Isaiah 55:1-3; Romans 8:35, 37-39; Matthew 14:13-21
Matthew’s Gospel has a particular perspective on Jesus: he is the great teacher who unpacks God’s revelation, not in concepts in our mind but as the lives we lead. Jesus is a very patient teacher who, being one of us, appreciates our limits while, being the Son of God, knows how far beyond ourselves he can take us.
In the Sunday liturgy we only read this one account of the multiplication of the loaves; Matthew describes two. The first, today’s, occurs after John the Baptist’s execution by Herod. Jesus flees Herod’s territory and the crowd following him takes a risk, siding with Jesus against Herod. Perhaps it’s their loyalty that moves the disciples to concern for their hunger.
I can’t blame the disciples being shocked into inaction when Jesus tells them, give them something to eat yourselves. They’ve never done anything like that before–how would they do it? Jesus doesn’t chide them: he shows them how. One chapter later, they’ll be in the wilderness again with a crowd and they’ll express the same concern. Are they a bit dim?
Jesus doesn’t say, Can’t you guys remember what I told you the last time? He just asks again how many loaves they have. Perhaps he understands that they’re really asking, Could you do that thing with the bread and fishes again?
I believe, however, something else is at stake. Jesus isn’t teaching them a trick; he’s teaching them who they are and what real hunger is. Sometimes we have to be hungry enough to drop the old menu and explore what we’ve overlooked. I just don’t mean new strategies, as important as they may be. I mean that hunger isn’t a physical limit but the desire that propels us beyond our comfort zone.
Do remember ten chapters ago when Jesus was tempted by Satan? The first temptation was to turn a stone into bread and Jesus refused to perform that miracle. As important as it is to feed the hungry–as Matthew will remind us eleven chapters beyond this Gospel–there is a hunger worth keeping.
And so, in today’s Gospel as in one chapter ahead, Jesus says the blessing over the food, breaks the bread and gives it to his disciples, who will give it to the people. This is the same language describing Jesus’ Last Supper. Even at the Last Supper, the apostles receive and are not yet ready to give them something to eat themselves. They must first be shaken by the arrest and execution of their Lord to grow hungry enough for him, to do as he did. Jesus is an excellent teacher because he is such a patient teacher. It’s not that they have to be humiliated, but, like the vegetables growing in your garden, they can only ripen through the ups and downs of the summer weather. The apostles, like us, had little idea of who they really are and all they are worth. Like us, they had to learn how fruitful that hunger can be.