Sunday reflection: Matthew 14:13–21
posted at 12:01 pm on August 3, 2014 by Ed Morrissey
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 14:13–21:
When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, 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.
A woman with several children was once asked how she divides her love between all of her offspring. “You don’t divide,” she replied. “You multiply.” And indeed, on the traditional site in Tabgha of this miracle sits the Church of the Multiplication, which dates back to the 5th century and has amazing mosaics on the floor. I visited there last year, and took this picture of the altar:
This miracle turns our understanding of goods on its head, and also of how God’s grace works. The disciples must have thought that Jesus was joking when He told them that they could feed the crowd themselves. Five loaves and two fishes would make a fairly thin meal for the twelve of them and Jesus, plus any others traveling with them at the time. It’s an absurdly small amount for a hundred people, not even qualifying as a snack, let alone a meal. For thousands, one might as well turn the bread back into the grains of wheat from which it came and hope that it produced enough of them to hand a single grain to each person.
Under the circumstances, one would have expected to turn the crowd away hungry for the journey home, pity or not. That would reflect our common understanding of goods and mercy in human terms, as qualities which must be divided by necessity of material and time relative to the people who need to be served. We can only do so much, we think and believe, and that’s true — without God’s grace and mercy, only so much can be done.
Jesus demonstrated that God does not work through division, though, but through multiplication. The disciples looked out at the crowd with pity and mercy, but still only with corporeal understanding. Jesus understood that the real hunger in the crowd was spiritual. The crowd followed Jesus without direction to do so in order to hear Him teach and commune with Him, and Jesus put aside His plans to meet them as they came. And in doing so, He used the loaves and the fishes to satisfy both spiritual and physical hunger.
In our first reading from Isaiah 55:1-3, the prophet speaks of this outpouring of God’s grace to those who follow His way in terms of food and drink:
All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk! Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy? Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare. Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life. I will renew with you the everlasting covenant, the benefits assured to David.
This too is about multiplication and not division. God’s grace is inexhaustible, and has no division. The more who come to the Lord, the more His grace flows abundantly.
But there is more to this miracle than just the fact of multiplication itself, amazing though that is. The event prefigures the Eucharist in a very key manner that applies to all Christians of any denomination. What does Jesus tell the disciples when they come to Him with their worry about the crowds and their hunger? “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” When the disciples protest that they have so little to give, Jesus instructs them to bring the food to Him for His blessing; He breaks it, and then hands it back to the disciples to distribute. He works the miracle through the disciples, who distribute the bread and fish to the crowds and end up with a huge surplus after everyone has their fill.
For Catholics such as myself, the parallels to the Liturgy of the Eucharist are obvious. The disciples present their sacrifice — the rather small meal they had prepared for their own consumption — to Christ. Jesus, the Head Priest of the Church, blesses and breaks the bread and has His concelebrants distribute the bread to bring the whole congregation into communion with God. The seemingly inadequate sacrifice gets transformed into food for the world, transforming us all into the body of Christ. At the Mass, the priest acts in persona Christi capitis, but it is the power of the Holy Spirit that perfects the Eucharist and multiplies its nourishment rather than divides it.
Even beyond the Catholic model for the Liturgy, though, the lesson of the process Jesus uses is clear. We are the church, and we are called to give the world the food of Christ — the Word, certainly, and also the mercy and service necessary to transmit it. Christ works through us to achieve God’s will, even when we have doubts, concerns, worries, and flat-out don’t feel like it.
Give them some food yourselves, Jesus told the disciples, and enabled them to multiply His goodness and mercy. Jesus didn’t push them aside and say, “Let me show you how this is done,” and start flipping bread to the crowd like a peanut vendor at a baseball game. He blessed the loaves and fishes, broke the bread, and then made the disciples the instrument of His miracle.
This is the lesson for all those who wish to be His disciples. Give them some food yourselves. Even with all our doubts and imperfections, we are the body of Christ in the world, and we are the multiplication of God’s goodness and mercy. All we need to do is trust in Christ and align ourselves to His will to take part in that ongoing miracle.
Note: The front-page image shows the garden at the Mount of Beatitudes Church on the Sea of Galilee, commemorating the miracle of the five loaves and two fish. The picture comes from my personal collection.