Homily for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time – July 30/31, 2011
One of the inescapable aspects of human life is that we all wear many hats. Almost from the day we are born we play different parts and relate in different ways to the people and situations of our lives. We begin as children, sons and daughters of our parents or caretakers. We may have siblings with whom we relate as sister or brother. Later we become playmates and friends; students and athletes. As we grow older and mature, we become workers; boyfriends and girlfriends; perhaps even someone’s “significant other” or spouse, and maybe even a mother or father to children of our own. Some of these roles are relational, based on our connections with others; while some of them are more functional, based on what we do or activities in which we engage.
Today we have listened to Matthew’s accounting of a miracle story that must have been so important to the early Christian communities that it is recounted in all four Gospels. It’s the story of the feeding of the multitudes. As with many gospel stories that are so familiar to us, it’s very easy to miss some of the significant and very telling details. When I first read this particular passage in preparing for today, something struck me that I had never taken notice of before. It’s that first line, delivered almost parenthetically, in which Matthew says, “When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist…” It’s easy to miss that the reason Jesus gets into a boat and goes off by himself, alone, … is because he’s in mourning. He has just heard the sad news, delivered directly by the disciples of his cousin John, that his cousin has been brutally killed. Immediately before this sentence, Matthew tells of the terrible way in which Herod – fulfilling the request of his niece who danced for him at his birthday – had ordered John to be beheaded, his head presented on a silver platter. Hearing this news from eyewitnesses directly, is it any wonder that Jesus wants some time to be alone with his grief, and to mourn in solitude, the way any grieving family member would do?
And yet, the crowds who knew of his preaching, will not let him be. In the previous chapter, Jesus had delivered a number of sermons which biblical scholars call “Kingdom Parables.” Jesus gives numerous examples of what “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” It is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; it is like a mustard seed that grows to be the largest of plants; it is like the yeast a woman mixes with three measures of wheat flour; and it is like a treasure buried in field, or a net thrown into the sea.
This is the background of what we listen to today. And even though Jesus wanted to be alone, wanted to honor his role as the cousin of John the Baptizer, Matthew tells us that his heart is moved with pity at the sight of so many people who came to hear him, who knew him as the one who spoke of God and the Reign of God for which they longed. I don’t need to recount the story, but there’s another element that we can so easily miss. Up until this point, the disciples of Jesus, the ones who even now encourage Jesus to tell the crowds to go away, have largely been observers of his preaching and the miracles he has accomplished. The hat they have worn, the role they have played has largely been passive and receptive.
With this event, however, the disciples begin to take on a new role. They begin to mature in their role as disciples and become active participants in the miracle that unfolds. They bring to Jesus what little they have for just themselves; at Jesus’ direction they distribute the 7 items of blessed food – five loaves and two fishes – to the thousands now seated in this deserted place; and they gather up the leftovers, filling 12 wicker baskets. The symbolism of these numbers is important – for 7 was the number of known Gentile nations, and 12 the number of the Tribes of Israel. In short, Matthew is telling us that the message of Jesus about the Kingdom of Heaven, is for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. Matthew is reminding us that NO ONE – no nation, no race, no people, no tribe, no clan, no group, no person – is excluded from the bounteous goodness and reign of God. He is saying, in effect, that Jesus fulfills the word of Isaiah in that if we listen to Jesus, we will “eat well” and “delight in rich fare.” If we come to Jesus and don’t just merely “listen” but listen “heedfully,” … then we will have life itself.
Each week we gather here wearing the many hats of the roles of our current lives. At times, one such role may be more prominent than the other. But if we are to be faithful followers, faithful disciples of Jesus, we must do in our own lives what the disciples do in today’s Gospel. We must heed the command of Jesus to give food to our brothers and sisters who hunger. As we look at the world around us, let’s be careful not to spiritualize away the hunger that Matthew speaks of. Yes, the hunger of the spirit must be fed, and we must not be afraid to live in the light as disciples of Jesus. But so too must the hunger of the belly, the hunger of the body, be nourished. In saying that, I am so very mindful of not only the thousands and thousands of our fellow citizens – mostly children – who go to bed hungry every day; but I am also so very mindful of the millions upon millions of people around the world – especially in the drought-stricken countries of East Africa, where the lack of food has pushed hunger into starvation. The United Nations estimates that 12.5 million people in countries in the horn of Africa are on the brink of starvation, lacking water and the simplest of food; and, if aid is not increased to help, by the middle of September 2,500 women, men and children will die each day.
Like those first disciples, we too are called not simply to sit by the sidelines. Rather, Jesus speaks to us today, as he did two thousand years ago: “Give them some food yourselves.”