Lectionary commentary: eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary time, year A



A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 55:1-3

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 145:8-9. 15-18.R/. v. 16

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 8:35. 37-39

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 14:13-21

Isn’t it amazing how much eating goes on in the Bible?The very first pages are all about eating and not eating.In the Adam and Eve story there is not a single mention of the word “sin”.But the words “eat”, “ate”, and “eaten” occur 20 times in chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Genesis.If we count“food”, “fruit”, and “bread” the number rises to 26 occurrences.

In the whole of the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament, the word “eat” occurs 519 times, “eats” occurs 42 times, “eaten” occurs 89 times, “eating” occurs 42 times, “eaters” crops up 4 times, and “ate”112 times.The grand total is 766 occurrences.

The word “bread” occurs 331 times.Since the chief staple in the diet was bread, the Hebrew word lekhem (bread) was often used for food in general.Thus Beth-lehem means “the house of bread”.

[As a matter of information, barley, wheat, and emmer where the grain crops, baked or roasted.Fruits available were grapes, olives (as oil), dates, figs, apples, and pomegranates.Vegetables available were beans, cucumbers, lentils, onions, and leeks.Garlic was a useful addition.Dairy products were derived from goats rather than cows and came to the table as cheese, curds, and butter.Meat was seldom on the menu of ordinary people.Sheep provided many everyday necessities from wool to glue.They were very useful animals.That is why good shepherds were essential and why scarifies offered to God usually came from your flock of sheep.]

The story of the feeding of a large number of people is told six times in the New Testament, twice in Mark, twice in Matthew, once in Luke and John.It is the only miracle story told in all four Gospels.It would be naïve to think that this wondrous event happened six times.So why is it told so often?What indelible mark did it make on Christian imagination?

Food was, of course, necessary for keeping body and soul together. But much more than that, then as now, food was a means of bonding among relationships.Jacob gave presents of food to his brother Esau (Genesis 32:13-18).Feasting signalled joy and good fellowship, and occasion for celebration.When God celebrates with all people only the best will do:

On this mountain
the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined…
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people
he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.

Isaiah 25:6-8

Extravagantly, fathers occasionally bring out the fatted calf (Luke 15:23).

It was essential in sealing covenant relationships, private or public.When the brothers Laban and Esau sought to end the family feud, they offered a sacrifice to their family gods:

Jacob offered a sacrifice in the hill country and called his kinsmen to eat bread.They ate bread and spent the night in the hill country.

Genesis 31:53-54

The elder brother out in the field never seems to have got the message and never tasted the fated calf (Luke 15:32).

Food was produced to seal and celebrate broken human relationships, to acknowledge joy and friendship, to bring all the family around the table, to seal bonding between humans and the gods they worshipped.Hence the celebration of Passover, then as now, a remembrance of deliverance, of saving, and sustaining:

This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.

Exodus 12:14- 15

A tradition of remembering must be honoured so that thanksgiving and joy are celebrated and hope sustained that next year it will be in Jerusalem (wherever your Jerusalem happens to be):

Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover?”

Matthew 26:17

To this day, even in dark days, people meet as their mothers and fathers did, and with the same joy, break bread for the same purposes:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers …

Acts 2:42

There was an outcome for those who met to eat and to pray:

… the Lord added to their numberday be day…

Acts 2:47

A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 55:1-3

Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.

The word of the Lord.

What we call the Book of Isaiah was written between, say, 800 B.C. and 450 B.C.Clearly, the prophet Isaiah did not write the whole book.The first nine chapters would appear to be from the quill (or whatever) of the prophet Isaiah who lived when the Assyrians were about to descend like wolves on the fold of Israel.The rest reflect the changes of history over three centuries or more, written by people who inherited the words of Isaiah and so understand them that they could translate the vision of Isaiah to new times.Reading the Bible always presents those who understand its pages with the challenge of translating the past into a new present and a new perception of the future.Our reading changes not only our perceptions of creation. It changes our understanding of the ways of God.

Today’s reading comes from a time of hope, a time inspiring a new wisdom, and a new future.The Book of Proverbs, a basket of old and new perceptions, tells what wisdom achieves:

Wisdom has built her house;
she has hewn her seven pillars.

Proverbs 9:1

The advice that wisdom speaks is sound but demanding:

Leave the company of the simple,
and live,
walk in the way of insight.

Proverbs 9:6

The invitation of wisdom is to come to her table:

Come eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.

Proverbs 9:5

Isaiah 55 opens with the same invitation:

Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who no money,
come, buy and eat.

Isaiah 55:1

What is amazing, and what speaks so loudly and insistently to our times is the explosion of wisdom in these words.Consider the words of Psalm 89.The psalm is a meditation on God’s covenant with the royal family of David the King.What God had promised, his love and mercy, compass, and protection, always depended on fidelity to the ways of God.The covenant could only be sustained by living as God designed.Failing to adhere to God’s ways leads to disaster.The kings have abandoned God’s ways and are no different from the other and more powerful rulers.So a change is called for, if the covenant is not to be withdrawn and the earth left to its own devices.This is a new thing under the sun, an amazing grace:

Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters
and he who has no money,
come by and eat!

Isaiah 55:1

All that had been promised, even guaranteed, to the royal house has been transferred to the whole people.God has changed his covenant and lodged his trust, not in kings and princes, but in the whole community of people.The poor, people lacking food and even people lacking insight into God’s ways, in fact, everyone who seeks justice and wellbeing, are called upon “to eat what is good”, to delight in the good food of God’s promises.The old divine command is spoken again, this time to the ears of the people:

Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that you soul may live!

God’s advice to the people is clear.They must not spend their money on bad bread.The people are invited “to eat what is good”, “to delight yourselves in rich food”.Whatever was promised to David is now in the hands of the people.Surely a gospel for our time and our place.

Responsorial Psalm Psalm 145:8-9. 15-18.R/. v. 16

R/. You open your hand;
you satisfy the desire of every living thing.

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and his mercy is over all that he has made. R/.

The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand;
you satisfy the desire of every living thing. R/.

The Lord is righteous in all his ways
and kind in all his works.
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth. R/.

Psalm 145 supplies the Responsorial Psalm on eleven occasions in our Sunday Lectionary, more than any other psalm.It is, as I have observed before, the only psalm in the whole collection to be designated “a song of praise”.Of course, many psalms are songs of praise, and, indeed, the remaining psalms of the 150 are songs of praise.But Psalm 145 alone is given the title tehilah, “a song of praise”.The plural tehilim means Songs of Praise.This is what it looks like in Hebrew:

תְּהִלָּ֗ה לְדָ֫וִ֥ד
A Song of Praise. Of David

The psalm celebrates the kingship of God. The verses selected to form today’s Responsorial Psalm imagines the face God offers to the world, a face of graciousness, a face of compassion, a face unscarred by anger, a face, that is, of steadfast love.This is the face that is turned to all, without exception, a face that is good to all.Where necessary the face of glory becomes a face of mercy and forgiveness.

This Lord of all gives openhandedly food where food is needed. This Lord is close to all, listening with acute ears to all who call.

The Hebrew text closes the Psalm, offering to everyone who sings the song the most fitting of endings:

My mouth shall utter the praise of the Lord,
and all flesh shall bless his holy name forever.

Psalm 145:21

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 8:35. 37-39

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The word of the Lord.

The hard work is done.Paul has patiently explained how it was that the world fell into the clutches of SIN and DEATH. Painstakingly, he outlined God’s rescue operation, indicating the rôles of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in that saving grace. Now, the hard work done, Paul can turn to celebrate humanity’s deliverance.

At the heart of all celebration is the extraordinary fact of God’s love.Underlying all that has gone before is the love of God, God’s power to save.Now Paul expresses what is implicit throughout his letter.At the heart of salvation from SIN and DEATH is the love of God displayed to the world in the person of Jesus.Everything done to bring humanity to safety was done in Christ.The divine determination to bring men and women to a place of safety was done in and through the life and death of Jesus.That life and that death came to resurrection and so the destiny of humanity is destined to come to that same place.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, no matter what power you can name, can separate us from God’s love.No matter what dangers arise, no matter what enemies appear to threaten, all will be well. Verse 31 of this chapter answers any uncertainty:

If God is for us, who can be against us?

Romans 8:31

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

The Gospel of the Lord.

I hope that those who read or hear the story of the feeding of “five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matthew 14:21) will notice that it come after a birthday party.Matthew tells of the death of John the Baptist whose head was “brought in on a platter” after the daughter of Herodias had danced for the delectation of the Herod Antipas and his guests (Matthew 14:1-12).The rule of Herod the Tetrarch, who ruled as the underling of imperial Rome, is an example of what coercive, exploitative powers do.

However, it is feeding the people that are a practice of the rule of God.In the kingdom of God, Matthew’s kingdom of heaven, the hungry get fed.It is important that preachers and proclaimers make clear to people in the pews on this day that Matthew’s placing of these stories, one following the other, is a highly political act.

It is of equal importance to notice that the feeding story is told in such a way as to recall what happened when hungry people were locked into God’s care as they fled across the wilderness from the horrors of slavery in Egypt.Just to alert readers and hearers of Matthew, notice that the word “wilderness” occurs 98 times in the Hebrew Bible’s account of the exodus from Egypt in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.Matthew’s account emphasises that the feeding of the crowds of people took place in the wilderness.[1]

In ancient days, God “led the people around by the way of the wilderness” (Exodus 1318).In Matthew the people follow Jesus into the wilderness where “he had compassion on them and healed their sick”.

Elisha the prophet, “the man of God”, was faced with a need for food “when there was a famine in the land”.He fed one hundred men with a little offering of barley loaves, and “ had some left over” (II Kings 4:42-44).

Matthew emphasises that what Jesus does in the wilderness is a clear echo of what happened in the wilderness of Sinai where God fed and watered the people, hungry as they made their way through the wilderness to freedom in the land flowing with milk and honey.

The disciples protest that Jesus places on them responsibility of feeding, rather than taking their advice to send the distressed people away to the villages to “buy for themselves”.In the Exodus story it was the whole people who complained to Moses about a food shortage (Exodus 16:23).God comes to the aid of Moses and God provides.The disciples in Matthew’s story protest but are embarrassed into serving the loaves and fishes and in collecting up the pieces.

It is clear that Matthew wants his hearers and readers to conclude that the care that God gave to people of old is now given to God’s people by the hands of Jesus of Nazareth.There is an added irony in Matthew’s story in the fact that we have just read that the people had rejected Jesus in his own village (Matthew 13:53-58).

To repeat, the story of the feeding of a large number of people occurs six times in our Gospels.It is the only “miracle story” told in all four Gospels. It is quite obvious that it happened only once.Otherwise how could the disciples be so stupid to raise objections every time, if it had happened six times in their presence and with their participation?It is repeated again and again to emphasise its echoes in the gift of the Eucharis in the Gospels - and please note this - in Matthew Jesus does not feed people who have no means of providing for themselves.He heals those who are sick.He is the provider of his food to the crowd who hear and who follow. The generation of Matthew, and all generations who read and hear his Gospel, know that there are “twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over”.They have been blessed and placed in the tabernacle of the future:

… he looked up to heaven and said a blessing, then he brokethe loaves and gave them …

Matthew 14:19

Be aware of the most telling sentence in the story, no matter who tells it:All ate and were satisfied.

Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.

[1] The word used for “the desert” in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the translation used by all writers in the New Testament, is the same Greek word used by Matthew.The ESV translates it as “a desolate place” (twice), thus robbing its readers of the effect Matthew wished to achieve.The RSV, NRSV, NIV, JB, NJB, RNJB, REBfail to do much better than “a lonely place”.The version of the story in John 6:1-15 places the feeding on “the mountain” to suit his theological enterprise.