Reflection for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time – “Sharing the Bread” by Fr Paddy Hennessy.
Lectio divina on Mt 14,13-21
This passage relates one of the many signs and wonders worked by Jesus. He multiplied the small quantity of food the disciples had for themselves and, with it, was able to satisfy the hunger of the crowd. The people had neglected to satisfy their hunger for food in order to satisfy their hunger for his word. It is not the usual cause of hunger! It would be a mistake for us if, like the first disciples, we were so surprised at the extraordinary miracle that we forgot that Jesus wants to do the same for us. The gospel account is good news indeed. What Jesus did once for the hungry crowd he is willing to do again, provided he finds what he found on that occasion – a desire to seek him, a readiness to suffer hunger in order to hear him, and a willingness to satisfy our hunger with the bread and fish multiplied by Jesus. What was needed for Jesus to work that miracle was very little, but it was all the disciples had. Herein lies the problem, for Jesus and for the crowd …
At that time 13 when Jesus heard [of the death of John the Baptist], he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 As he went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass; and taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
I Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
Matthew locates the first of the two multiplications of bread (14,13-23; 15,32-39) near the lake, in Jewish territory. The action of Jesus recalls the action of God in the desert (Es 16; Nm 11): the people who came to him satisfied their hunger, and from what was left over they collected twelve baskets full, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Even so, the miracle worked by Jesus did not just “fall from heaven” but needed the intervention of his disciples. They saw the problem and were unable to do anything about it. There was no food for the people until the disciples placed at Jesus’ disposition everything they had, even though it was very little.
The account begins with Jesus absent, which is unusual. It is also unusual that the crowd followed Jesus and interrupted his solitude. Jesus is moved to act out of compassion. He cures the sick and feeds the hungry. It is significant that it is the disciples who mention the hunger of the people, but they do so as an excuse to get rid of them so as not to have to bother with their needs. They do not share the pain of Jesus. Being close to Jesus, day and night, does not always lead to sharing his sentiments or getting involved in his plans. Jesus surprises them by telling them to take responsibility for the needs of the crowd. In this way he discovers the poverty of their resources and uncovers their hardness of heart.
Jesus makes use of the little his disciples have to feed the crowd, and gets them involved in the working of a miracle. The contribution of the disciples is simply one of service. They distribute the bread and they confirm the miracle by collecting the leftovers. Performing a simple service to the crowd transforms them into witnesses of the miracle. Even today, Jesus is still concerned about the crowd and will not be put off by the indifference of his disciples, nor the poverty of their resources. The miracle is the result of the compassion of Jesus. The disciples will be good witnesses if they share their lives with Jesus and serve the people.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
The first thing Jesus saw was the crowd searching for him. He had gone off to a lonely place and the crowd followed him there. Without thinking of the consequences, they did not allow Jesus to remain hidden, away from them. They did not allow him to leave them and they followed him until they found him. If the crowd had not gone in search of Jesus, if they had resigned themselves to his absence, if they had accepted his desire to be alone, they would not have received food to satisfy their hunger.
If we want to get what we need, then we too must be conscious, first of all, of the fact that Jesus is absent from our lives. The best way to ensure that he will satisfy our need is to set out in search of him, as the crowd did that day, and not allow him to stay away from us. If we allow Jesus to stay away from us, for whatever reason, we are increasing our needs without realising it, even our earthly needs which are the least important. If we do not want to put our lives at risk, on account of the poverty of our resources, we cannot afford to remain without Jesus, even for a moment. We must hasten to seek him and persuade him to stay with us.
But Jesus saw something more in the crowd that sought him, and he felt compassion for them. Instead of being annoyed that they did not respect his desire for solitude, he began to heal their sick. They invaded his privacy and succeeded in entering his heart. Jesus could not defend himself against those who sought him so diligently on account of their needs. Probably we are not like the crowd. We do not go in search of Jesus, and so we don’t arouse his compassion. We think we are already healed and we have no need to search for him. We don’t follow him, with the excuse that we don’t want to disturb him. And when we lose sight of him, we lose ourselves! Only when we come close to Jesus, even if only out of necessity, will we find him compassionate, understanding of our weakness, and ready to help us. We should not forget that before Jesus fed the crowd, he felt compassion for them and he healed them. Before he gave them bread, he gave them his attention. He did not satisfy their hunger until he had first healed their illnesses. Responding to their needs was one way – the best way – to satisfy them, but it was not the only way.
It is significant that what Jesus saw next was the hardness of heart of his disciples. They were the very ones who came to tell him that it would be difficult to buy enough bread for the crowd in that isolated place. That is when Jesus discovered the insensitivity of his disciples and their failure to learn from his compassion. They wanted to get rid of the people who had come looking for Jesus, because what they had would not be enough to feed them all. It is sad to see that the best of his disciples still did not know Jesus. They were the ones who had followed him closest. And still, they persisted in their lack of concern for the hunger of people who were suffering precisely because they had come in search of Jesus, without thinking about the risk involved.
The saddest thing of all is that the attitude of the disciples on that occasion is still the attitude of many of those who follow Jesus closely, even at the present time. We Christians of today are often indifferent to the hunger of people who have not yet found Jesus and are searching for him. Just because we have plenty of bread and are close to Jesus, we close our hearts to those who have no bread and do not know him. It is significant that Christian countries are often those who have done most to satisfy their own material needs, but feel least responsible for the countries whose need is greatest.
If we want to be disciples of Jesus, then we have to listen again to what he says, “Give them something to eat yourselves”. Even if this is impossible, Jesus does not allow us to forget our responsibility towards those who have less than we have and suffer hunger. Anyone who is aware of his neighbour’s need must feel responsible for him. This is how Jesus discovers the disciples who have enough to live on and who do not think of satisfying their own needs without also doing something for the needs of others. Jesus was unhappy with the disciples who showed no concern for the hungry just because they did not have enough to feed them all. Jesus challenged them to feed the hungry crowd from the little resources they had. In doing, so he discovered their poverty and, at the same time, their hardness of heart. The disciples had little to share and no will to share it. They suffered from a double poverty – a shortage of bread and of compassion.
Unfortunately we, the disciples of Jesus today, still excuse ourselves from serving those who have less than we have, and we justify our irresponsibility by pointing to the little we have to meet our own needs. We think that because we don’t have much, we don’t have to share what we have with those who have less. And we are wrong!
When Jesus had unmasked the selfishness of his disciples, he made use of their small resources to perform a miracle. It is not clear where exactly the sign lay – in multiplying the bread or in using the food that the disciples wanted to keep for themselves. Jesus made use of what his disciples had to feed the crowd, and in doing so he obliged the disciples to give to others what they wanted to keep for themselves. He was able to satisfy the hunger of the crowd only when he had healed the selfishness of his disciples. Could it be that Jesus does not work miracles in our day, because his disciples still have little compassion for the needy, and continue to hide their goods in order to meet their own needs? Do we still today deny Jesus the possibility of showing compassion, by refusing to share with others what we have for ourselves?
Today’s gospel urges us to feel compassion for the most needy and to meet their needs from our own scarce resources. If we allow Jesus to make use of our possessions for those who have less than we have, we will see the compassion of Jesus and we will witness stupendous miracles. If Jesus were not capable of miracles, he would not be worthy of our obedience. But we won’t know what he is capable of until we give him all we have. We lose Jesus and his miracles if we persist in keeping our scarce resources to ourselves