2 August 2008 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Is 55, 1-3; Ps 145; Rom 8, 35-39; Matthew 14, 13-21 Feeding of the Five Thousand
Allow me to divide the reflection into two parts: the levels of interpretations and some reflections.
We can read the story of the feeding of the five thousand literally like a historical fact, a story from the past: When more than five thousand people who followed and listened to Jesus’ teachings became hungry, Jesus fed them. Period. The story becomes just amusing, an additional item to our general knowledge.
There is, however, a second interpretation: they see in the story people who brought some provisions but were afraid to share them. They thought that whatever they had was not enough for themselves, and more so, for others. But the gesture of the boy who had a few loaves and ordinary fish and the words of Jesus inspired them to put out whatever they had. And like any potluck party, there’s always a surplus. The story then inspires generosity.
However, there is more to this story than just the first two interpretations. The story was regarded important by the Gospel writers that all of them included it in their books and placed the story in strategic parts in their Gospel. The story would signal an important turn in Jesus’ life, a glimpse of His true identity, or a significant part for future belief and ministry. Matthew places this story before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
To these evangelists, there was a deeper hunger that Jesus must have satisfied. It was not just a hunger for physical food, as the first and second interpretation suggest. But it was something that is beyond just bread. It probably was a need for words: an articulation of what we deeply desire. Sometimes we cannot put a finger to that ‘something’ that we seek: we already tried ways and means to get to the bottom of our infinite hunger, but still cannot label or name them. To identify what we want can clear our directions. Jesus’ words articulated what we truly seek.
Or, it probably was a need for an act by persons: as actions of compassion and love. As sharing fish and bread. Despite Jesus’ grief from the death of John the Baptist, He saw that the best thing to do was to respond to people’s needs. What mattered to Jesus was His relationship with people. And so Jesus stayed with them and fed them.
Therefore, what we truly seek is not a ‘what’ but a ‘who’ — a relationship. How many of us have mistakenly thought that what would put our heart at rest is the fulfillment of a career? And having that dream profession now, we still remain restless. It may be finding a connection with family and friends or, a significant other or a group where we feel at home. This is the desire when we are lonely: loneliness often points to the reality that we miss someone who has a name and who has face, but is not physically present. In other words, our deeper hunger is the desire to belong to someone. The only person who can satisfy our infinite hunger for presence is God alone. And thus, the hunger of the people in the Gospel was satisfied by the mere presence of Jesus who fed their infinite thirst.
The gist of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand was not having fed a large number of people, but having experienced Jesus — having experienced the Divine.
If we take the first, second and third interpretation as a movement of the spirit. Then we know why it is often a practice for people who long for God, to fast. If one deprives oneself of physical food, the mind is trained to realize that there is a deeper hunger that food cannot satisfy; that we thrive “not just on bread alone, but on the very words that comes from the mouth of God.”
And having discovered our deepest desires that fast brings forth to our consciousness, we are led back to the second and first step. We find the rationale for being charitable and generous. Because, a change of heart is not just empty words. Its veracity is proven by an act: it must enable us to help end destitution. Our generosity should actually put physical food on the table.
In every day life, the miracle continues. Having found God as the source of our hunger as St. Augustine said, “My heart is restless until my heart rests in Thee” is half way towards a greater miracle. To put real food on the table of the hungry completes it.