18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) – August 2, 2020
St. Mary – Derby, KS
Isaiah 55:1-3; Psalm 145:8-9, 15-18; Romans 8:35, 37-39; Matthew 14:13-21
(1) New Covenant? New Kingdom.
This Gospel passage is one of those passages that is so “well known”—we hear it so much, we tell the story so much—that it can easily lose its incredible significance. This miracle of the loaves and fish, feeding the 5,000, is not just some “show of power” on Jesus’ part. This whole scene—Jesus curing the sick, this meal and feeding of the people—this meal is not just a miraculous feeding, it’s a “Kingdom Meal” (and I think I’m gonna copyright that before Burger King steals it). It’s a Kingdom Meal: it is a meal that not only addresses a concrete need, not only a meal that is an act of mercy, but it is a meal that is all about the New Covenant that the Lord will make with his people through Jesus Christ. And New Covenant means New Kingdom, new creation, new life! So keep this idea of New Covenant in mind.
(2) Jesus’ Kingdom Is A Bit Upside Down
One really helpful way to understand what is going on in the Gospels is to look at the contrasts: to look at how the evangelist contrasts two figures or two events. This story in our Gospel today—this meal, this feeding of the 5,000—comes immediately after another famous story: the great feast for the birthday of Herod. These two stories—Herod’s feast and the “feast” of Jesus—come one after the other. And Herod’s feast for his birthday could not be more in contrast to the “feast” of Jesus if you tried.
Who’s on the guest list? With Herod, it’s a tough invite to score: the who’s who, the ruling elite, the rich and famous, those with power, money and influence. With Jesus, everyone is invited; but when you look at the guest list, there is a big emphasis on the poor, sick and outcasts. How’s the venue? With Herod, the royal palace, really, the center of worldly power and corruption. With Jesus, it’s in a “deserted place,” up in Galilee. How does it end? At Herod’s meal, it ends in the death of the innocent: the death of John the Baptist. At Jesus’ meal, it ends in overflowing abundance, in refreshment and newness of life.
It’s a very subtle, but central point being made: in these two “Kingdom meals,” we see that there is something very different about the Kingdom of God. It’s not like any kingdom that we have ever seen before. This Kingdom is for all—not just the elite. Being part of this Kingdom doesn’t end in death, but in newness and freshness of life. This Kingdom is not based on corruption and power and wealth—in fact, it’s owned by the poor.
The kingdoms all throughout history, are a “who’s who” sort of thing. Who do you know? Who has the power, or money, or the influence? It’s a constant battle for power, and money, and influence. But Jesus’ Kingdom is remarkably different. It’s not the rich and powerful and influential who are placed at the center; it’s the poor. That is the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom.” And this “poor in spirit” Jesus is talking about is not some pious interior detachment from the “things of the world,” no. It is a life, an entire existence marked by complete dependence on the Lord’s mercy and providence. It’s the poor who are the “cultural and societal elite” in this Kingdom. Why is that?
(3) Poor: Social and Cultural Elite of This Kingdom
Ruby Payne is someone who has done a lot of work on the mentality of poverty, and she has these things she calls “Hidden Rules”; essentially, the unwritten rules of belonging to a certain socio-economic class. Just a few quick examples.
- For the wealthy, life decisions are based on social, political, and financial connections. For the middle class, work and achievement drive decisions. But for the poor, what drives decision making is survival and relationships and entertainment (leisure). “Blessed are the poor.”
- For the wealthy, legacies, titles, one-of-a-kind objects are the most valuable possessions. For the middle class, things and stuff (phones, watches, cars) are the most valuable possessions; and if material security is threatened by a relationship (if someone is a liability) you cut ties with them. But for the poor, the most valuable possessions they have are relationships. “Blessed are the poor.”
- For the wealthy, the “world” is understood globally and internationally. For the middle class, the “world” is pretty nationalistic. But for the poor, the “world” is incredibly local; it’s your community, your neighbors. “Blessed are the poor.”
- And this may seem trivial, but in light of this Gospel I don’t think it is. For the wealthy, food is valued for its presentation. For the middle class, food is all about taste and quality. But for the poor, food is valued for its quantity. A person in the middle class will ask, “How was it? Was it good?” But a poor person will always ask, “Did you get enough? Can I get you more?” “Blessed are the poor.”
Why do I bring these up? When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom,” he’s using the present tense. For other Beatitudes, it’s about the future, “they will inherit the earth,” or, “they will be satisfied,” or, “they will see God”—future tense. But the poor in spirit? Those whose entire existence is dependent on God’s mercy and providence? Theirs is the Kingdom—right now. They are not in the Kingdom or members—they possess it. It is theirs.
(4) Why Is It Theirs? Because They Have Jesus Christ
And remember: it is the poor who follow Jesus. These are the people in the crowds that follow Jesus, and his “heart was moved with compassion for them.” And what does he do? Ask for a reference? Ask what they can do for him? Ask why they are of value to the Kingdom? Check whether they are a liability? No. “He cured their sick.” He shows them mercy; Jesus is moved to show mercy to the poor. Jesus is wholly dedicated to them, his entire life is for them. Scripture says, “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” He is theirs.
And look what happens. The poor base their life decisions on this relationship; their most valuable possession becomes this relationship; their whole world is centered on this community that follows this Jesus. And their food? Even their food comes from this man, and there is a lot of it. Again, what do the poor value about food? How good it tastes? How it is presented? Nope. What is important is the quantity, that there is enough. And in this case, there is a great overabundance.
(5) A Lot of Food, but for What?
Go back to our first reading, that reading from Isaiah about the blessings the Lord is going to bestow through the Messiah: “Thus says the LORD: All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!” Alright, free food, and a lot of it!
But why? Why a bunch of food? Well, how does the Lord continue in the prophecy of Isaiah (and this is the key): “Come to me…listen, that you may have life.…I will renew with you the everlasting covenant.” What Jesus is offering to them is not just a lot of food because they are poor (don’t get literalistic about it), no. What Jesus is offering, ultimately, is a New Covenant—the New Kingdom, a renewed relationship with the Lord, a path to newness of life. The Lord says through Isaiah, “Come to me”: it’s that famous line we heard a few Sundays ago, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened.” “Come to me,” the Lord says through Isaiah. And do what? “Listen, that you may have life.” Remember the past three weeks, all of the parables, and Jesus kept saying, over and over, “He who has ears ought to hear.”
And what has been the point of all of this? Was Jesus just trying to tell us a few comforting words, a few good parables to make us behave better? No. Jesus has been preparing us for the New Covenant. The New and Eternal Covenant. And how do you establish a Covenant? Through sacrifice and meal.
Just like with Passover you have to sacrifice the lamb and then eat the lamb—you need a sacrifice and a meal. The sacrifice comes later in the story: Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, the lamb of God slain on the altar of the cross. But today, we get the meal, or better, the foreshadowing of the meal, definitively instituted at the Last Supper. Jesus took “the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples.” That should be very familiar to us. “While they were at supper, [Jesus] he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take this, all of you and eat of it for this is my body.’” And he took the chalice and said, “Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the—what?—the new and eternal covenant.”
Here at the table of the Eucharist, here at this meal—we renew the Covenant that the Lord made with us though Jesus Christ. And it is not just a meal! But it is the Kingdom. In this meal, we come poor and in need, completely dependent on God’s mercy to give us everything we need. And he doesn’t hold back. He gives us everything! He gives us his own body and blood. And in holding, in consuming Christ, we consume everything, “the Kingdom of God is ours.”