Thought for the day
In the Gospels, “compassion” is used in a way which is restricted and instructive. Compassion is used only of Jesus himself or of God in some of the parables. The word itself means something like mercy, arising from deep within, a kind of spontaneous empathy and understanding, the kind of reaction a woman has for the child of her womb. When people are compassionate to us, it is because we need it and usually we are deeply touched and grateful. Such is our God! If we receive such compassion, we are obliged to give it in return, of course. This is the charter of Christian living.
God, all merciful and all compassionate, help us to be like you that we may console others with the same consolation with which we ourselves has been consoled.
Matt 14:13 Now when Jesus heard this he went away from there privately in a boat to an isolated place. But when the crowd heard about it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 As he got out he saw the large crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 When evening arrived, his disciples came to him saying, “This is an isolated place and the hour is already late. Send the crowds away so that they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But he replied, “They don’t need to go. You give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have here only five loaves and two fish.” 18 “Bring them here to me,” he replied. 19 Then he instructed the crowds to sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves and two fish, and looking up to heaven he gave thanks and broke the loaves. He gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the broken pieces left over, twelve baskets full. 21 Not counting women and children, there were about 5,000 men who ate.
The multiplication of the loaves is recounted six times in the Gospels: twice in Matthew and Mark and once each in Luke and John. The numbers involved vary for symbolic reasons.
It looks as if all six versions go back to an original account circulating within early Christianity. By the time the tradition is received into Mark’s Gospel (the first to be written down), it had already taken on a symbolic meaning, illuminated by biblical echoes and informed by the Eucharistic practice of the church. It is impossible to go behind such a highly developed tradition to find out “what really happened”. However, some lines of interpretation of a moralising tendency are to be avoided, for instance he persuaded all present to share and this is what “really” happened. That might be of itself a kind of miracle (!) but the Gospel writers do mean something deeper than this in their presentation.
For instance, in the 5,000 version, the word “basket” means a Jewish basket; 12 suggests the twelve tribes; the language used echoes that of Moses feeding the people in the desert; perhaps even the number 5 might refer in some way to the Pentateuch. The location is Jewish territory. In the 4,000 version, the word for basket is the ordinary, “secular” one; 7 suggests completeness or fulfilment; the language echoes that of the Elisha/Elijah traditions regarding food; perhaps the number 4 is one less than 5 to allow a certain precedence to the Jews. The location is Gentile territory.
Thus, Mark and Matthew, by means of telling the same tradition in two versions, teach their hearers that Jesus is food for both Jews and Gentiles. It is not accidental that the intervening stories (Matt 15) tell of the abolition of the dietary laws of Judaism, the very laws designed to keep Jew and Gentile apart. It is likewise not accidental that these stories are followed by the profession of faith of Peter (Matt 16): only those who see in faith that Jesus is bread for Jews and Gentiles can really confess the true identity of Jesus. This is probably an on-going issue in the early church—critically at the Eucharist.
The echoes of Moses are important for Matthew’s Gospel because his community only recently broke from the mother religion of Judaism and would like to claim for itself the fulfilment of what the Moses traditions pointed to. Thus in our story, like Moses Jesus is in a desert place and feeds the people. In the following stories in Matthew, like Moses Jesus goes up a mountain to pray (14:23), crosses the sea miraculously (14:25), uses the divine name for himself (14:27; “It is I” = YHWH from Exod 3:14).
Kind of writing
This is a miracle story—received in the Gospel tradition as symbolising the deep identity of Jesus and the challenge to practice his inclusivity. The celebration of the Eucharist is precisely a celebration of the Gospel proclamation of the God who loves all without distinction.
Old Testament background
Moses: In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’” The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted. (Ex 16:13–21)
Elisha: A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord. (2 Kings 4:42–44)
New Testament foreground
When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. (Matt 6:7–13)
I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something—now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” (2Cor 8:8-15, echoing Exod 16:18.)
Verse 13 The absurd death of John the Baptist has just been recounted. Jesus needs time to reflect. The withdrawal is brief and comes to an end because people need the presence and teaching of Jesus.
Verse 14 Compassion – a word used only of God, Jesus, the Good Samaritan and the Father of the Prodigal son. It carries a special meaning of deeply felt, natural fellow feeling and pity. Mark has “and he began to teach them many things.” Instead, Matthew chooses to illustrate the compassion by healing.
Verse 15 The preaching day is over; the practical aspects need attention too. The inability of the disciples to help the people may be an echo of Ezekiel 34.
Verse 16 A direct and apparently unreasonable challenge to the disciples.
Verse 17 The meagre quantity may be contrasted at the end with the numbers fed.
Verse 18 Jesus takes charge. There may be an echo of I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. (Ezekiel 34:23)
Verse 18 The language is consciously echoing the Lord’s Supper at this point.
Verse 20 Echoing the feeding in the Moses tradition. The leftovers are greater than the ingredients. Such abundance signifies that the messianic age has come. Cf. And it will happen at that time that the treasury of manna will come down again from on high, and they will eat of it in those years because these are they who will have arrived at the consummation of time. (2Baruch 29:8) Twelve is a symbolism of the people of Israel.
Verse 21 The symbolic number is finally expressed.
Pointers for prayer
1. The news of the death of John the Baptist prompted Jesus to go off to be alone, but the crowds followed him. Despite his personal sorrow he was able to reach out in compassion to the crowd. Perhaps there have been times when you have put personal preferences and desires to one side in order to reach out to another. What was it like for you when you were able to do this?
2. When Jesus saw the crowd, he recognised their need and reached out to them. Who has been a Jesus person for you, someone who recognised your need and reached out to you? For whom have you been a Jesus person?
3. The scene is a Eucharistic symbol reminding us of the sacred meal to which all believers are invited to receive nourishment from the Lord. How has the Eucharist been a source of nourishment for you?
4. When the disciples became aware of the problem they wanted to send the crowd away but Jesus told them “You give them something to eat”. They thought what they had was insufficient but Jesus used the little they had to feed the crowd. When we give the little we have to a situation the results are often beyond our expectations. Have you had this experience?
5. “Lord, it is an extraordinary thing: if we complain about the little we have, we never have enough; but if we take what we have, raise our eyes to heaven, and say the blessing over it, we have as much as we want, and even twelve baskets of scraps of left over.” Michel de Verteuil
Bountiful and compassionate God, you place in the hands of your disciples the food of life.
Nourish us at your holy table, that we may bear Christ to others and share with them the gifts we have so richly received.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.