ColumnsSunday’s Word

He answers all our needs

August 2, 2020


Is 55:1-3

Come to the water!

Ps 145:8-9, 15-18

He answers all our needs

Rom 8:35, 37-39

Who will separate us from Christ’s love

Mt 14:13-21

Loaves and fishes


At the end of the story of the multiplication of loaves, as John tells it, Jesus leaves the area to prevent the crowds from hailing him as a king (John 6:15). Matthew is not John, but there are reasons to believe, brought out by today’s Scripture readings, to think that Matthew has the same idea.

The current generation of Scripture scholars have shifted their search for the historical Jesus outside the Gospel texts themselves to the historical setting in which they were written, to see what light that sheds on their writing. One object of their interest is the appearance during these years of certain figures of resistance. The times during the Roman occupation were intolerable for many of the lower classes, and opposition would occasionally break out into the open.

Of the three types, some were social bandits, notably in the caves of Gischala in the lakeside hills of Galilee. Others were popular “messiahs” emerging from the peasant population. They would raise a ragtag army of resistance only to be brutally suppressed. A third type has come to be called “sign prophets.” Unlike the popular messiahs, these were nonviolent, in the prophetic tradition. Nevertheless, they also were brutally suppressed.

The sign prophets drew on Exodus imagery, to make the point that a new beginning was needed. Theudas, mentioned in Acts 5:36, took his followers to the Jordan, promising a miracle. The waters would part, and they would cross over, as with Joshua, himself acting in the spirit of Moses (Jos 3:9-17; Ex 14:21-22). But after his followers were killed, Theudas himself was beheaded by the authorities. An unnamed Egyptian, also mentioned in Acts 21:38, gathered followers at the Mount of Olives, by Jerusalem. He promised that the walls of the city would collapse, like the walls of Jericho in the past, and they could invade. He too disappeared. There were others who took followers out to the desert, as in the early days, and the Romans would follow them out and slaughter them. Again, the imagery evokes the origins of Israel, pointing to a new beginning.

John the Baptist evokes these same movements, with his voice in the desert and his baptism at the Jordan. And Jesus begins his public life in the company of John. And then we have today’s miracle of the loaves, also in the desert. Also a miracle, not unlike those promised by the sign prophets. And again there is a sense of a renewed community of Israel. The story of Jesus has overtones of the stories of the sign prophets, even while he is not claimed to be one.

When we turn to the first reading for today, we are again in the final chapter of the prophet Second Isaiah. He moves among the exiles in Babylon, inviting the lapsed to return. This prophet also is haunted by the desert, repeatedly offering the image of a desert renewed, returning to forest greenery.

Today’s passage is famous. The banquet is metaphor, evoking the covenant meal of Moses (Ex 24:9-11). But the prophet is taking the covenant idea beyond Moses to king David. The covenant with David (2 Sam 7:11-16) promised a royal descendant would reign forever. But centuries later the kingdom was destroyed and the kingship of David lost. That was Second Isaiah’s reality. He refers to David only once, and that is here in his closing lines. He makes the surprising claim that the promise to David is transferred to all the faithful.

The liturgy introduces today’s story of the loaves with this reading. We understand that the loaves story is one of renewal, return to origins, and the promise of God’s fidelity as well as nourishment and support. The kingdom of God has arrived.

For reflection: Kingship is seen as providing for the people.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.