Year A: Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
They all ate and were satisfied.
Matthew 14: 13-21
When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” [Jesus] said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” Then he said, “Bring them here to me,” and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over, twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.
- In this reading Jesus encourages and empowers the disciples. In what ways has Jesus empowered you to spiritually feed those in need?
- Material gifts diminish with use, Spiritual gifts multiply with use. Where have you seen your spiritual gifts multiply when you’ve put them into service for others?
- Have you ever felt God has called you to do something you were unable to do? What were the circumstances, and what was the outcome?
- Do you think of yourself as a “glass half empty, or glass half full” kind of person? How does this shape your attitudes about abundance, gratitude, and service to others?
Matthew 14: 13-21
Margaret Nutting Ralph
Between last Sunday’s Gospel and this Sunday’s Gospel two things have occurred: Jesus has returned to his hometown in Nazareth only to be rejected (see Matt 13:54- 58), and Herod has killed John the Baptist. Matthew is keeping his readers informed of the growing antagonism against Jesus as a way of foreshadowing Jesus’ coming crucifixion.
On hearing that John the Baptist has been killed Jesus goes out by himself in a boat to have some time alone. He needs it. However, the crowd needs Jesus. They follow Jesus so that when he returns to shore, they are waiting for him. Instead of putting his own needs first and heading back out in the boat Jesus responds to the crowd’s needs: His “heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.”
In contrast to Jesus, when the disciples see the crowd in need they feel helpless. Instead of trying to respond to the crowd’s needs the disciples suggest to Jesus that the people be sent away: “This, is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus does not want to send the crowd away. He tells the disciples to feed them: “…give them some food yourselves.” The disciples claim that this is impossible: “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”
The story that, follows is often called “the multiplication of the loaves.” This title centers our attention on a miracle. However, when Gospel authors want to center our attention on a miracle, which they often do, they use the form called miracle story. In a miracle story the author describes the problem that needs to be solved, gives a description of Jesus acting to solve the problem, and ends by telling us how those who witness Jesus’ act of power respond with awe. The story we read today lacks the form of a miracle story. The text describes Jesus’ actions, but it refrains from stating that Jesus multiplied the loaves. In addition, there is no description of a reaction from the crowd or from the apostles that draws our attention to an act of power by Jesus. Since this story does not have the form of a miracle story, we are invited to look for some other lesson that Matthew is teaching us by the way he tells the story.
Jesus has told the disciples to feed the crowd themselves, but they feel powerless to do it. Jesus takes the little food the disciples have, five loaves and two fishes, “… and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.” Here Matthew is describing Jesus doing and saying just what he will do and say at the last supper: “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, ‘Take and eat; this is my body ” (Matt 2.6:26)* that this bread, blessed and broken, is Christ’s own body and is spiritual nourishment for Jesus’ followers. Eating this bread gives Jesus’ disciples the nourishment, the strength they need to carry out their mission. That is why Matthew pictures Jesus giving the bread to the disciples to distribute rather than distributing it himself. Jesus had told the disciples to feed the crowd themselves. Now Jesus is making it possible for them to follow his instructions.
After all have eaten there are twelve full baskets left: over. Twelve is a symbolic number. It reminds us of the twelve tribes and the twelve Apostles, and represents the whole church. Matthew is not just telling us a story in which Jesus makes it possible for his disciples to feed the hungry. Matthew is teaching his contemporaries and us that through Christ’s eucharistic presence we receive the spiritual nourishment we need to respond to the needs of others. We, too, can and should feed the hungry.
As the faculty of an educational institution, we were working in accord with standard organizational wisdom. Through surveys and interviews, we had done a needs analysis of a prospective student population. We figured out what they wanted.
Then we designed a program to meet those needs. It was an impressive projection, meeting the requirements of accrediting agencies and embodying sound pedagogical principles.
Then a few of the designers paused and puzzled, “Who is going to run this program?” We had created a program that was needed, but we did not have the personnel to pull it off. We looked around the table at ourselves. That was all we had, and it was not enough.
Someone suggested we hire new faculty. We should “go and buy” some good people. But that would require money we didn’t have. The program, as they say, never came to fruition.
As I look back at that experience, I see that we began with needs and then discovered that we could not meet them. In fact, the more we explored the needs and what type of programming was required, the more helpless we began to feel.
This way of thinking that leads to inaction is analogous to how the disciples construe the situation in this Gospel episode. Beginning with need is beginning with what we lack. People have needs that cannot be met in the present situation with the present resources. So, they have to “go and buy” what they need from some outside resource before it is too late. When we work this way, we are conscious of what we do not have and what other people do have. In the Gospel story, the disciples think the crowds do not have food and the markets in the village do have food. The strategy is to get the crowds to the markets—before they close.
Jesus, the teacher of the kingdom of heaven, redirects the attention of the disciples to what they have. He tells them the crowds do not have to go away. They should feed the people. However, in their minds they do not have enough. They are locked into the enormity of need and paucity of resource. They have “five loaves and two fish.” But they characterize it as, “We have nothing here but . . . ” meaning it is not enough.
But for Jesus a crucial shift has gone on. They have moved from the preoccupation with lack to the awareness of assets. They now know what they have. They are no longer looking outside themselves for an answer. They have turned their gaze within. This is the first step in learning about spiritual resources. Going and buying may work in the physical world, but what works in the spiritual world is standing still and becoming aware. Knowing what you have is the first step of spiritual transformation.
Jesus asks that they bring him what they have. Then he performs the second step in the process of spiritual transformation. He gives thanks for what they have. This is an enormous step. They move from seeing it as too little and cursing it to seeing it as a gift and becoming grateful. The third step is to give away the gift to people (the disciples) who in turn give it away to others.
No one takes and holds; everyone receives and gives. The result is participation in divine abundance, an experience that is completely satisfying for it is the fulfillment of the created potential of people. This is a process of wholeness and completion, an experience that begins with the sacredness of seven and ends with the sacredness of twelve. This process will bring to satisfaction as many individual people as are present.
What is this story trying to tell us?
The way to proceed is to be leery of the mind’s tendency to focus on lack and to continuously think going and buying from others is the solution. We should know what we have, give thanks for it as God’s gift, and give it to others who in turn will give it to others. This process of self-knowledge, gratitude, and communal love produces not only satisfaction but abundance. But does it?
I don’t know.
The bean counter in me wants a physical miracle and not a spiritual lesson. I want God in Jesus to make abundant food whenever people are hungry. But there are problems with physically multiplying loaves and fishes. A man once told me he was no longer a Christian because if Jesus could produce food for hungry people and only did it once, he did not want anything to do with him. He should have done it many times and left the recipe for his followers.
But I wonder: when people of faith find themselves in the desert, as many today do, how should they proceed? I wonder what would have happened at the educational planning meeting if we had looked around the table and asked what we had rather than what we did not have. I wonder what would have happened if we became grateful to God for having what our practical minds construed as too little. And I wonder what would have happened if we ceased to look at prospective students as consumers of educational goods but as the first receivers of what they would learn to give away. I wonder what would have happened if we had let the spiritual “in” on our physical and social plans.
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.