Because of the coronavirus pandemic, I opted for a “staycation” this year. Staying at home afforded me the opportunity to read a couple of books that have been on my reading list for quite a while.
The two books were commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew, but they were radically different from one another. At first, I wondered how two books on the same topic could be so different; then, I realized that these two books were examples of the old saying, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The radical difference between the two books owed to the fact that one author is a Catholic Scripture scholar and the other author is a Lutheran Scripture scholar. I learned from those two books that, to a Catholic hammer, everything looks like a Catholic nail and, to a Lutheran hammer, everything looks like a Lutheran nail.
The influence of familiar experiences and tacitly held beliefs can be seen everywhere. Today’s Gospel reading is often understood in light of familiar values and beliefs.
The author of Matthew’s Gospel patterned the story of the miraculous feeding of the crowd after a feeding miracle recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. About eight hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Elisha fed a hundred households with twenty pieces of bread. The feeding miracle in Matthew’s Gospel depicts Jesus as wielding divine power far in excess of the divine power wielded by the ancient Israelite prophets.
This miraculous feeding of the crowd is very often interpreted by Catholics to be a miracle about Eucharist. This judgment, I think, is another instance of being led by familiar experiences and tacitly held beliefs.
In every case, Jesus’ miracles were illustrations of the content of his preaching. He preached about the nearness of the kingdom of heaven and he demonstrated the truth of that message through his miracles. He healed two men who were blind, demonstrating that the proximity of the kingdom of heaven would open the eyes of all to perceive the truth about God’s will. (Mt. 9:27-34) He healed a woman of hemorrhages and raised a little girl from the dead to demonstrate that the coming of the kingdom of heaven would mean victory over sin and death. (Mt. 9:18-26) The miraculous feeding of the crowd in today’s Gospel reading is a depiction of the overabundance of God’s mercy that will be poured out when the kingdom of heaven comes in its fullness.
This miraculous feeding is very often interpreted as being a “Eucharistic miracle” in the sense that it prefigures the institution of the Eucharist or points to the Eucharist. I’m not certain that this is what the Gospel author intended. There is nothing deficient about this miracle or the message it proclaims. Quite the opposite is true: the people were fed fully and there was food left over; God’s power was poured out in overabundance. This miracle is like all of Jesus’ miracles; it is an illustration of what he meant when he preached about the kingdom of heaven.
This miraculous feeding is a sign that points to the kingdom of heaven that Jesus preached; it is a mistake, I think, to interpret this miracle as a secondary sign that points to another sign, namely, Eucharist. Rather than interpreting this miraculous feeding as a “Eucharistic miracle” we ought to interpret both Eucharist and the feeding of the crowd as distinct miracles of the kingdom of heaven.
The Scriptures say that eternal peace and contentment are promised to those whose faith is placed in God alone; this excludes the possibility of finding lasting peace or complete satisfaction in this life. Where is the object of your ultimate trust? Is it in the goods of this world or in Uncreated Good? The former is the result of misunderstanding the nature of salvation; the latter is a faithful expression of the content of Jesus’ teaching.
Our celebration of Eucharist today is an act of trust that God will bring us to an eternity of peace and contentment; it is also our pledge never to waiver from that belief. Eucharist is a sacrifice and communal meal that points to what is yet to come in the same way that Jesus’ feeding of the crowd points to what is yet to come.
Our celebration of Eucharist is intended to be today what the miraculous feeding of the crowd was during Jesus’ ministry; it is intended to be instruction about the kingdom of heaven and an invitation to dwell now in that kingdom. When we receive the Eucharist, we receive a pledge from that the kingdom of heaven will bring us victory over sin and death. The Eucharist is also our pledge to live according to God’s will now that we might live in God’s presence forever. The crowd fed by Jesus’ miracle were given the opportunity to see the kingdom of heaven present in their midst; we are given that same opportunity during this Liturgy. Like that crowd, we are invited to experience God’s compassionate care in this life that we might spend our entire lives pursuing God’s will.