She tells the daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Something King Herod would like to happen but was reluctant to do. Herod was distressed by the request but not enough not to comply.
In the power plays of the rich and powerful, where greed and lust are virtuous, there are always winners and losers. And the losers are often the poor, and loss of life is not uncommon. At the end of the day, all at Herod’s feast had a good time, Herod’s honor was left intact and John the Baptist lost his head.
The dramatic action surrounding this week’s Gospel account of the mass feeding tailspins from the birthday feast of Herod. Jesus hears of the death of John the Baptist. He knows that he may be the next to lose his head. He gets into a boat in search of a deserted place. The crowds find Jesus. It is their needs (not wants) that bring them in search of Jesus. They find him in the deserted place. Their needs are the focus of the story. They seek Jesus in hopes of meeting their very real needs.
Upon seeing the vast crowd, Jesus’ heart was moved with pity, and he moved to do something. It is not lust or greed or the ‘honor-shame’ game that motivates Jesus. It was his compassion for the crowd upon which the dramatic action turns. The English word for compassion means "feeling with. The original Greek meaning is more graphic; it contains a gut image, suggesting a churning of one’s innards, embracing with your insides the feelings and situation of another. The theologian Walter Brueggemann calls it the internalization of another’s hurt.
The move from pity to compassion takes place when a person acts upon what they have internalized for the other. Jesus embraced the needs of the crowds and acted upon them. He spent the whole day curing their many illnesses. The text does not say what sicknesses he cured. With a crowd of over 10,000 poor people of all ages and genders, it would be safe to say there was a full range of human illnesses: physical, emotional, spiritual, and societal. A large urban county hospital comes to my mind and all the poor folks who use their services.
After a day of healing their sicknesses, the issue of feeding the crowd is brought before Jesus. Next to air and water, food is the most basic of all physical needs. Food is something the crowd is constantly trying to secure. Jesus’ disciples see this need and don’t know what to do about it. Their first impulse is to send the people away, back into the villages and cities where they have to pay for their food. The disciples’ first response is to send the people back into the explotive unjust system that keeps them poor in the first place. It’s the system in which they have to pay for their food, often paying more than they can afford. Here is where this week’s 1st reading from Isaiah ties into the Gospel.
Jesus tells his disciples, "There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves". A lesson is about to be taught; a lesson about how compassion and the economy of God’s kingdom work.
At this point in the story, a lot of layers of meaning are taking place at the same time. Also, except for a few details, the five other accounts of the mass feedings in the Gospels follow each other very closely. It is as if they are all following the same script. The disciples tell Jesus that all they have to offer the crowd is "five loaves (bread) and two fish". Jesus says "bring them here to me" and has the crowd sit down on the grass. Notice, there is no seating arrangement, there are no seats of importance, all are equal. Radical equalitarianism is practiced at this feast.
Then Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish and in a clear and distinctive way says the words and does the gestures that mirror the ritual rite of the Eucharist. "Looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves and gave them to his disciples". It is the same in all five other Gospel accounts. There can be no doubt about it; the Gospel writers want us to associate the Eucharistic Rite with Jesus’ mass feedings. Regardless of how we choose to explain the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, as the account is recorded, it is directly linked to our Eucharistic Rite.
Looking back, the event is tied to the story of the Exodus when Moses and the Israelites were wandering in the desert and God fed them manna from heaven (Ex 16). Connecting Matthew’s account of the mass feeding to Moses and the Israelites fits well the many other Moses and Jesus connections already built into the Matthew story.
The actual miracle takes place between the time Jesus hands the disciples the blessed and broken bread and the disciples start giving them to the crowd. A lot of speculation has gone into trying to explain ‘how’ this miracle happened. Some people say it was a miracle of sharing. When the crowds witness how Jesus and his disciples gave what little they had, with no regard for themselves, others did the same. People shared what food they were carrying on their persons and all got their fill and were satisfied.
As nice as this version sounds, it does not adequately explain the abundance implied with the story and the 12 wicker baskets of bread fragments left over. As for the 12 baskets, they are a sign within the story of the 12 tribes of Israel, representing the New Israel and New Covenant that Jesus was bringing about.
Others maintain the miracle is just what it appears to be; thousands of loaves of bread are produced out of thin air from the original five loaves and two fish. This story points to the time Elisha fed a hundred men with a few loaves of Temple bread in 2 Kings 4:42-44. There are those who say that this reference to the Elisha feat is multiplied a thousand times over by Jesus and points to the final banquet associated at the End of Time in the Kingdom of God.
The "how question" is more a modern issue. For Matthew and his original readers, the "how" behind the miracles is not nearly as important as the "why"· For Matthew and the original readers of the Gospel, the lessons being taught and the truths of the Kingdom revealed are what’s important and the implications that these lessons and truths have on being a disciple of the Jesus Way.
It is very interesting that in five of the six accounts of Jesus’ mass feedings the disciples are the physical link between Jesus and the crowds. Jesus gives his disciples the blessed and broken loaves to give to the people. Only in John’s Gospel does Jesus distribute the loaves himself. For Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we, the disciples of Jesus, are the link between Jesus, the bread provider, and the hungry people who need the bread.
The bread that satisfied has many meanings. However, the basic physical meaning of feeding hungry people is always a part of the mix. While there are hungry people in the world, we the followers of Jesus, should make it our business to feed them. Every night we go to bed with full stomachs in our "want" filled world while others go to bed hungry in their world of unmet "needs". It stands as a judgment and a challenge to us, the well-fed, to do something about it.
The Gospel story tells us that we don’t need all the answers and resources necessary to solve the problems of poverty and hunger before we act. We are to begin with what we have, to give it freely, at a personal cost. When we give what we have in the spirit of love and in honor of our God in the way Jesus showed us, then we must trust that God will make up the needed difference between what we give and what is needed. Feeding the hungry in the Gospel way is an act of faith and love.
The bread that Jesus gives, though never less than physical bread for physically hungry people, is always more. It is also the spiritual bread that gives eternal life. It is the original "soul" food that sustains our spirits in the here and now and brings us into the kingdom come. That is why the mass feedings are connected to the early Church’s Eucharistic celebrations. At the Eucharist, when we take the body and blood of Jesus, we are standing with Jesus, one foot in the here and now and one foot at the End of Time, a living bridge between the two salvation moments.
Finally, just as there was a life given up at the Herod feast, there is a life given up at the Jesus feast. At Herod’s feast John the Baptist's life was taken to satisfy Herod’s ego and preserve his power and status. With the Jesus feast and its direct tie with the Eucharist, the life of Jesus is freely given in an act of love and nonviolent resistance. It is at this life-giving and life-taking moment that these two feasts intersect and are replayed over and over again in human history.
Those who are the invited guest at the ongoing Feast of the Herods of the world are those whose needs and every expanding wants are fulfilled on the backs of the poor and hungry of the world. They are firm believers in the principle of redemptive violence -- as long as the violence is done to someone else.
Those who claim discipleship in Jesus and embrace the service roles of giver of the bread of Jesus, (who are seekers of justice for the poor and marginal of the world) believe in the principle of redemptive suffering, a self-sacrifice that begins and ends with themselves. No matter how badly things seem to be going in the here and now, they believe if they remain faithful to the ways of Jesus, God will make up whatever is lacking in their self sacrifice.