Sunday Reflections

Eighteenth Sunday of the Year

Synopsis

 Introduction: The central theme of today’s readings is the provident care of a loving and merciful God who generously shares His riches with us, giving us His Son Jesus as our spiritual food, preparing us for the Heavenly banquet, and challenging us to share our blessings with others. 

Scripture lessons
In the first reading, Isaiah prophesies the return of the Israelites from their Babylonian captivity, promising that their caring God will bless them with fertile soil and abundance in their native land, will pardon their sins and will offer them participation in His eschatological banquet. The Psalmist praises the mercy, forgiveness and maternal care of a loving and providing God. In the second reading, Paul argues that since God loves us, “nothing can come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus demonstrates God’s caring love for us by feeding the people, spiritually by his preaching and physically by the miraculous multiplication of five loaves and two fish, which the apostles brought for their lunch and which they gave Jesus to feed the people. The miracle shows the divinity of Jesus, the providing care of God and the compassion of Jesus for the crowd. It is a Messianic sign, presenting Jesus as the new Moses who fed the Israelites in the desert and the new Elisha who miraculously fed the starving people of Gilgal (2 Kings 42-44).  The Eucharistic wordings used and the promise made by Jesus on the following day that he would give his body and blood as food and drink (John 6:25-70), make the miracle a symbol of the Holy Eucharist. 

Life message

1) We need to nourish our souls with Jesus in word and sacrament: We nourish our souls with the word of God (by listening to God through reading the Bible) and with the bread of life (by receiving Jesus in Holy Communion). We need to find time to be with Christ both in personal and in family prayer. One way of listening to God is to read a passage in the Bible until it speaks to the heart, then stop to reflect on the message God is conveying to our hearts. The next step is to respond to God by prayer which is talking to Him, as to a friend in conversation, telling Him everything and asking Him for whatever we need. 

2) We need to be “Eucharistic ministers”: We too, can perform miracles in our own time and place, by imitating the four "Eucharistic actions” of Jesus:  take humbly and generously what God gives us, bless it by offering it to others in God’s love, break away from our own needs and selfish interests for the sake of others, give with joy-filled gratitude to God who has blessed us with so much. 

3) We need to be generous in sharing God’s blessings: We need to share our blessings with others around us generously and sacrificially in order to alleviate their spiritual and physical hunger. God lavishly blesses the large-hearted who generously and sacrificially share their resources with others.

Eighteenth Sunday of the Year : Is 55:1-3; Rom 8:35, 37-39; Mat 14: 13-21 
Anecdote

1:“I shared my rice  because she has several starving children:”    From her personal experience, Mother Teresa relates a story showing how generous the poor are, and how ready to share what little they have with others because they themselves have experienced hunger and poverty. Learning of a poor Hindu family in Calcutta who had been starving for many days, Mother Teresa visited them and gave a parcel of rice to the mother of the family.   She was surprised to see that the woman divided the rice into two equal portions and gave one to her Moslem neighbor.    When Mother Teresa asked her why she had done such a sacrificial deed, the woman replied: “My family can manage with half of what you brought.  My neighbor’s family is in greater need because they have several children who are starving." In Matthew’s account of the miraculous feeding of 5000 people the apostles shared their lunch while in John's account, a small boy showed this same kind of generosity by sharing his small lunch (which consisted of five small loaves of barley bread and two dried fish) with Jesus to feed a multitude. Thus either the apostles or a small boy became the instrument of a miracle in Jesus’ hands. 

2: "Cheeseburger Bill:" Statistics tell us that Americans eat 75 acres of pizza, 53 million hot dogs, 167 million eggs, 3 million gallons of ice cream, and 3,000 tons of candy a day. As a result, fifty-five percent of American adults are overweight and 23 percent of us are obese, costing this country about $118 billion in lost wages and medical expenses annually. On March 10, 2004, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill known as the "Cheeseburger Bill" designed to protect fast food companies from lawsuits filed by overweight people. One billion of the world's richest people consume 80 percent of the earth's resources. The other five billion make do on the other 20 percent. The world has 840 million chronically malnourished people, most of them women and children. Seven million children in the world under the age of five die each year from malnutrition. Someone has noted that the average person BLINKS his eyes 13 times every minute, and in every minute 13 people starve to death.  Even in the U.S., there are 3.8 million families who experience hunger, and up to 12 million families are concerned about having enough food to feed their families. The problem is not how much food is available; the problem is distribution. In the U.S., food production has tripled since World War II while the population has only doubled, so why are there hungry people? The percent of personal income given to charity in the United States was 2.9 percent during the Great Depression and 2.5 percent in 2002. Is hunger a problem of production or a lack of faith? Hunger is real. And food is the subject of the miracle in today’s Gospel when Jesus miraculously fed the nearly  20,000 people present on that Galilean hillside.  

3: Hams for the Hungry and Aspirin for the sick: Four years ago young Matthew LeSage, a third-grader, wanted to do something to help the hungry in his city. So he started a program, Hams for the Hungry. This year, in its fourth year, Hams for the Hungry will raise $40,000 to brighten the holiday season for people with limited resources. Matthew's story reminds me of another young man, 13 years old at the time, who read about Dr. Albert Schweitzer's missionary work in Africa. He wanted to help. He had enough money to buy one bottle of aspirin. He wrote to the Air Force and asked if they could fly over Dr. Schweitzer's hospital and drop the bottle down to him. A radio station broadcast the story about this young fellow's concern for helping others. Others responded as well. Eventually, he was flown by the government to Schweitzer's hospital along with 4 1/2 tons of medical supplies worth $400,000 freely given by thousands of people. This, of course, would be the equivalent of millions of dollars today. When Dr. Schweitzer heard the story, he said, "I never thought one child could do so much.” Our story from Scripture for today, in John's account, is about a young man who didn't have much. But what he did have, he offered to Christ. And thousands of hungry people were fed.

Introduction: The common theme of today’s readings is the provident care of a loving and merciful God who generously shares his riches with us, and invites us to practice His sharing love in our lives. After announcing the return of God's chosen people to their homeland from Babylonian captivity, the prophet Isaiah, in today’s first reading, concludes his prophecies with God’s invitation to the eschatological banquet. The grace of God is compared to freely-given food and drink.  Yahweh’s gracious invitation in the first reading is echoed by the Psalmist who asks the people to respond by praising and blessing Yahweh. In the second reading, Paul argues that since God loves us, “nothing can come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Today's Gospel describes how Jesus demonstrates the provident care of God the Father by miraculously feeding a multitude of people in a remote, desolate village called Bethsaida Julius, where the River Jordan flows into the north end of the Sea of Galilee. In Matthew's account, Jesus acts out of his great compassion for the crowds. First, he challenges the disciples to give what they have -- five loaves and two fish. Then he performs the four-fold action that prefigures the Eucharist:  He takes, blesses, breaks and gives the bread and fish to the assembled multitude, making of them a community of the Lord's banquet. Just as God supplies the needs of all living beings, so Jesus also heals the sick and feeds the hungry.  This event indicates God’s power in Christ as well as His mercy.

The first reading (Isaiah 55: 1-3): Chapters 40-55 of Isaiah record prophecies concerning the end of the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews would return to their devastated homeland from slavery. Promising fertility of crops and livestock through His prophet, the Lord God meant to give the people hope and to keep them from losing Faith in Him. The people were promised abundant water, grain, milk, wine and bread and a renewal of God's covenant. Isaiah's prophecy repeatedly assured the people that poverty would  not be a barrier to their enjoyment of God's bounty: "You, who have no money, come." "Come, without paying and without cost." "Why spend ... your wages for what fails to satisfy?" This would be a reassurance to people who were ashamed of the sins that had led them into exile.  God was telling them that they didn’t have to pay their own ransom, but that He (Yahweh) would do it out of undeserved mercy and love because He had made an everlasting Covenant with His people. The concluding sentence explains why the audience is invited to "eat the finest" and "delight in delicacies.” The reason is that in God’s Kingdom, everyone becomes king, sharing the "benefits assured to David.” Finally, the Divine promise of life – "Listen, that you may have life!" – takes on new and fulfilled meaning in Christ's resurrection.

Psalm 145: Yahweh’s gracious invitation in the first lesson is echoed in the Responsorial Psalm – Yahweh is "good to all, His compassion is over all that He has made" (v. 9) – and specific details are added: the fallen and bowed down are rescued, all creatures are fed, and all who call on Him and cry to Him are heard. In verse 10, not used in today’s selection, the Psalmist declares that the response of all creatures to this unmerited generosity is to praise and bless Yahweh. The first reading and psalm agree that God is like a caring mother, delighting in pleasing us and meeting all our needs. For our part, we need do nothing other than to accept this loving care with gratitude expressed as obedience to His commandments.

The second reading: (Romans 8:35, 37-39): Some of the Judeo-Christians in Rome insisted that the Gentile Christians needed to observe at least some aspects of the Law of Moses. Paul, on the other hand, argued that it was enough to put one's faith in Jesus and let God save us through His unearned and undeserved grace. Hence, the Gentile converts to Christianity had no obligation to keep any aspect of Jewish law, although Jewish converts could do so if they wished. In today’s lesson from the letter to the Romans, Paul answers the question, "Well, if God loves us so much as to save us by unearned grace, why is everything still so difficult? Why are we suffering?" Paul's response sounds like a lawyer's dramatic closing argument in a hard-fought trial when he declares, “neither death nor life...nothing that exists...can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord." For Paul, these are the trials through which we triumph.

Exegesis: The symbolism of the multiplication of bread: The multiplication of the loaves is described six times in the Gospels: twice in Matthew and Mark and once each in Luke and John. The numbers are symbolic. For example,  the word “basket” refers to  Jewish basket and  12 suggests the twelve tribes. The language used echoes that of Moses feeding the people in the desert.  The number 5 might refer in some way to the Pentateuch. The location is Jewish territory. The echoes of Moses are important for Matthew’s Gospel because his community had only recently broken from the mother religion of Judaism and would like to claim for itself the fulfillment of what the Mosaic traditions pointed to.

 In today’s Gospel, Matthew intentionally contrasts two "banquets": one hosted by Herod which resulted in the death of John the Baptist (Matt 14:1-12), and the feeding of a large crowd by Jesus near the shore of the Sea of Galilee (14:13-21). Herod's banquet took place in an environment of scheming and arrogance and concluded with a murder. Prior to feeding the crowd that was following him, Jesus felt compassion for their needs and healed their sick. Herod's banquet was held at a royal court. Jesus' meal with this crowd was performed in a "deserted" place or wilderness. Matthew uses these two meals, Herod's great banquet and Jesus' feeding of the 5,000, to prefigure Jesus' coming "Last Supper" and death. Jesus' path to kingship was quite the opposite of Herod's, which was littered with corpses. Jesus' path to kingship was the offering himself on behalf of others (20:28). In Matthew’s account, this miracle happened right after the death of John the Baptist. Jesus' forerunner was dead; he had finished his work, and so he died at the hands of Herod. John‘s death foreshadowed Jesus’ own death at the hands of Pontius Pilate.

Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness: This withdrawal could have been meant to provide a period of rest and reflection for Jesus and his disciples, a time for the disciples to be taught by Jesus. It might also have been meant to allow Jesus to avoid possible danger after the execution of John the Baptist. But when Jesus stepped ashore, he was faced with a large crowd of people. His immediate reaction was one of deep compassion, and he began to heal the sick among them.

A great miracle before a multitude: The miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 is found in all four Gospels, although the context and emphasis varies.  This is the only miracle, other than the resurrection, that is told in all four gospels, a fact that speaks of its importance to the early church. [Compare Mark 6:35-44, Luke 9:12-17, and John 6:1-14]. The miraculous feeding narrative expresses the conviction that, through Jesus, we share in God’s own abundance and in the promises made to God’s covenant people: “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.” Matthew says that there were about 5,000 men, not including women and children. According to some commentators, this means that there could have been as many as 20,000-30,000 people present. The miracle suggests the Old Testament story of the people of Israel being fed in the wilderness, as well as that of the multiplying of oil and bread by Elisha. The story should be treated as a witness to the power of God and an implicit declaration of Jesus’ Divinity. The story also shows Christ empowering the disciples to continue his works of compassion. We may regard the incident both as a miracle of Divine providence and as a Messianic sign in which Jesus multiplied loaves and fish in order to feed his hungry listeners. The lesson for every Christian is that, no matter how impossible his or her assignment may seem, with Divine help it  can be done because "nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:37). The twelve baskets clearly represent the twelve tribes of Israel as well as the twelve apostles who are part of the New Israel. They will become the twelve sources of expressing God's generous concern for his people.

The Old Testament parallels: The feeding of the 5,000 is a subtle yet powerful fusion of allusions to different stories and traditions in the Old Testament. For instance, God told Moses to feed 600,000 men fit for military service, for a month. Moses said he could not do that because he did not have sufficient food (Numbers 1:22). Consequently, God showered manna for bread and sent quails for meat.  Matthew clearly intends to portray Jesus as similar to Moses, yet surpassing him, as the bringer of a new age. Jesus makes this connection even more explicit when he refers to manna in his “Bread–from–Heaven” discourse following the feeding of the five thousand in John’s Gospel (John 6:31, 49). These feedings are also reminiscent of Elisha’s feeding miracle in II Kings 4:42-44. In that story, Elisha had only twenty barley loaves to feed the starving people of Gilgal. When he ordered his servant to distribute the bread, the servant protested, "How can I set this before a hundred people?" Elisha reaffirmed the order, promising, "They shall eat and have some left." The servant distributed the bread; the people ate -- and there was bread left over in fulfillment of the Word of God. The linkage between the stories is made even tighter by the reference to barley loaves in John 6:9. Allusions in today's Gospel (multiplication of loaves and fish) show how Jesus recapitulated and fulfilled the Old Testament story. The people here followed a new and greater Moses into the desert, where he fed them with miraculous bread. Jesus also showed himself greater than Elisha the prophet, who fed 100 men from 20 barley loaves, with "some left over."  In the gospel story, five loaves and two fish sufficed for 5,000 men and their families, with twelve baskets left over. The miracle of the loaves and fishes is a clear affirmation of God's providence. Just as the merciful God fed the wandering Israelites with manna in the desert, Jesus, "his heart moved with pity," fed the crowds who had come to hear him.

A miracle of generous sharing? Contemporary, scientifically-minded, free-thinking modern believers are skeptical about a multiplication of loaves. Hence, some interpreters propose that the "miracle" was Jesus' success in getting this group of people to share their personal provisions. According to them, it appears strange and unnatural that the crowd had made this nine-mile long expedition to such a desolate village without taking anything to eat. So the crowd had, in fact, brought food with them in their wicker baskets, but were unwilling to share with others.   If such was the case, Jesus might have deliberately borrowed the five loaves and two fish from his apostles in order to set a good example for the crowd. Moved by this example of generosity, the crowd might have done the same:  thus, there was enough for all.   This rather fanciful and non-Biblical explanation may still be considered a miracle:  it shows how the presence of Jesus miraculously turned a crowd of selfish men and women into a fellowship of generous sharers.   A more literal understanding of the story is the Biblically correct one.

A symbol of the Eucharist: The early Christian community especially cherished this story because they saw this event as anticipating the Eucharist. The way in which Jesus’ actions are described [“looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples,"] makes a connection with Jesus’ Last Supper and the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist. The miracle itself is a symbol of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of unity, and the sharing of the broken bread is a sign of a community that shares and provides in abundance for the needs of its members. Matthew invites us to see this miracle as a type or symbol explaining the Sacrament's meaning. Probably, the telling of the story has been shaped by the Eucharistic customs of the early Christian community: "taking the . . . loaves," "blessed," "broke," "gave," "ate.” Clearly the account suggests the early Christian rite of the breaking of the bread (early form of the Holy Mass), celebrated on Sundays, rather than the Covenant-sacrifice meal, which was probably, in the earliest days, a single, annual Christian Passover celebration. Their “breaking of the bread” also had eschatological associations: it was an anticipation of the Messianic banquet. The Church's Eucharist today combines both the sacrificial and the eschatological associations. In the recent past, emphasis has been placed more on the sacrificial than on the eschatological aspect, but the imbalance is now being redressed.

Life messages
1) "You give them something to eat." Today’s readings tell us that God really cares about His people and that there is enough and more than enough for everybody. Studies show that the world today produces enough food in grain alone to provide every human being on the planet with 3,600 calories a day, not counting such foods as tuber crops, vegetables, beans, nuts, fruits, meats, and fish.   Over the past twenty-five years, food production has exceeded world population growth by about 16%.   This means that there is no good reason for any human being in today's world to go hungry. But even in a rich country like the U.S.A., one child out of five grows up in poverty, three million people are homeless and 4000 unborn babies are aborted every day. “The problem in feeding the world’s hungry population lies with our political lack of will, our economic system biased in favor of the affluent, our militarism, and our tendency to blame the victims of social tragedies such as famine.   We all share responsibility for the fact that populations are undernourished. Therefore, it is necessary to arouse a sense of responsibility in individuals, especially among those more blessed with this world’s goods.” (Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra (1961) 157-58). 

It is too easy to blame God, too easy to blame governments, too easy to see these things as other people's problems. They are also our problems. That is the meaning of the Eucharist we celebrate here today. In other words, as Christians we have to commit ourselves to share and to work with God in communicating His compassion to all. God is a caring Father, but He wants our co-operation. That’s what the early Christians did, generously sharing what they had with the needy.  They were convinced that everything they needed to experience a fulfilling life was already there, in the gifts and talents of the people around them. People of our time have to be encouraged to share, even when they think they have nothing to offer. Whatever we offer through Jesus will have a life-giving effect in those who receive it. We are shown two attitudes in the Gospel story:  that of Philip and that of Andrew (John 6:7-9). Philip said, in effect:  "The situation is hopeless; nothing can be done."  But Andrew's attitude was: "I'll see what I can do, and I will trust Jesus to do the rest."  Let us have Andrew’s attitude. 

2) God blesses those who share their talents with loving commitment. This is illustrated by Mother Teresa who went to serve the slum-dwellers of Calcutta with just twenty cents in her pocket.   When she died forty-nine years later, God had turned her original twenty cents into eighty schools, three hundred mobile dispensaries, seventy leprosy clinics, thirty homes for the dying, thirty homes for abandoned children and forty thousand volunteers from all over the world to help her. We can begin our own humble efforts at "sharing" right here in our parish by participating in the works of charity done by organizations like St. Vincent DePaul Society, the Knights of Columbus and so many other volunteer groups. We may say, “I do not have enough money or talent to make any difference.”   But we need to remember that the small boy in the story had only five loaves of bread and two fish.  The Bible guarantees that every believer has at least one gift from the Holy Spirit. This is our one “tiny fish.” Perhaps our “fish” is not money, but a talent or an ability that God has given us. We all have something. If we have never trusted God with our time, or our talent, or our treasure...all our resources...this is the time to start. Let us offer everything to God saying, “Here is what I am and what I have Lord; use me.” And He will, blessing and amplifying everything beyond our expectations.  As we begin to give, we will discover that the Lord moves in where we are not adequate, and He abundantly supplies what is needed. When we give what we have to God, and we ask Him to bless it, it is then the miracle happens. 

3) We need to be “Eucharistic ministers”: We, too, can perform wonders in our own time and place, by imitating the four "Eucharistic verbs” of Jesus:  take humbly and generously what God gives us, bless it by offering it to others in God’s love, break away from our own needs and selfish interests for the sake of others and give with joy-filled gratitude to God who has blessed us with so much.

4) We need to eat Jesus the Bread of life. How do we eat Jesus Christ? How do we digest the Son of God? One way is by maintaining daily private devotions, spending time alone with Christ, apart from the family and the busyness of the day. It means taking some time - five, ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes - each day to spend in the presence of Christ, the Bread of Life. We can take the Bible, read a passage until something speaks to the heart, then stop, reflect on what has been and ask, “What is God saying to me in this passage? Is there a command to obey? A promise to claim? An example to follow? A sin to avoid? A prayer to echo?” This is called reflection or meditation. We get quiet and still, focus our mind on God and his Word. The next step is to respond to God by prayer which is talking to Him, speaking to Him as to a friend in conversation, telling Him everything and asking Him for whatever we need. By doing this day in and day out, we will be feeding our soul with the Bread of Life. We will grow strong within. Our Faith will mature. We can eat the Bread of Life also in the public worship of the Church at the Eucharistic celebration. We gather where fellow-believers join hearts and voices in praising God and listening to His Word taught and preached in a Church service. Since Christ is the heart and center of the Bible, we can say that the Bible is the Bread of Life. When the Bible is preached, the pastor is breaking the Bread of Life for us. Christians feed on the Word of God as they hear it in Church. In Holy Communion, we really eat the glorified body of the risen Lord and drink his blood and share in his divine life.


 Prepared by Fr. Antony Kadavil (akadavil@gmail.com) and published in the CBCI website by the Office for Social Communications. You may contact akadavil@gmail.com for weekday homilies, and a dozen more additional anecdotes

July 27, 2014
July 20, 2014