by Br Julian McDonald cfc
As evening drew on, the disciples came to Jesus with a suggestion: “This is a deserted place and it’s already late. Dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy some food for themselves.” Jesus said to them: “There is no need for them to disperse. Give them something to eat yourselves.” Matthew 14, 13-21
Jewish people have acquired a reputation for being blunt and direct in what they have to say. Perhaps this comes from their history of struggle, persecution and tragedy. They find little time for wasting words on trivial niceties. Today’s first reading from Exodus gives us a glimpse of them at their bluntest best. When Moses and Aaron assured them that God would save them from starvation by providing both quail and manna, there were no complaints about the flocks of quail that landed in their camp, but they certainly questioned the manna’s suitability for consumption: “Man-hu, what on earth is this stuff you’re expecting us to gather and eat?” Researchers now tell us that it was probably a mixture of glucose and protein contained in the cocoons of beetles/grubs, but could not be stored because it attracted flies and quickly became fly-blown. In retrospect they came to appreciate that the provision of the manna was an example of God’s providence in their history. Over time, they explained to the younger generations how they had survived very difficult times and circumstances, how they had done it tough in the wilderness, and how God had cared for them. But, when things were at their worst, they were not slow to complain. In turn, their leaders were not slow in urging them to draw on their own resilience, and to make the most of the small mercies that came their way.
There are important messages implied in this story. While the people find all the quail they need and have an adequate supply of manna (even though they are mystified by it), the God who comes to their assistance does not spoon-feed them. They are clearly expected to work together to gather what they need to survive, and quickly discover that the manna has to be carefully handled. Growing into freedom calls for both responsibility and accountability. These wandering people have been pushed into learning what is required to build themselves into a community. Isn’t it true that all communities are built by people rolling up their sleeves and involving themselves, from the start, even in the very ordinary activities of subsistence-living. In the isolation of the wilderness, these former slaves learned the first steps in the process of reinventing themselves into a people who would be responsible for themselves, to one another and to the God they were coming to know.
Today’s gospel-reading contains another set of lessons in responsibility and accountability for those who would be disciples of Jesus. Having been involved with his disciples in a demanding schedule of teaching and preaching, and having just heard the news of John the Baptist’s execution, Jesus saw the need for time out for himself and his disciples to grieve, to reflect and to rest. His plans were defeated by an ever-demanding crowd. Then, when his disciples wanted to get rid of the crowd, Jesus challenged them to act responsibly and draw on their own resources. Mark’s Gospel has a parallel account of “the first miracle of the loaves”. It is preceded by a brief description of the disciples reporting to Jesus on all they had done and taught during their own first excursion into ministry. Jesus’ response was not to congratulate them. He simply said: “Come by yourselves to an out-of-the-way place and rest a little” (Mark 6, 31). Mark, too, records how the demanding crowd interrupted their plans. There are lessons in all this for us.
Many of us have allowed ourselves to be seduced, by employers and by the organisations to which we belong, into over-performing. While both Matthew and Mark report that Jesus did show compassion for the crowd, we would do well to take notice of Jesus’ plans to take time out. Real rest. – not “time-out” about which we feel guilty. – is a necessity that is built on trust. We all have to learn to trust that our colleagues actually can manage what we temporarily step aside from. We all need personal, family and community time and space, but sometimes fear prevents us from taking such. Still, these two stories from Matthew and Mark do remind us that our decisions to take a break are important and, in fact, might enhance the effectiveness of our efforts when we return. I certainly don’t subscribe to the view that God wants us to wear ourselves out. Daring to take a break is a reminder to ourselves that we are not indispensable, and that, ultimately, God is in charge.
The story of the “miracle of the loaves” occurs in all four Gospel, twice in both Mark and Matthew and once in each of Luke and John. In all except John, these stories are preceded by reference to Jesus’ compassion and care for the vast crowd in front of him. Mark, Matthew and Luke all refer to Jesus’ giving of himself to the point of exhaustion. – a forerunner to his total self-giving at the Last Supper. So, all these “miracle of the loaves” stories are pointers to what Eucharist is, and what it means in our day-to-day life as followers of Jesus. Mark, Matthew and Luke all integrate the importance of service in the way they tell the story. John integrates the importance of service with the symbolism of the dish and towel when he describes how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper.
Integral to the message of today’s gospel-reading is the challenge Jesus puts to the disciples when they want to send away the crowd: “There is no need for them to disperse. Give them something to eat yourselves” (Matthew 14, 16). An essential dimension of Eucharist is that all people are our sisters and brothers, and that living out Eucharist in practice involves offering nourishment in word and action to everyone we encounter, especially those who, because of the circumstances of their lives, are unable to feed and nourish themselves. Jesus effectively tells his disciples that, if they want to be part of his enterprise, they have to reach out to others and take responsibility for their welfare. Hospitality is an integral part of living Eucharist credibly. What we participate in when, as community, we celebrate Eucharist must flow over into our daily living.
We all have the capacity to reach out in welcome and acceptance to friend and stranger, to everyone in the crowd; to those with whom we are comfortable, as well as to those who look different, and who are different because of their circumstances, their culture, their country of birth, their religion. An essential dimension of Eucharist is hospitality, in reference to which St Paul wrote: “Make hospitality your special care” (Romans 12, 13). Let’s not forget that hospitality is first and foremost an attitude of heart, but it requires practice. Perhaps we can make a habit of it by asking ourselves at the start of each day: “How can I be Eucharist – bread broken and given for others, today?”.