A reflection on the Sunday readings for August 2, 2020
The multiplication of loaves and fish is the only miracle found in all four Gospels, and—surprisingly—twice in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. On the peripheral level, it can be read as yet another in Matthew’s string of miracles that reveal Jesus’s Messianic identity. Indeed, it is! On another level, the passage is so full of symbolism and deeper meaning that a peripheral reading does not do justice to this miraculous event. There is a miracle within the miracle. I would like to explore the deeper meaning of Matthew’s multiplication narrative in a way that could transform hearts!
Two Banquets, Two Paradigms
It is intriguing that Matthew begins his narrative of the multiplication of the loaves by informing his readers of the death of John the Baptist. In fact, the story of the multiplication follows immediately after Herod’s gruesome murder of John the Baptist, where John’s decapitated head was presented to Herod on a platter at a banquet. Matthew has strategically placed Jesus’ banquet right after Herod’s banquet.
At Herod’s banquet, we see false pride, arrogance, victimization of the righteous, the misuse of power, and murder. At Jesus’ banquet there is compassion, healing, trust, and sharing. Matthew tells us that, “When he [Jesus] disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them” (Mt 14:14). This is Matthew’s way of telling us that Jesus operates from a very different place than the religious and political leaders of the time—from compassion. This compassion, this heart moved with pity, is the key principle to interpreting the rest of the multiplication story.
Trained in the School of Compassion
Jesus’ compassion impels his to action. Seeing the reality of the people in front of him, divine compassion becomes operative. Jesus begins by addressing their human needs. In the crowd, there were people who were ill and hungry. Matthew tells us, “His heart was moved with pity, and he cured their sick” (Mt 14:14). Even though the disciples wanted to “dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves” (Mt 14:15), Jesus refused to send them away. Rather, he trains the disciples in the school of compassion. He says to them, “Give them some food yourselves!” (Mt 14:16).
The disciples’ response is tepid. Not operating from the place of compassion, they said, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here” (Mt 14:17). Jesus commands them, “Bring them here to me” (Mt 14:18). Jesus is teaching his disciples to give selflessly. If they must follow Jesus, their hearts must be moved with pity. If they must continue his mission, they must operate from the place Jesus does—with compassion.
Just like in Jesus’ times, illness and hunger threaten the lives of millions of people in our times. Whereas we have been overwhelmed with the news about COVID-19 and protests for racial equality, equally disturbing news about the invasion from destructive locusts across the globe has been relegated to the sidelines. To add to the 746 million people who already suffered from severe food insecurity in 2019, another estimated 130 million more people will face chronic hunger due to the combined disasters of the pandemic and locusts. The numbers are staggering!
These are extraordinary times. These are unusual times. As we face the challenges of a pandemic, of widespread famine, of the calls of racial equality, of justice and peace, today’s scripture invites us—indeed, challenges us—to operate from the same place where Christ operated. Whether we are genuine followers of Christ depends on whether we have trained ourselves at the school of divine compassion. Whether we are genuine disciples of Jesus depends on whether we respond to today’s human issues like Jesus did.
A Miracle within the Miracle
Matthew’s narrative of the actual miracle is composed in Eucharistic language. “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.” When we read the story of the multiplication of the loaves in light of today’s First Reading from the prophet Isaiah, we realize that the Eucharist foreshadows an even greater reality—the banquet in heaven.
Isaiah’s invitation to “Come to the water,” to “buy grain without money, wine and milk without cost,” to “come to me and listen that you may have life” (Is 55:1-2), is an invitation to live our life on earth from the perspective of eternity. The multiplication of the loaves and fish is both a fulfillment of the Isaiah’s prophecy and a vision into our future eternal life with God in heaven. The fact that there were twelve baskets of leftover food is a reminder to us that grace is aplenty and that it is free. This grace, this new life, the table of plenty for us is the Eucharistic table.
However, there is yet another level of meaning in Matthew’s narrative. While with God everything is possible (Mt 19:26), God’s modus operandi in this miracle, and for that matter, at any miracle, requires human cooperation. Even though Jesus knew that he could multiply food, Jesus put the initiative on the disciples. He said to them, “Give them some food yourselves!” (Mt 14:15). In Matthew’s narrative, besides the multiplication of the bread and the fish, there is yet another miracle—the transformation of human hearts. The disciples had bread, but they had to bring it to Jesus. Would there have been a miracle if they had not selflessly given what they had? Of course! Because all things are possible for God. However, that is not God’s modus operandi. Even this Eucharist requires that we bring bread, wine, and ourselves and place them on the altar before God. Without them, without us, there would be no Eucharist.
In 2016, Pope Francis reminded us about depth of compassion that Christ manifested in this story, and how he inspired others to share in this compassion:
“When Jesus, with his compassion and his love, gives us a grace, forgives us our sins, embraces us, loves us; he does nothing halfway but completely. As it happens here: all are satisfied. Jesus fills our heart and our life with his love, with his forgiveness, with his compassion. Thus, Jesus allows his disciples to carry out his command. In this way they know the path to follow: to feed the people and keep them united; that is, to be at the service of life and of communion.”
Compassion produces miracles! Understood this way, the miracle was also the transformation of human hearts. After all, this is what heaven is like – a place of plenty where every human heart is like the heart of Jesus! But it begins here on earth!
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