Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." And he said, "Bring them here to me." Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. -Matthew 14:13-21
How do you preach or meditate upon the multiplication of loaves and fishes without emotional distress? The situation of war refugees, of the victims of famine and malnutrition as well as violence of all kinds, of children perishing because of unclean water, come to mind immediately.
Some say that Jesus merely collected and redistributed everyone's picnic and the result was enough and more than enough. That's no comfort when we can't get our largess to the people who need it (despite the brave and hardworking international peaceworkers who try.)
Building upon the previous weeks' parables and stories, it seems to me that the multiplication of the loaves is about God's generosity. But Jesus says, "YOU feed them."
Bread appears in many stories of the men and women of the desert (meditation one) evoking both Paradise at the end of time, manna in the wilderness, and ongoing Eucharist. This Eucharist of fearful mystery and ineffable wisdom offers unending life (meditation two). Still, you and I are called to give bread to the hungry, to be a living Eucharist for all people.
May God give us such strength, Suzanne
Meditation One (introit) in the wilderness
Once when they had almost exhausted their stock of loaves, an angel appeared in the cave in the form of a brother and brought them something to eat. Another time ten brothers who were searching for him (Abba Helle) wandered in the desert for seven days without any food. On finding them himself, he invited them to rest in his cave. When they mentioned that they had not eaten, the father, having nothing to set before them, said to them, "God is able to furnish a table in the wilderness." (Ps. 78:19) At that moment a servant appeared at the door, a handsome young man, and persisted in knocking while the brethren were at prayer. When they opened the door, they saw that the youth was carrying a large basket full of bread and olives. They received them from him and partook of them, after giving thanks to the Lord, the servant having at once disappeared.
The Lives of the Desert Fathers trans. Norman Russell (Introduction by Benedicta Ward) a story told by 'Father Copres'
A Jewish/Arab Folk Tale
Once there were two brothers who inherited their father's land. The brothers divided the land in half and each one farmed his own section. Over time, the older brother married and had six children, while the younger brother never married.
One night, the younger brother lay awake. "It's not fair that each of us has half the land to farm," he thought. "My brother has six children to feed and I have none. He should have more grain than I do."
So that night the younger brother went to his silo, gathered a large bundle of wheat, and climbed the hill that separated the two farms and over to his brother's farm. Leaving the wheat in his brother's silo, the younger brother returned home, feeling pleased with himself.
Earlier that very same night, the older brother was also lying awake. "It's not fair that each of us has half the land to farm," he thought. "In my old age my wife and I will have our grown children to take care of us, not to mention grandchildren, while my brother will probably have none. He should at least sell more grain from the fields now so he can provide for himself with dignity in his old age."
So that night, too, he secretly gathered a large bundle of wheat, climbed the hill, left it in his brother's silo, and returned home, feeling pleased with himself.
The next morning, the younger brother was surprised to see the amount of grain in his barn unchanged. "I must not have taken as much wheat as I thought," he said, bemused. "Tonight I'll be sure to take more." That very same moment, his older brother was also standing in his barn, musing much the same thoughts.
After night fell, each brother gathered a greater amount of wheat from his barn and in the dark, secretly delivered it to his brother's barn. The next morning, the brothers were again puzzled and perplexed. "How can I be mistaken?" each one scratched his head. "There's the same amount of grain here as there was before I cleared the pile for my brother. This is impossible! Tonight I'll make no mistake - I'll take the pile down to the very floor. That way I'll be sure the grain gets delivered to my brother."
The third night, more determined than ever, each brother gathered a large pile of wheat from his barn, loaded it onto a cart, and slowly pulled his haul through the fields and up the hill to his brother's barn. At the top of the hill, under the shadow of a moon, each brother noticed a figure in the distance. Who could it be?
When the two brothers recognized the form of the other brother and the load he was pulling behind, they realized what had happened. Without a word, they dropped the ropes to their carts and embraced.
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
And when these people are here in the desert, when they are in need, when Jesus himself says of them: “Some of them have come a long way,” then all this is no more than one accidental manifestation and exemplification of the common condition of us all - that we are in need, that we cannot of ourselves provide the bread we need for our existence. We are those who are on a journey, we are those who have come a long way. We are those of whom Jesus has said: “I have compassion on the crowd.” We are those who must endure long days with the Lord, and hunger also, until he takes pity on us and gives us strength. We must - like these people in the Gospel - listen to the word of God and listen again and again, until it really enters into us through the miracle of God's grace and becomes the strength of our lives and the light of our hearts.
-Karl Rahner 1904-1984
Biblical Homilies from The Great Church Year
Now may every living thing, young or old, weak or strong, living near or far, known or unknown, living or departed or yet unborn, may every living things be full of bliss.
- The Buddha c.563-483 (B.C.E.) quoted from The Oxford Book of Prayer ed. George Appleton
The Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, Unknown Illustrator of Petrus Comestor's Bible Historiale, 1372
Meditation Two (insight) the mystical supper
Come then, and let us hasten to the mystical Supper. This day Christ receives us as his guests. This day Christ waits upon us; Christ the lover of all humankind gives us refreshment. The fattened calf is slaughtered. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is slain. The divine gifts are set before us. The mystical table is prepared. The life-giving chalice is mingled. God the word incarnate entertains us. Wisdom, who has built herself a house, distributes his body as her bread, and gives his blood as her wine for us to drink. O fearful mystery! O ineffable work of the divine Wisdom! Life bestows itself on mortals as food and drink. You have tasted the fruits of disobedience. Taste now the food of obedience. Eat of me, who am life, he exhorts us. Eat of life which never comes to an end. Eat my bread: for I am the life-giving grain of the wheat. Suck the fatness of my divine food, and grow fat.
-Cyril of Alexandria c.376-444 Homily 10, quoted from Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary, Gail Ramshaw
Meditation Three (integration) the unboundaried body of Christ
Holy communion knocked me upside down and forced me to deal with the impossible reality of God. Then, as conversion continued, relentlessly challenging my assumptions about religion and politics and meaning, God forced me to deal with all kinds of other people. In large ways and small, I wrestled with Christianity; its grand promises and its petty demands, its temptations and hypocrisies and promises, its ugly history and often insufferable adherents. Faith for me didn't provide a set of easy answers or certainties It raised more questions than I was ever comfortable with. The bits of my past- family, work, war, love - came apart as I stumbled into church, then reassembled, through the works communion inspired me to do, into a new life centered on feeding strangers: food and bodies, transformed. I wound up not in what church people like to call “a community of believers” - which tends to be code of “a like-minded club” - but in something huger and wilder than I had ever expected: the suffering, fractious, and unboundaried body of Christ.
-Sara Miles Take This Bread
The Last Word
For not only bread but all things necessary for sustenance in this life are given on loan to us with others and because of others and for others to others through us.
-Meister Eckhart c.1260-c.1327 quoted from Eucharist, (Liturgy Training Publications)
The Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, Unknown Illustrator of Petrus Comestor's Bible Historiale, 1372
As a perpetually stressed and exhausted single working mother I remember how easy it was to pull up to the drive-thru on the way home from work and daycare to order neatly packaged eat-on-the-go hot food for myself and the ravenous children in the back seat. It is no wonder our American children are both malnourished AND overweight. How many working and poor families rely upon cynically engineered-to-be-addictive foods?* How many kids live on chips and sugary sodas to keep them going because there are no carrots or apples to munch on as snacks? How many young parents haven't a clue how to cook leafy green vegetables? I don't blame the moms who are just trying to survive day to day. (Tomorrow I'll go to the store and find something good for the kids, but I've got to just get through today...) Once the kids are addicted to the engineered stuff, they won't eat the carrots and apples anyway.
I can't fully understand why I associate my anger at the food industry with Jesus multiplying loaves and fishes on the lovely Galilean hillside. Am I mad at Jesus? No. I think Jesus manifests God's crazy love in the lavish abundance of this satisfiying and sacred meal. Additionally, the scene on the hillside means to teach humanity how it's done - so that we can do the same thing.
I suppose I'm partly angry at myself for giving my kids all those drive-thru meals - which they liked, by the way. (And I enjoyed all that mother-bonding in the car.) But I'm angry mostly at our American selfishness and short-sightedness with regards to food. Maybe it is the gulf between the holy generosity of God as expressed in the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 and the unholy aquiescing to convenience on the consumer's part. Worse than the consumer, however is the greed of corporations managing the anti-meal of addictive salt/fat/sugar in just the right combinations to alter brain chemistry. Or those companies catastrophically stealing bio-diverse, protein-rich rice developed over tens of thousands of years, or dangerously altering wheat - basic staples of human beings.**
Jesus “looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.”
Oh, God, forgive our foolishness, short-sightedness, and greed. Help us to love and respect Earth and her generous treasures of which we are merely a part. Help us to nourish one another from the rich abundance of your love. Place the Galilean hillside within our hearts, that we may live as you have loved in miraculous generosity. Amen.