Jesus and John the Baptist had a deep and unusual
relationship and some of the disciples of Jesus
had been disciples of the Baptist. It is not surprising
that they needed time to remember together and
to mourn. They go to a lonely place, eremos in
Greek, meaning ‘deserted’. Around the Sea of Galilee
is not ‘desert’, of course. (The readings tell
us there are villages nearby). It is a hint from
Matthew, reminding us of ancient Israel’s wandering
in the desert and of God feeding them there with
the manna. The large crowd is waiting for him
there when he arrives. Although his plan has been
disrupted, he reacts to their need.
When the disciples tell him that the time for
dinner has passed, Jesus takes charge of the situation
and gives instructions to the disciples. John
the Baptist’s death took place in the course of
a banquet. Unlike the banquet given by Herod with
its immoral activities, at Jesus’ banquet there
is healing and sharing. In the second Book of
Kings [4:22] the prophet Elisha orders his servant
to put twenty barley loaves before one hundred
men. The servant objects, but when he does so
the men have more than enough. Matthew leans on
the past and draws on the manna and Elisha to
stress the importance of Jesus, but he also looks
forward to the Last Supper and to the Eucharist.
He is the scribe we heard about last Sunday, taking
out old things as well as new. It reminds us also
of what he said in 8:11-12, “Many will come from
east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac
and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven”, the heavenly
banquet in the presence of God.
Matthew ends his account by underlining who was
present. We would probably take it for granted
that in any large crowd there would have to be
women and children, but Matthew stresses deliberately
that this banquet is all-inclusive.
Any attempt to explain the miracle away misses
the point. It is the only miracle recorded in
all four gospels, and twice in two of them. We
may feel at a loss trying to get a grip on what
actually happened, but if we miss the symbolism,
the references to the past, to Herod, to the Eucharist,
to the heavenly banquet, etc. we also miss out
on Matthew’s aim in writing.
• “Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said
the blessing”. He recognises the bread as one
of the gifts from God. Do I remember to “say
the blessing” and give thanks for God’s gifts?
• “They all ate as much as they wanted”. As
I think of God’s generous care for the hungry
and the needy, do I sometimes forget that includes
me, which is a good reason for giving us the
• “He withdrew ... to a place where they could
be by themselves . . . he saw a large crowd
and took pity on them.” Can I be so caught up
in my own needs and problems at times that I
fail to see and respond to the needs of others?
• Herod had arrested John because he saw him
as a political danger when he challenged Herod’s
authority and judgment. He has put John to death.
Was it not unwise or imprudent of Jesus to draw
attention to himself at this particular time?
What might have led him to do so?
• And the hungry in today’s world. I may contribute
generously to Trócaire. Might I also be more
careful when shopping to seek fair trade products?