OUR first lesson contrasts the food of empire which “does not satisfy” with the feast that the Lord has prepared for his hungry people. Isaiah expresses incredulity that his people “spend” and “labour” in pursuit of “that which is not bread”.
In their conformity to the values and aspirations of Babylon, God’s exiled people are eating “junk food” — pursuing “forms of life that cannot bring satisfaction” (Walter Brueggemann, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 40-66). As they seek to possess and to consume, those who live by Babylon’s values find themselves possessed and consumed.
In Matthew 14, the food of empire is again contrasted with the divine feast. The first half of the chapter tells of King Herod’s birthday meal, at which John the Baptist is beheaded. It is his cousin’s execution that prompts Jesus to withdraw “to a deserted place by himself” at the start of our passage.
As Erasmo Levia-Merikakis observes, the miraculous feeding that follows offers a “glaring contrast” to Herod’s banquet. The former is “an élitist and frivolous celebration of a petty monarch’s birthday, staged by himself, at which life is taken”. The latter is “a come-one-come-all gathering of the needy at which life is given” (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to St Matthew).
While he is a tyrant, Herod reveals his own captivity to sin. The food of empire does not bring satisfaction even to its rulers. In contrast, Jesus demonstrates the freedom and the joy of divine, self-giving love.
Seeing the crowd, Jesus’s heart is “moved with pity”. Erasmo Levia-Merikakis draws our attention to the visceral nature of this response. The Greek word used here refers to the stirring of the body’s “inward parts”. As he observes, this heightens the contrast between Herod as a “taker of life” and Jesus as a “giver of life”, each from the very centre of his being.
Despite having sought peace and solitude, Jesus responds to the need of the crowd by curing those who are sick. Likewise, when the crowd grows hungry, he rejects the disciples’ suggestion that he should simply send them away. Disciples of Jesus cannot just abandon those in need to their fate.
The freedom of Christ’s love sends him — and each disciple who abides in him — outward in loving service. In the words of Anna Case-Winters, “Jesus manifests a freedom from self-concern that exposes our bondage to self-protection and the many forms of servitude to which self-regard holds us captive” (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew).
The desert setting of Jesus’s miracle of feeding hearkens back to the manna in the wilderness. The feeding of this multitude is described in terms that are unmistakably eucharistic. Jesus looks up to heaven in a priestly gesture of offering. He blesses and breaks the loaves, and gives them to his apostles to distribute to the crowds. These actions point forward to the sacrifice of his own Body, with which Christ will freely give his hungry people true and lasting nourishment.
Table-fellowship stood at the heart of Jesus’s earthly ministry, and this feeding miracle is the one “deed of power” recounted by all four Evangelists. Shirlyn Toppin’s study of regular shared feasting in one inner-city congregation shows how it sustains deep and genuinely mutual relationships (“‘Soul Food’ Theology: Pastoral Care and Practice through the Sharing of Meals: A Womanist Reflection” in Black Theology, 2006).
As she observes, “attitudes to food have always been integral to the spiritual life.” In the midst of a pandemic, the manner in which we live this out will, of course, be very different — as any such rhythms of corporate feasting are necessarily disrupted. But the sharing of food remains a vital part of faithful Christian witness in these days.
This will involve both the meeting of immediate need and the reiteration of Isaiah’s invitation — drawing people away from the idolatrous forms of life which generate injustice, into the abundance of the divine economy.
Eucharistic worship must lead on to truly eucharistic lives. Such lives will exhibit that “freedom from self-concern” which enables us to see our neighbour as a gift and not an interruption. The life we receive from Christ is “self-distributing” (Benedict XVI). It is constantly offered and blessed, broken and distributed, for a world that hungers in body and in spirit.