Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – August 3, 2014
The memory of St. Paul in Rome
Each time I visit the Roman Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, I pause in the main courtyard before the striking statue of Paul the Apostle who seems to be solemnly greeting visitors and pilgrims to the shrine built in his memory. There is something very stirring about this rather unusual depiction of the great Apostle to the Gentiles. He dominates the courtyard with a very sombre expression, his head bent with what looks like a Jewish prayer shawl covering his brow. The sword of God’s powerful word is held tightly in his hand. Paul appears to be tired – bearing the burdens of the ministry, yet his bold, pastoral dynamism rises above the physical fatigue.
I understand better today’s second reading from Romans 8:35, 37-39 when I recall that great statue of St. Paul in Rome. The victorious power of God’s love has overcome every obstacle to our salvation and everything that threats to separate us from God. When Paul speaks of “present things and future things” (8:38), he may be referring to astrological data. He appears to be saying that the Gospel liberates believers from dependence on astrologers. Since hostile spirits were associated with the planets and stars, Paul includes powers (8:38) in his list of negative or evil forces. His reference to “height and depth” (8:39) may refer to positions in the zodiac, positions of heavenly bodies relative to the horizon. In astrological documents the term for “height” means “exaltation” or the position of greatest influence exerted by a planet.
“What can separate us from the love of Christ?”
Romans 8:35-39 is one of my favourite passages in the New Testament. It is vintage Paul. Paul clung to the faith, in good times and in bad, in sickness, scandal, and health. It was his bedrock: his love of the crucified Christ was the pledge of God’s unbreakable covenant, of God’s unceasing redemptive love for the world: “Can anything separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul cries out (8:35). This is the searing question deep in the heart of an ardent servant of the Gospel – of one summoned to and consumed by the mission. It is a question that surges from the mind and heart of a mature adult who has been around, who has experienced the Church from the inside and who still refuses to be undone by its scandals and frustrations; of a leader who had lofty ideals of community but also knew the sad realities of divisions and conflicts. It is the sigh of one who knew the reality of suffering and yet never ceased nourishing deep, tremendous Christian hopes: not little hopes but great hopes.
Matthew’s feeding of the multitude
The feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21) is the only miracle of Jesus that is recounted in all four gospels (Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:5-15). The story has been situated geographically at Tabgha, the place of the seven springs, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. While today’s Gospel may be seen as anticipating the Eucharist and the final banquet of the Kingdom (Matthew 8:11; 26:29), its view looks not only forward but also backward, to the feeding of Israel with manna in the desert at the time of the Exodus (Exodus 16), a miracle that in some contemporary Jewish expectations would be repeated in the Messianic age. The fragments left over (14:20) recall the story of Elisha’s miracle where food was left over after all had been fed (2 Kings 4:42-44). The word “fragments” (Greek klasmata) is also used, in the singular, to describe the broken bread of the Eucharist in the Didache 9:3-4.
Today’s miracle may also be considered to be a “compassion miracle.” As with many of Jesus’ other miracles, Jesus saw a tremendous need in this hungry crowd – and in his compassion he provided food for them. The emphasis in Matthew is not on the meal as a banquet symbolizing the superabundant blessings that God has in store for the future. Rather, Matthew’s emphasis is on God’s providential care for our basic needs even here in the present moment. No matter what the meaning of the food and the miracle represent, the meal was nevertheless Messianic, for its host was none other than the Messiah himself.
Matthew’s addition of the number of people present and fed at this miracle – “five thousand men, not counting women and children” (14:21) – is significant, because the total number could have amounted to twenty or thirty thousand people! Since the total Jewish population of Palestine at the time of Jesus was estimated at half a million, Jesus is presented as feeding almost one tenth of the population. Therefore, the miracle has political ramifications. The reality of being one people, inheritors of the promises made to the twelve tribes of Israel, is a reality capable of transforming not only the spiritual realm but social and economic life as well.
The backdrop of the temptations
We may also consider the multiplication of the loaves against the backdrop of Jesus’ temptations in the desert. There are striking parallels between the two scenes – the wilderness, the hunger, and people craving for bread. Though there may not be a devil present at the multiplication, nevertheless many of the pitfalls that assail the lives of spiritual people are indeed present. At the beginning of the story, Jesus has withdrawn from his ministry in order to recoup some of his energy. Then the crowd shows up with its hunger: first spiritual, then physical. Their needs represent everything from which he is “in retreat.” He does not turn them away. His own spiritual program is open to change and adaptability to new circumstances. The second temptation involves precisely this factor.
How often do we guard our own spiritual lives and itineraries in an absolute fashion? Faced with such an enormous crowd on such a hot day, I could just imagine Jesus recalling his confrontation with the prince of demons on another hot day in the desert far from Galilee. Jesus could very well be saying: “When I was in the wilderness, the devil came to me and told me to makes stones into bread. I told him that man doesn’t live by bread alone; he lives by the word. See this hungry multitude? What they need is the word. And a couple of days without food wouldn’t hurt them either. It certainly didn’t hurt me. So I’ll just give them a good, long, biblical lesson in the heat.” Jesus does not presume to impose his temptation in the wilderness and his triumph over it on these hungry people. His eyes are fixed on the intensity of their need, not on the relevance of his own personal experience.
The third temptation Jesus encounters in the wilderness is that of using limited resources and vast problems as pretexts for inaction. So many poor people, so few loaves! What good are several rather insignificant acts of charity when there are multitudes dying of hunger? In response to such “practical” questions as “What good will that do?” – whether five small loaves and two fish, one cup of cold water, or two widow’s mites – the answer Jesus gives is always the same. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s words ring in the back of my mind: “What we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if that drop was not in the ocean, I think the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” Jesus teaches that the disciples are to share whatever they have and there will be more than enough. Logic and human reason say, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish.” But Jesus asks that such meagre provisions, as well as the generosity of the disciples, be stretched to their limits.
Blueprint for Christian spirituality
Matthew’s threefold action of looking up to heaven, reciting a prayer of praise, and breaking the bread is a beautiful pattern that we could well apply to our own daily living, or to any event. Looking up to heaven means making contact with God (prayer); giving praise for whatever one has in mind; then sharing that gift with others. Matthew offers us a pattern for daily life. We begin by looking up to heaven and thanking and praising God for our life. We live that life by sharing it with others. Today’s Gospel offers us a blueprint for an authentic Christian spirituality that involves frequently raising our hearts and minds to God in prayer, giving thanks and praise for what is, and then sharing it with others.
The Multiplication on the Canadian Prairies
Whenever I read the multiplication stories of the New Testament, I cannot help but recall a magnificent mural depicting the multiplication of the loaves and fishes on the wall of the chapel of St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The college was founded by the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilian Fathers), who brought to the prairie college the long Catholic tradition of a liberal arts education that integrates faith and learning. The College Chapel is dedicated to Mary, Queen of the Universe. The mural was painted in 1976 in only ten days by the late William Kurelek, a self-taught Ukrainian painter of the Canadian prairies. The mural leaves a powerful religious impression on the viewer, particularly the students who come to that beautiful little chapel to pray and the faith community that gathers there daily and weekly to celebrate the Eucharist.
What is striking about Kurelek’s mural is the figure of Jesus placed in the middle of the mural, symbolically holding together the large Prairie crowd. One notices that those distributing the baskets of bread are the Basilian Fathers themselves, dressed in their black cassocks, walking among the crowds and feeding them. For decades this group of priest educators gathered together young men and women and taught them. They walked among them and fed them in body and soul. The priests instilled in them a passion for the good that they must do, a passion to reach out to the poor, the hungry, and the wounded; a passion to reach out to the lost and bring them home; a passion to proclaim the truth of the Gospels. Even though Basilians no longer administer the college or teach at the University of Saskatchewan, their legacy lives on.
The Lord’s raised hand in the Kurelek mural is a sign to every generation: “Go and do same where you are. Do not be overcome by meagre resources and the fear of the daunting crowds. Trust in God. Walk among the people. Listen to them. Feed them, teach them and hold them together. Remember what happened on a Galilean plain years ago. Offer what little you have to the Lord and let him multiply your humble gifts to feed the world.”
“Come, without paying and without cost…”
Let us never forget that in Jesus, God’s salvation is freely extended to his people and to all nations; through him will the benefits assured to David be renewed. Let the words of the prophet Isaiah (55:1-3) inspire and embolden you to act:
All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk! Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy? Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare. Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.
[The readings for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 55:1-3; Romans 8:35, 37-39; and Matthew 14:13-21.]
This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.