Food is a rich biblical symbol. In the Garden of Eden, the forbidden fruit symbolized human temptation. In time of famine in Israel, it was providential that Joseph was in Egypt and could help his family from the stores of grain he managed. Once liberated from Egypt, God sent manna to feed the chosen people in the desert. In Judaism, the Passover meal is a powerful ritual that keeps alive the memory of how God rescued their ancestors from slavery.
In the Gospels, Jesus told some powerful parables at table. For example, the one about the heavenly banquet to which everyone was invited. Jesus changed the water to wine at the wedding in Cana, the first of his signs. Jesus enjoyed eating a meal with Martha and Mary and Lazarus, where he could relax with his friends. By Inviting himself to the house of Zacchaeus, Jesus showed his concern for those who were scorned by the people of his time. Jesus ate with tax-collectors and sinners showing everyone that he came to call those who were condemned by their fellow Jews.
Today’s reading from Matthew 14 recalls how Jesus had compassion for the crowd and provided them with food, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. The language used in the story is eucharistic. But don’t overlook what motivated Jesus.
First, Jesus had just heard of the death of John the Baptist, his cousin. He must have been sad and grieving. Then, too, Jesus was busy with his mission of proclaiming the Good News of the reign of God. Apparently, Jesus wanted to get away for a little break, to reflect, to rest, to pray. But Jesus found no rest. Second, when he sailed with his disciples to the other side of the lake, Jesus met the crowd, though he wanted to rest. Yet he did not turn away from the confusion and needs of the crowd. Jesus and his disciples could have just sailed away to another place—quieter, more remote. But Jesus did not do so. Instead, he turned to the crowd with compassion. He healed their sick and then, when it was getting late, he provided them with food. Jesus was sensitive to their needs.
Both the Gospel today and the Eucharist remind us that God is merciful. God accepts us, as we are, even in our sinfulness. God loves us and will take care of us in our need. God challenges us—by the example of the compassionate love of Jesus—to show that same compassion to our brothers and sisters, no matter how hopeless or sinful or confused or needy they may be. To celebrate the Eucharist commits us to being a people of compassionate love. Be compassionate, because the Lord is compassionate.
Yes, food is a powerful symbol of our mission as disciples of Jesus.
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