Aug 2, 2020: 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – Isaiah 55:1-3

Thus says the LORD:
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 week’s reading comes from the section of Isaiah known as Second Isaiah (Chapters 40-55), which has been called the Book of Comfort. Accordingly, our passage for today contains some of the most moving sentiments placed in the mouth of God.

The prophet is addressing the exiles in Babylon. Because their king, kingdom, and temple have all been destroyed they are wondering whether covenant love has also been destroyed. Are they still God’s people? Is God still their God? Are the promises that God made to their ancestors, to King David, still in effect?

Thus says the LORD: 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!

God is cast in the role of a vendor who offers food and drink at no cost.

The generosity of God is seen in the offer of water, grain, wine, and milk. While water is essential to all, it is particularly important in the climate of Mediterranean Palestine. Grain, wine, and milk are scarce in the Holy Land; their presence implies abundant harvests and healthy flocks.

Note that the invitation is extended to “all you who are thirsty”; not only those who had been faithful throughout their exile in Babylon, or those who had found a way to make a living while in exile, but the poor. The only condition is a thirst for God.

Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy?

Though water, grain, wine, milk, and bread are all good things to eat, Isaiah speaks of satisfying the deepest longings of the human heart: longings for loving relationships.

What God has to offer is satisfying and enduring, especially when compared to all else for which people seem to spend their money.

Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare. 

God knows that the people are suffering. However, they are thirsty for more than water. They are hungry for more than food. They are hungry for a right relationship with their God.

Isaiah assures the people that God has not rejected them. Rather, God is calling them to fidelity: “heed me,” “come to me,” “listen.”

Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.

The word used for listen is shāma.  This is the same verb that introduces Israel’s most important prayer, which is known by the same word:  Shāma!, or Hear, O Israel!  The word suggests not only hearing but also heeding the words that are heard.

The implication is that the word of God is itself a source of nourishment and rejuvenation. It is, in fact, the source of life itself.

I will renew with you the everlasting covenant, the benefits assured to David.

Here we see the real object of God’s invitation: the re-establishment of a covenant bond, hearkening back to his royal covenant with David (see 2 Samuel 7:12-16).

The covenant is everlasting. God still loves God’s people. The exiles must return to the Lord and heed God’s voice, then their suffering will come to an end.

For Christians, the celebration of the Mass is a covenant renewal ceremony. First we heed the Lord by listening to God’s word in scripture. Then we are fed with Christ’s own body. This spiritual nourishment gives us the strength we need to proclaim God’s saving love through Jesus Christ to all the hungry people we meet.

2nd Reading – Romans 8:35, 37-39

Brothers and sisters:
What will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine,
or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?
No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly
through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor principalities,
nor present things, nor future things,
nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
nor any other creature will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Today’s reading completes our study of Romans, Chapter 8, and is the magnificent climax of the entire letter.

Last week we heard Paul declare that “all things work for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). Next, in a passage not included in the Sunday Readings, Paul asks, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). God did not spare even God’s own son, but “handed him over for us all” (Romans 8:32b). What greater proof of God’s love could we possibly have? Today’s reading is Paul’s conclusion to this line of thought.

Brothers and sisters: What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?

Paul, a fervent Jew who found conversion to Jesus difficult, lists seven different troubles to which human flesh is subjected, asking if they will separate us from the love of Christ.

The question is rhetorical; it is clear Paul believes there is nothing that can separate believers from the love of Christ. Why, then, would he pose the question in the first place?

He is probably not merely encouraging his readers, but also challenging the long-standing theory of retribution, which held that the good would be rewarded and evil punished. According to this point of view, a person’s misfortune is the consequence of some misdeed. Paul turns this understanding upside down by insisting the opposite is true, namely, that the righteous, precisely because they are righteous, enter into the sufferings of Christ.

Several of the hardships listed have been associated with the tribulations ascribed to the end-time. They are not ordinary hardships but the kind that arise because of one’s commitment to Christ:

  • “anguish” (thlípsis) is the kind of ordeal associate with the transition to the final age;
  • “distress” (stenochōría) refers to a kind of confining oppression;
  • “persecution” (diōgmós) suggests religious persecution;
  • “famine” and “nakedness” are consequences of disastrous social disruption, also thought to accompany the end-time;
  • “peril” is a very general term, but used infrequently by Paul;
  • in this context, “the sword” probably refers to execution rather than war.

Paul spells all this out to say this: misfortune does not separate believers from Christ, it unites them with him.

“None of these can separate believers; nothing can snatch away those clinging to Christ’s body and blood [the Eucharist]. This persecution is for the examination and evaluation of our heart. God wanted us to be tried and proved, as He has always tried His own, and yet, in His trials, never at any time has His help failed believers.” [Saint Cyprian of Carthage (A.D. 250), Letters 11,5]

No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.

Victory is accomplished not because believers have clung to Christ, but because Christ has clung to them.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,

Paul begins another list of ten terrible extremes that will never break our love relationship with Jesus.

Death, which is neither an end or a separation, is really a step closer to the presence of Jesus. By juxtaposing life and death, he includes all facets of human existence.

nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers,

Angels, principalities, and powers are names of supernatural beings. Angelic powers, some of them evil, won’t separate us from him, nor will any age in time.

“These are all the things which have come upon us since we were abducted by the devil (see Genesis 3:1-24). Paul lists them in order to steel us against them if they should appear so that, confident of the hope and help of Christ and armed with faith, we might be able to fight against them.” [The Ambrosiaster (ca. A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles Romans 8,38]

nor height, nor depth,

These are astrological terms denoting a star’s closest and farthest point from its zenith.

At a period when astrology tyrannically ruled many people’s minds, giving rise to superstition, Paul defied it all by declaring that stars at both their zenith and their nadir would be powerless to destroy this relationship. In other words, there is nothing in the broader cosmos that can interfere with the bond of Christ’s love.

nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The love of God manifested in the Christ-event is thus the unshakable basis of Christian life and hope.

“Nothing shall separate the one who believes in truth from the ground of true faith, and it is there that he will come into the possession of enduring, unchanging identity. The man in union with truth knows clearly that all is well with him, even if everyone else thinks that he has gone out of his mind.” [Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita (ca. A. D. 500), The Divine Names 7,4]

Gospel – 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.

Today’s gospel reading is the well-known account of the feeding of the five thousand, also known as “the multiplication of the loaves.”

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 (Matthew 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.

When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.

The scene begins with Jesus’ emotion on hearing of the murder of his cousin, John the Baptist. That and the constant press of the crowds made it so that he felt the need to withdraw in a boat to have some time alone.

Galilee was a small area, spanning about 50 miles north to south and about 25 miles east to west. In Jesus’ time, it contained about 200 villages and towns, none with a population less than 15,000 people. It was therefore not easy to get away from people for any length of time — this is why Jesus withdrew in a boat.

The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns.

As much as Jesus needs time alone, the crowds need Jesus. They follow him so that when he returns to shore they are waiting for him.

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.

Instead of putting his own needs first and heading back out in the boat, Jesus responds to the crowds needs.

The word translated as “pity” is splanchnízomai, a word meaning “profound inner emotion,” which is used in the gospels only by or about Jesus and which has messianic significance (see Matthew 9:36, 15:32, 20:34).

When it was evening, the disciples approached him

Jesus was curing their sick and caring for their needs to such an extent that one gets the impression that he was forgetting the time — it was already evening when 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.”

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.

Jesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.”

Jesus does not want to send the crowd away. He is training his disciples to have confidence, to show initiative, to be leaders.

But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”

Bread and fish were the components of the basic diet of poor Galileans.

The disciples claim that what Jesus is asking them to do is impossible — the food they have on hand wouldn’t even be sufficient for Jesus and the twelve.

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,

Jesus’ actions over the food are brief but significant. He took it, blessed it, broke it, and gave it as food. This is the ritual of the daily Jewish meal, but the description is remarkably similar to the words Jesus will use a year later in instituting the Eucharist at the Last Supper (see Matthew 26:26-27). The Greek word for the blessing is eucharisto.

It is difficult to know whether the historical Jesus actually performed these actions over the food, and if so, whether it was done with a proleptic eye to his Last Supper, which was itself a foreshadowing of the final messianic banquet. However, we can be certain the gospel writer wanted these connections to be made. In fact, this episode calls to mind other feeding traditions that must have been called to the writer’s mind on this occasion. The most obvious is the miraculous feeding in the wilderness with manna (Exodus 16:15), but also the story in the Elisha cycle in which the prophet feeds a smaller crowd with loaves of bread, some of which were also left over (2 Kings 4:42-44).

who in turn gave them to the crowds.

The role of the apostles cannot be overlooked. They were the ones through whom the crowds experienced the munificence of Jesus.

There may be a touch of whimsy here on Matthew’s part by having those who wanted Jesus to send the crowds away wind up as the banquet’s waiters.

They all ate and were satisfied,

The loaves and fish were multiplied so that all had their fill.

and they picked up the fragments left over — twelve wicker baskets full.

The twelve baskets and twelve apostles represent the twelve tribes of Israel. There is enough left over for everyone — all Israel.

Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.

Since the count of five thousand only included men, the total figure could have been as high as twenty or thirty thousand. Some scholars say there were about a half million people in the Holy Land at the time of Jesus; if so, Matthew is demonstrating that Jesus was feeding a substantial percentage of the population. The whole idea is to characterize abundance — the abundance of the messianic age.

There is a doublet of this story in Matthew 15:29 (the feeding of the four thousand) which takes place in Canaan (Gentile territory). In the doublet, seven baskets are left, corresponding to the number of tribes displaced when the Jews occupied the promised land — indicative of enough being left over to feed all the Gentiles.

Matthew is not just telling us a story in which Jesus makes it possible for his disciples to feed the hungry. Matthew is teaching is 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. This feeding of the masses isn’t something that happened only once, but would be re-enacted at every table of the Lord; and it wouldn’t be that only the crowd in Galilee whose deepest hungers were satisfied, but all people of all time.

Connections and Themes

The One who nourishes. Jesus is the one who nourishes us, who provides us with the sustenance we need. Bread and fish may have been the peasant diet of first-century Israel, but they represent all the ways that we, the needs people of the contemporary world, are sustained by him. In a world fraught with meaninglessness, he offers purpose; to a world stumbling in darkness and confusion, he provides direction. He satisfies the hungry heart; he enlivens the drooping spirit. Those who follow Jesus will never be left to languish.

When we follow Jesus wholeheartedly, we are surprised at the ways in which we are sustained. While there may be times we feel that a banquet of rich food has been set before us, we are usually nourished with simple food, the ordinary fare of daily life. A student of years gone by thanks us for our commitment and our kindness. Our words turn the fear in the eyes of a patient into relief. We are warmly welcomed into a gathering of friends. We are touched by the sentiments of a season: the warmth and glow of Christmas; the joy and hope of Easter. Jesus nourishes us with the simple things of life.

Bread that satisfies. If we but open our eyes, we will be amazed at the bountifulness of the nourishment provided for us. We will discover that there is more than we will ever need; that God is magnanimous, even prodigal in giving; that God’s generosity exceeds all our expectations and also our understanding. So often the hunger we experience is really dissatisfaction. Because we want richer fare, we overlook the simple yet substantial bread within our reach.

A second characteristic of this bread should not be overlooked. It comes to us in a community of disciples. We are nourished by God through the ministry of one another. Again, this happens through very simple actions: distributing bread and gathering up the fragments; visiting the sick and consoling the grieving; caring for a child and giving aid to an elder. If we but open our eyes we will be astounded at how ordinary actions can satisfy our hunger and the hunger of others.

Without cost.  Perhaps what astounds us most about the goodness of God is that it is given freely, without paying and without cost. There was no thought of requiring payment from the multitude on the mountain. Isaiah insists that God simply invites: “Come, receive grain and eat!” Of course, we have to acknowledge that we are needy. We have to reach out our hands to receive.  But when we do, we are sustained, and we discover that a bond is established that endures. Jesus had compassion on the multitude — this compassion was not a fleeting emotion; it is an enduring attitude. He is always concerned about our welfare and our needs. This will never change. We will never be sent away to find nourishment for ourselves. Remember, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.

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