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Eighteenth Sunday In Ordinary Time

By Father Donald Dilger


MATTHEW 14:13-21    (Isaiah 55:1-3; Romans 8:35, 37-39)


In the context of this gospel reading, the disciples of John the Baptizer just reported to Jesus that John had been executed in prison by order of Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee. Jesus’ association with the Baptizer was well known. It was possible that Antipas would follow up with the arrest of associates of the Baptizer. In fact, Luke 13:31-32 informs us that some Pharisees, friends of Jesus, warned him to leave Galilee, “for Herod (Antipas) wants to kill you.” Jesus’ reply is no compliment to Herod Antipas, as Jesus begins his reply, “Go, tell that fox, etc.” In Old Testament literature the fox is depicted as one who prowls over ruins. To the portrayal of Herod Antipas as a fox, Jesus next envisions the future ruin of Jerusalem for its rejection and killing of prophets.

To escape the danger of his arrest and execution before “I finish my course,” Jesus “with-drew from there in a boat to a lonely place by himself.” His private retreat was not going to happen. Word got out that he had left by boat. Crowds followed him on foot. Probably not by walking on water, as Jesus does occasionally, but by fording the inlets and outlets north or south of the Sea of Galilee. Matthew notes the compassion of Jesus as he reaches out to his sheep to heal their diseases. The disciples caught up with him by evening. They remind him that it was late, that they were in the wilderness. Time to send the people away to buy food for themselves. Jesus gives them an astounding answer, “They don’t have to leave. You give them something to eat.”

Like the provider of the family meal who suddenly has to cope with unexpected visitors, the disciples take a quick inventory, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” No problem! Jesus says, “Bring them here to me!” He ordered the people to recline on the grass. It was not the custom to sit as we sit for a meal, but to recline, a halfway lying down posture, propping up the body on one elbow, leaving the other arm free to bring food to mouth. “Jesus took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowd.”

Note the Eucharistic language (in italics) as still used today in our Eucharistic prayers. Either the composition of the gospel stories influenced the formation of the Eucharistic Prayer from early on, or vice versa. The earliest version of the Eucharistic Prayer avail-able to us is in 1 Corinthians 11:24-26, written about the year 54. The first gospel, Mark, would not be composed for another fifteen years. We conclude that the Eucharistic Prayers, the Lord’s Supper, the Breaking of the Bread, (names for what we call the Mass today), served as guides for the formation of the story of the feeding of the five thousand in all four gospels. This indicates that the authors viewed the feeding of the crowds dur-ing Jesus’ ministry as preview of the Eucharistic Action already in full swing before and during the composition of the gospels.

Always mindful of the catechetical nature of a gospel story, we must ask what Matthew is teaching by this story? Since we live almost two thousand years after the writing of the gospels, the instruction that Matthew intended in his time is not always obvious to us. For example, we know that the Jews, or at least some groupings of religious Jews, were ex-pecting a Messiah. There was a popular belief that when the Messiah is revealed, the manna that once fell in the wilderness to feed the ancient Israelites would again appear in the wilderness when the Messiah arrived. Matthew proclaims the feeding of the crowds by Jesus in the wilderness as a renewal of the manna, thus revealing Jesus as the Messiah.

Jesus’ command to the disciples, “You give them something to eat,” is significant because of the Eucharistic tone of Matthew’s story. Thus Jesus’ command echoes the words that Paul already in the year 54 attributed to Jesus at the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of me.” The feeding of the crowd with the new manna, the Eucharist, must be continued by the disciples of Jesus, not just in Jesus’ time but for all time. Thus Paul again, in the year 54, attributes to Jesus words that indicate the ongoing feeding of the multitude, “…as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” or as Matthew writes at the end of his gospel, “to the close of the age.” The twelve baskets of leftovers also convey the instruction that the Church must continue to feed the crowds as Jesus fed them. One may also conclude that Jesus intended not only Eucharistic feeding as indicated by the Eucharistic language of the story, but also feeding the poor materially through the compassion of Jesus shown in this miracle-story.

The story of feeding five thousand is found in all four gospels, but with a difference in Matthew. He writes, “…five thousand men,” as do the other gospels, but adds his own flavor, “besides women and children.” Why does he alone write this? From close study of Matthew’s gospel emerge certain characteristics of his style. He loves to exaggerate the miracles of Jesus as he found them in the Gospel of Mark. For example, one blind man cured in Mark becomes two blind men in Matthew, not just once, but twice. Thus he also increased the number of people fed by Jesus. Besides that, it just makes sense that families were there.