When I was working as a chef, this was always one of my favorite gospel readings. Probably anyone who has prepared a meal for a large group has felt the same way. I mean, you give Jesus a call over at the “Loaves and Fishes” catering place and say “Hello there. Jesus? Yeah, Tim here. Say, uh, we’re having a fish fry at the parish festival this year and we were wondering if you could help us out. Yeah. August 7th. You can? Great! I’ll have a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread ready for ya’ when you get here. Thanks so much.” The he comes over, takes the loaves and the fish, looks up to heaven, says the blessing, breaks the loaves and gives them to the people. I mean, all we’d have to do is make the tartar sauce!
Of course, when I think like this I am not really looking at the big picture. When Matthew included this story in his gospel (and it wasn’t just Matthew by the way, all four gospel writers include it in one form or another), but his use of it signaled a couple of things to his readers and listeners.
First, it portrays Jesus’ actions as part of the opening salvos of the Kingdom of God bursting in on human time. Jesus answered the needs of the people and Matthew tells us that “everyone was satisfied.” In the first reading today, the Prophet Isaiah compares the kingdom to a heavenly banquet where all will eat for free, everyone will be satisfied and God will meet all our basic needs. At the same time, he warns us not to waste our time chasing after things that can’t satisfy. God will meet our deepests hunger and thirst. He writes:
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.
Was this guy a prophet or what? He wrote this over two thousand, five hundred years ago during a time when most of his listeners thought they were wealthy if they had an extra tunic or a couple of extra sheep or goats. How could he have envisioned our time when the popular culture is constantly bombarding us with messages that we need to have the newest car, we need to have the latest digital cell phone with pager and alphanumeric messaging, we can’t live without the latest video game, microwave, satellite dish, or DVD player with Dolby stereo surround sound? How could Isaiah know that we would just have to to replace that computer we bought two years ago because the new ones have four times the hard drive, will bring up Internet web sites twice as fast, and has a radio/cd player/TV built in along with subwoofer and speakers that can join the other TVs and radios we have in the house? So many of these things satisfy us for only a short time before we hunger for something else. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that computers and Dolby surround sound are the spawn of the devil or anything like that. But what I am saying is all of those things need to be put into the perspective of God’s promise that He alone will satisfy. How could Isaiah know that the logical end of this perceived need of material things, if taken to the farthest extremes, would cause a man in Atlanta to kill his wife and 2 children, plus 9 other people, 12 lives, because he lost $150,000. He didn’t like his life as a chemist and he wanted more. He didn’t have a handle on what it would take to satisfy his basic needs and that everything else was just icing on the cake. And he especially didn’t trust that God would satisfy. Now, most of us would say that, probably, this guy had some deeper mental health issues. But, as I said, he was only a person who took a materialistic failure to satisfy to the extreme. How many of us, myself included, spend much of our time chasing after illusory riches rather than responding to God’s invitation? Do we really believe what we just finished repeating four times during the Responsorial Psalm: “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs?” The best time to acknowledge this as a reality in our lives might be when we say Grace before our meals everyday.
The second thing today’s gospel points us to is an echo of the Eucharist, because the language of taking, blessing, breaking and giving the bread is clearly ritual language, the same language Father Bill will use here today at this Eucharist. What might not be as obvious is that the meal in the gospel, just like the eucharist itself, is an anticipation of the heavenly banquet we will enjoy at the end of time. The one Isaiah tells us about.
Today’s gospel might also teach us something about one way Jesus might answer our prayers of petition when we ask him for certain things. You notice that the apostles asked him, possibly for selfish reasons since they had only a few loaves and fish themselves, to dismiss the crowd so they might return to the town and buy some food for themselves. What Jesus says to them, more or less is, “If you’re so concerned for their well-being,you give them something to eat. It just might be that Jesus sometimes makes the same reply to our prayers of petition. Some of us might pray to Jesus for world peace. His reply to us might be for us to resolve the anger we have with a neighbor or co-worker. In the same way, another of us might be praying for for God’s healing hand to touch a relative or friend. Jesus’ reply to that might be for us to take time to hold that person’s hand ourselves. Others might pray to God to bless the poor and Jesus answer to that might be for us to support or join an organization that clothes, feeds and shelters the poor. Or to use our skills as a lawyer, carpenter or cook to do his work.
We come here week after week to hear the word of God and to make it part of our lives. It is only when the word becomes enfleshed, that is, aquires a “bodyliness” that we can begin to experience and know true love of God, peace, mercy, justice, healing, and all those things we regularly attribute to the kingdom of God. True Christianity is not “ideas” but actions. Actions are words enfleshed. Whenever we hear the Gospel preached at Mass - we become the Word enfleshed. Whenever we receive the Eucharist, we take on Christ in our own bodies. We, along with our sisters and brothers, truly become the Body of Christ. And by becoming like Christ — becoming the incarnate Word, we are challenged to act, because words without action are hollow.
Let us leave here today with joy, remembering the hopeful assurance of Paul that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”