Sunday 6 August 2017 - 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Compassion / Provision God's power and our faith
Jesus said to his disciples, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." (Matthew 14:16).
God of the hungry,
make us hunger and thirst for the right,
till our thirst for justice has been satisfied
and hunger has gone from the earth,
through God Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
This reading relates to both the epistle and the gospel.
The direct links are verse 2 to the feeding of the five thousand, and verses 3-5 to the beginning of three chapters in Romans, 9-11.
As the crowd feeds on the word of God through Jesus they also begin to hunger physically for bread, but the former offers the ultimate satisfaction.
As Paul develops his understanding of the gospel or new bread of God, he embarks on a reflection concerning the relationship between God and Israel as he reveals that the gospel is for all peoples.
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
What kind of god is present in Jesus Christ? When Jesus discerns that his audience is hungry he has compassion on them (Matthew 14:13-21). Thus present in Jesus is the God of Israel, praised in this psalm, a God full of grace and mercy, with compassion 'over all that he has made' (9).
With particular reference to the gospel reading we find verse 15, 'the eyes of all look to you and you give them their food in due season.'
As we have made our way through Romans in recent weeks we have seen Paul develop various arguments (i.e. explanations which develop points about various themes in the light of the good news of Jesus) under the 'umbrella' argument that the gospel is God's word for the whole world, announcing salvation through Jesus Christ.
But logically this presents a question for Paul, a Jew who now follows Jesus. He now understands the Law of Moses to be deficient in the light of Christ who offers believers the power to live a righteous life which the law does not. The question in colloquial terms is "What about Jews who do not believe in Jesus?"
Our five verses today are the introduction to three chapters in which Paul works out his answer to the question. It is a complicated answer over which Pauline scholars disagree when they try to explain it to us!
But these five verses are straightforward enough: Paul longs for his fellow Israelites to know Christ and to belong to Christ. From a "pre gospel" perspective they have every advantage (verses 4-5). Yet Paul wishes he himself could be "accursed and cut off from Christ" for their sakes (3).
This is the true love of a godly evangelist for those to whom he proclaims the gospel. If he could make a choice between those who are "accursed and cut off from Christ" and those who are not, he wishes he could be cut off so that his hearers could belong to Christ and no longer be accursed.
Matthew 14:13-21 Feeding of the Five Thousand
(Since last Sunday's reading, Jesus has been rejected at Nazareth (13:54-58) and John the Baptist has had his head cut off (14:1-12).
Jesus understandably (for, remember, he is completely human) withdrew from 'there' (where?, the text does not say) 'when he heard this [news about John the Baptist]' (13).
He withdraws by boat (i.e. across Lake Galilee) to 'a deserted place by himself' but this is futile since the 'crowds heard it' and 'followed him on foot from the towns' (13). It is worth a moment's pondering to consider the nature of Jesus' public fame so that people watched him leave by boat, then bothered, in numbers, to walk to where he had travelled by boat, indeed walk at a fast pace, since they arrived before he did at his destination (14).
For those of us minded to do calculations re travel times, it seems extraordinary that the crowd could beat the boat, but perhaps Jesus was in no hurry to get to shore - sailing has its own recreational virtues, and it would be in keeping with other gospel stories if there was some fishing on the way :).
It is a tribute to Jesus that when he tried to 'get away from it all' nevertheless, when confronted with the crowd, he did his works of compassion in the usual way (14).
(Incidentally, when we compare the four gospel versions of this story, Matthew 14:13-21 // Mark 6:32-44, Luke 9:10b-17, John 6:1-15, Matthew tells us Jesus healed people and then fed them, Mark tells us Jesus taught them (out of compassion) then fed them, Luke says he spoke to them about the kingdom of God and cured the sick before feeding them, and John says he sat down saw the crowd - who had followed him because of his healings - and set about organising a feed for them).
The disciples are themselves a little bit compassionate in this story! They see the need for the crowd to have a feed and suggest, in a quite patronising manner, as though Jesus was incapable of seeing the dilemma for himself, that he disperse the crowd and send them 'into the villages' so they could buy food for themselves (15).
Jesus will have none of this practical but powerless ministry: 'They need not go away; you give them something to eat' (16). We can only imagine the incomprehension, if not fear in the eyes of the disciples as they heard this direct speech from the Master!
But they are nothing, as we have seen, if not practical and realistic. They have already collated their resources and counted them up: 'nothing but five loaves and two fish' (17).
Jesus is not deterred. The crowd will be fed and they are going to do it. He orders the meagre resources to be brought to him (18) and orders the crowds to be seated nearby (19a).
How are these meagre resources to be multiplied to feed the multitude? Jesus takes them, looks up to heaven (that is, entrusts the whole situation to God's power), blesses and breaks the loaves, and gives them to the disciples to distribute to the crowds (19).
The way Matthew describes the event crushes any attempt by modern scholars to explain the feeding as an impulse sweeping around the crowds to get out their otherwise hidden lunches and share them with their careless neighbours who had not brought their own supplies. The miracle of multiplication here occurs through the work of God enacted in the combination of taking, praying, blessing, breaking and distributing.
The report concludes with the powerful observation that the multiplied food was not a stretching thin of the meagre amounts of food so that everyone had a mouthful to keep them going. No, 'all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full' (20). With God working this miracle we should expect no less than this ending since God is God of all the world and able to provide all necessities of life in abundance. In the background, of course, is the mighty provision of daily sustenance of manna and quails for the feeding of Israel in the wilderness.
So what? What are we meant to do with this report (apart from praising God for his power and provision)?
Matthew always tell us about Jesus with an eye on the church for whom he writes. Jesus is lord of the church and wants the church to be the continuation of the disciples-in-mission whom Jesus is training and commissioning for service in the kingdom.
Thus we may read this report as a message to the church (as well as a story of Jesus). The resources of the church are often meagre and the needs of the world around it are overwhelming. Yet God can take the little we have and multiply it for the good of all, in a demonstration of the compassion of God. Our role is to offer the little we have to God in faith, bless it, break it and distribute it.
Through this miracle, God says to the church in relation to the world, 'you give them something to eat' (16).