Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Isaiah 55:1-3; Psalm 145:8-9, 15-16, 17-18; Romans 8:35, 37-39; Matthew 14:13-21
The Oracles or Book of Isaiah contains the oracles of three different prophets. The first thirty-nine chapters originate from Isaiah of Jerusalem whose ministry as prophet extended from 740 down to perhaps 680 B.C. Chapters 40-55 are attributed to an unknown prophet scholars call Second Isaiah. The approximate dates of this prophet: 550-538 B.C. A third part of the Book of Isaiah is call Trito-Isaiah, chapters 56-66. Approximate dates: 530-515. Today’s first reading opens the concluding chapter of Second Isaiah. This segment of Hebrew poetry could serve as a platform for a society of equals, no longer a covenant between God and king, but a covenant between God and individual. In the preceding paragraph the prophet praised the glories of the wealth, the virtue, the knowledge, and the security of an invincible, new Jerusalem. Today he invites all to share in the new Jerusalem — a city whose abundance is open to all. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water. You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat . . . without paying and without cost.”
It is difficult to envision just what moved Second Isaiah to this rapturous language in a Jerusalem which certainly did not meet up with his descriptions. There was not even a temple to the Lord. It had been destroyed by the Babylonian army in 587-586 B.C. At best, this oracle is an oracle of hope for better times. The closest it ever came to reality was five hundred years later, but then only for the Christian community of Jerusalem described by Luke in Acts 2:44-47, “All who believed had all things in common. They sold their possessions and goods and distributed to all as any had need. Day by day . . . breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.” Luke is sometimes accused of seeing through rose-colored glasses. Second Isaiah must have had the original pair of glasses.
The Responsorial Psalm 145 responds to the first reading’s invitation to abundance, though not the abundance of Jerusalem. Rather the abundance of gracious mercy God’s hand distributes to all. As Jesus taught us in the Our Father to heap praises upon God before we ask for our needs, so the Psalmist begins with praise, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, of great kindness, good to all, compassionate to all his creatures.” Then the “gimme” part, “The eyes of all look hopefully to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living creature.” That having been said, the Psalmist returns to praising the Lord for justice, holiness, and being so interested in us that “He is near to all who call upon him in truth.” The people’s response, “The hand of the Lord feeds us. He answers all our needs.”
The second reading is from the Letter to the Romans. Paul has been recalling to the Christian community the glory for which they are destined. Even though the redemption of their bodies, the resurrection, is not yet complete, they have reason for hope. They are members of God’s family, sisters and brothers of their elder brother Jesus Christ. Nothing, therefore, can separate them from this family. Christians had already been suffering discrimination or persecution. (The date of the letter is approximately 58 A.D., some years before the persecution of Roman Christians by Emperor Nero.) Thus Paul lists what might cause some to reject Christianity, but should not: anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword (threat of martyrdom). He concludes that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The gospel reading is the feeding of five thousand in the wilderness. Jesus had been working in Galilee, his home province. The disciples of John the Baptizer came to him and reported that their master and teacher had been executed by order of the ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas. Jesus withdrew from Galilee by boat, crossing the Sea of Galilee to the east side of the lake. Here he was in the territory of Herod Philip, safe from the reach of Antipas. We know from the Gospel of Luke that Antipas was trying to also do away with Jesus. By this time his popularity became a burden. People followed him on foot, fording the tributary streams north of the lake to get to the east side of it. They were already waiting for him when he stepped onto the eastern shore. Jesus’ compassion accepted the situation, “and he cured their sick.” As evening approached, his disciples urged him to send the people away, so that they could go into surrounding towns and farms to buy food. Jesus’ answer surprises them, “You yourselves give them food.” They are in training for the future. But they had only five loaves of bread and two dried fish — picnic food for an outing with Jesus. “Bring them to me,” says Jesus. He told the crowd to be seated on the grass. He picked up the food. Looking up to heaven, he blessed, broke, and gave them to the disciples to distribute to the people. “Blessed, broke, gave” was the standard description of a Jewish meal over which a father of a family presided. When the gospels were composed in the last third of the first Christian century, these words had already become the standard formula for “the breaking of the bread,” the name used to describe the ritual enactment which we today call the Mass. There is Old Testament background to the composition of this story. In 1 Samuel 9:13, it is the prophet who must bless the food before it is eaten by the people. All our gospels recognize Jesus as a prophet (and more). In 2 Kings 4:44, the prophet Elisha orders insufficient bread to be set before 100 men. The men ate and had some left. Thus Matthew writes, “They all ate and were satisfied and they picked up twelve baskets of fragments.” The number twelve is a key word. A popular belief held that when the Messiah (the Christ) appears, the twelve tribes of Israel would be reconstituted and the manna that fed the Israelites in the wilderness would be renewed. Therefore, this story of feeding the five thousand in the wilderness is seen as that renewal of Israel and the manna, and proclaims Jesus as the Messiah.