EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2020)
Psalms 145:8-9, 15-18
Romans 8:35, 37-39
Today’s gospel begins “when Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist.” Ponder for a moment that short phrase, and recognize the level of upset this surely caused Jesus and His disciples. Not only was Jesus’ cousin dead, but the very person who was so instrumental in bringing down from the heavens God’s approval of Jesus’ ministry was murdered in the most gruesome of ways by a petulant king who could not correct a drunken oath: “and a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matt 3:17). To say this was disturbing to Jesus and His disciples would be an understatement. John’s death was not only a personal loss for Jesus, but it also demonstrated in stark fashion that anyone who criticized powerful people courted mortal danger. Jesus knew a similar fate awaited Him, and the disciples, prone as they appear to be in gospels towards fear, surely feared for their lives.
It is no wonder then that Jesus “withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by Himself.” Jesus needed a time out, a time to reflect on what His recent loss meant to Him and to His ministry. But Jesus would not have the pleasure of some alone time, “for the crowds heard of this and followed Him on foot from their towns.” When Jesus “disembarked [from His boat] and saw the vast crowd,” He didn’t have a lengthy conversation that ‘it wasn’t a good time,’ that He needed some time alone. No, “His heart was moved with pity for them, and He cured their sick,” and ministered to them until the evening. It was then that His disciples found Him, and recognizing that it was a “deserted place,” they recommended that Jesus “dismiss” the crowd, for it was getting late and they needed time to go back to “their villages and buy food for themselves.” There was no need for “them to go away,” Jesus tells His disciples, “give them some food yourselves!” The stunned disciples had brought enough food for themselves, and they correctly protest that there is no way that would be enough to feed the “vast crowd,” “about five thousand men, not counting women and children.” What we see next, is what we will see the night before Jesus dies: He takes “the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.” “All ate and were satisfied,” and there were plenty of leftovers.
Versions of this story occur six times in the Gospels, and it’s worthy of note that Jesus does not do the actual feeding; it is the disciples who feed the crowd from their never-empty baskets. In our eight verse gospel we are given a theology of discipleship. This multiplication of loaves and fishes teaches us what it truly means to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of our first reading from the prophet Isaiah. Men, women, and children, “all who are thirsty” or hungry, come to Jesus and “eat well,” they shall “delight in rich fare.” And there is no cost for the food they eat, for the price of the food the crowd eats will be paid on the Cross by the One who blesses it, and who counts on His disciples [us] to distribute it to the needy. It is the disciples faith in Jesus which enables them, and us, to have the strength and generosity to feed all those who acknowledge Jesus as Lord. Our hearts, like that of Jesus, are meant to be moved to “pity” for all those who are in need. Our hearts, like that of Jesus, are meant to be shaken out of the doldrums that life has to offer, and recognize the vast crowds whose needs are so many. When He arrived on shore Jesus sought solitude, but when He looked into the eyes of those who had followed Him, Jesus was moved to minister to them. Jesus continues to turn to us, and He asks us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, comfort the afflicted, and cure what ails them. We are meant to believe, even in times of trial and difficulties, what St. Paul says so beautifully in his letter to the Romans: “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”