In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus has pity on a vast, hungry crowd; the miracle He performs has profound Eucharistic meaning.
Gospel (Read Mt 14:13-21)
Our reading begins with a description of Jesus’ response to the news of the death of John the Baptist: “He withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by Himself.” Surely He had withdrawn to mourn in solitude the martyrdom of His cousin, whom He had once described as the greatest man born of woman (Mt 11:11). John died at the whim of people who refused to listen to the prophet’s call to repentance (read Mt 14:1-12). A fancy birthday party, in a palace filled with guests and fine food, ended in the death of the precursor to the Messiah. Upon hearing this, Jesus heads for a place as far from a scene like that as He can get, a “deserted place.”
It doesn’t stay deserted for long, however. The crowds who are looking for Him, who want to see and hear Him, leave their towns “on foot” and travel to find Him. He is moved by their neediness and their willingness to search Him out, even in a place where there will be nothing to eat (and perhaps where Herod’s wrath will next send its searchlight). In response, “He cured their sick.”
When evening falls and hunger sets in, the disciples decide it’s time to send the crowd home. Jesus has a different idea: “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” This crowd of people, hungry for Jesus, will not be turned away in hunger. The disciples try to reason with Him: “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” They are making calculations in their heads; this is not going to work.
Jesus tells them to bring the meager supply of food to Him, and then He orders the crowds “to sit on the grass.” Why did St. Matthew include this detail? As a Jew, writing for a largely Jewish audience, is he helping his readers to “see” an image so familiar to them from their Scriptures? “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; He makes me lie down in green pastures…You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…my cup overflows” (Ps 23:1-2, 5). This “grassy” place of recline for God’s hungry people brings to life all the many places in Scripture where God provides food for His beloved covenant faithful (be sure to read Gen 1:29-30; Ex 16; 2 Kings 4:42-44). Then, just as St. Matthew helps us understand that all God’s Old Covenant promises to nourish His people are being summed up in this scene, he also helps us understand that it is a foreshadowing of the True Nourishment Jesus will provide in the Eucharist. Notice the verbs in the action recorded here: “take…bless…broke…gave.” They are exactly the same verbs that appear in St. Matthew’s account of the Last Supper (see Mt 26:26). There is no way to miss the profound significance of this miracle, the only to appear in all four Gospels. What else about this scene should we be sure not to miss?
First, Jesus gives the food to the disciples for distribution. We can see in this the future vocation of His priests, who will likewise feed God’s hungry people with the Bread of Heaven. See that “all ate and were satisfied.” Hungry no more! Finally, St. Matthew tells us there was a superabundance of food that day, enough to feed all the people to the full and more, much more, besides.
Now that St. Matthew has drawn the parallel between this scene and the Eucharist for us, we can savor all its lessons. Physical hunger, which every human being knows and understands, is a metaphor for a spiritual hunger present in every soul, too. Jesus’ gift of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist is meant to satiate that spiritual hunger. What Jesus gives us at Mass is a superabundant gift, enough to fill us, with more to spare. Only on the other side, when all is revealed, will we understand “the twelve wicker baskets full” of leftovers. Will we see all those others in the world, besides those of us at Mass receiving the sacrament, who got fed by this more-than-enough outpouring of God’s love and mercy? This is a mystery that keeps life interesting.
Think again of the contrast between the rich partying in Herod’s palace that led to death, and the poor, hungry crowds who came only with their needs to Jesus, yet were happily satisfied with a banquet in “a deserted place.” Pondering that contrast prepares us for our next reading.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, what a gift it is to know that when I go to Mass, I will never be turned away in hunger. Thank You, Bread of Heaven.
First Reading (Read Isa 55:1-3)
Historically, this prophecy comes in the Book of Isaiah, when God warned His people of coming judgment on their sins, but also promised a time of restoration. These verses are a glorious prophecy of that restoration, told entirely in terms of food. God promises to feed His people in the truly nourishing food of bread and wine. This is a meal that can’t be bought with money: “Come, without paying and without cost.” Food bought for consumption and not accompanied by a hunger for God Himself (Herod’s party?) cannot possibly satisfy: “Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy?” The crowds seated on the grass, in a “deserted place” with Jesus, were the ones who experienced fullness: “Come to Me, heedfully; listen, that you may have life.” The Eucharistic meal, offered through the hands of priests, begins to fulfill Isaiah’s joyous invitation to eat the food only God can provide. At the same time, the Eucharistic celebration is, itself, a foreshadowing of the Bridal Feast of Heaven, when spiritual hunger and thirst end forever.
Possible response: Heavenly Father, how often I have tried to fill my hunger with that which fails to satisfy. Increase my appetite for You!
Psalm (Read Ps 145: 8-9, 15-18)
This psalm gives poetic expression to the constant theme of all salvation history: God is the Great Provider for His people. Our physical hunger is a drive given to us to teach about hunger for God, too. The psalmist describes this perfectly: “The eyes of all look hopefully to You, and You give them their food in due season; You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” The Gospel reading gives us a detailed scene to burn this into our memories forever. Let us sing with the psalmist: “The hand of the Lord feeds us; He answers all our needs.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to the other lectionary readings. Read it again prayerfully as your own.
Second Reading (Read Rom 8:35, 37-39)
This epistle reading is an elaboration of our psalm response today. If we want to know how the Lord “answers all our needs,” demonstrated in our other readings by the supply of satisfying food (our most basic need), St. Paul is happy to explain. He runs through a detailed list of many things that might seem to make our neediness more powerful than God’s love for us. And it’s quite a list! Starting on earth, inside of us (anguish, distress), moving through earthly realities (famine, the sword), and then onto celestial ones (angels, principalities), St. Paul assures us that in all these tests of our faith in God’s personal care for us, we must know this one truth: “in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through Him Who loved us.” Nothing in creation can separate us from that love—nothing but our own departure from it (remember Herod).
Possible response: Lord Jesus, how easily I let my neediness defeat me. Help me to turn it over to You for victory.