Something important happens. All four gospels record this story, and they don't do that with any other particular "wonder" story. I don't have an explanation, just a point of view. Jesus encounters a crowd of people looking to him for a future, for leadership, for the "reign of God" that he keeps suggesting, and is moved to compassion. In Matthew's version of the story, the disciples tell Jesus to send the crowds home to get something to eat: they have missed the point of the parables. Jesus tells them, "Give them some food yourselves," and a boy comes forth with some barley loaves and couple of fish. Using language reminiscent of the earliest Eucharistic language, the gospel narrative describes the people reclining in the wilderness, as though at a formal meal, while Jesus took, blessed, broke, and shared the loaves (the fish are not mentioned!), and everyone eats their fill, with plenty left over.
The first reading from Isaiah "sets the table" for us, as we hear a vision for God's realm described as a rich banquet to which all are invited, regardless of nationality or wealth. Those who are hungry and thirsty are called simply on the basis of their desire. The proper psalm, Psalm 145, picks up on the lavishness of divine gifts as it has us sing, "The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs," paraphrasing a verse of the psalm which reads (somewhat more modestly?), "You open your hand, and satisfy the desire of every living thing." Nevertheless, it is a hymn to God's generosity and the bounty of creation.
The problem comes, doesn't it, when people (like us) enter the picture, and the gifts of creation are usurped by a few for profit and power at the expense of others. In the course of civilization, what the Christian scriptures call "the world" (we might say, "the way of the world") develops an economy of buying and selling, of commerce and ownership that does not allow all to share equally in access to happiness and security. The "world" becomes not the realm of God, the world of Abba, Jesus's "father" who wants a world of mutual care and interrelationship, but a world run by Caesar, which is to say all the other gods of power and control, status, violence, and hoarded wealth.
Everything Jesus has to say about the reign of God has been, is, to say, "You can make a choice together to turn around and go in another direction. You can be a little yeast in Caesar's dough that's going to corrupt this whole mess; you can be a mustard seed, you don't look like much now, but just wait. All you have to do is turn around. Stop walking to Caesar's drum, go the other way. Believe this good news."
So much of Jesus's ministry, as reported in the gospels, was focused around food and meals, that the memory the Church kept of him after the resurrection loosely followed the ritual dynamics of Jewish mealsharing; that is, food was taken up, blessed, broken, and passed around. Distribution of food to widows and other needy persons was part of the daily life of the New Testament church, and some scholars today suggest that this distribution of free food and the conversations that might take place around the food in the Greek-influenced Mediterranean world might have been the social, evangelical, and eventually liturgical practice of those nascent communities. As we heard in the first reading from Isaiah 55, and is apparent in other passages particularly in Isaiah, one of the enduring metaphors for the arrival of the reign of God was a rich banquet to which everyone is invited.
Furthermore, Hal Taussig, in In the Beginning Was the Meal: Social Experimentation and Early Christian Identity, suggests that one of the core values of Hellenistic mealsharing, the matrix of Christian evangelization, was, even apart from Christian use, fundamentally oriented toward democratic values of equality, philia (friendship), and koinonia (community). These democratic Greek values contrasted with Roman imperial values and so formal meals were therefore under suspicion, particularly in the occupied outposts of the empire. Shared Christian meals, in other words, were for the Christians a way to express their belief in the God of Jesus and the reign of God as sovereign over all others including the emperor's, while for the Romans the same meals were seen as opportunities for and occasions of sedition.
Whatever actually happened in the story described in today's gospel and in the other three gospel's narratives of mass feeding(s), what the church came to see in the miracle of the loaves was an inbreaking of the reign of God, God's bounty visited upon the hungry in so lavish away that not only was there bread for today, but bread for tomorrow as well; not labored for and bought, but given freely, but made possible through the generosity and risk of a few (or the one) who brought forward a few loaves and couple of fish. The time of miracles may or may not be over, but one thing is certain: the instrumentality of human faith, risk, and generosity is still the doorway through which God's reign breaks into the world. The Church's role is not to send the hungry away to fend for themselves, but to listen to the Master's admonition to "Give them some food yourselves." By embracing the risk of personal loss, this paschal meal-sharing may yet push aside the impoverishment and inequality of commercial eating, and make way for the worldwide meal on the hillside where each serves the other the rich wine and marbled meat of the Messiah's feast. As I wrote in one stanza of "One in Love," a song co-written with Tom Kendzia which we're using for communion this week,
As the manna fell, and all had enough,
So at the feast of the Savior all are fed,
As the thousands ate from two tiny fish
And a few shared loaves of bread.
One in heart, one in hope, one in hunger,
With our tears, with our dreams,
In joy and in fear,
Blessed with gifts from our God without number,
We have come to the banquet of life,
Come to the table of Christ,
That all may be one in love.
What we're singing this weekend:
Entrance song: Table of Plenty by Dan Schutte
Kyrie: Mass of St. Aidan
Psalm 34 Taste and See the Goodness of the Lord by Tom Kendzia
Celtic Alleluia O'Carroll/Walker
Preparation Rite: Mission Song by Rory Cooney
Mass of Creation
Notre Dame Lamb of God Isele
Communion: One in Love Kendzia/Cooney
Sending Forth: I Send You Out Angotti