We have been reading the Gospel According to St. Matthew beginning at chapter 14 verse 34 when the people of Gennesaret humbly approached Jesus to be healed of their infirmities. If we look at Matthew’s story as a whole, we can detect a catalog of things that afflict humankind. Sickness is the first we notice. When the people of Gennesaret saw Jesus the great healer landing on their shores, they immediately gathered every sick person in the region and presented them to Jesus.
Then comes the second item in the catalog of miseries that afflict us: pride and envy. The Pharisees found fault with the disciples because the disciples ate with unwashed “defiled” hands. It does not take a great judge of character to notice that they were jealous of the good spiritual work Our Lord was doing. Jesus used the Pharisees complaint to point at the origin of all defilement: the sinful human heart. In this first appearance of the Pharisees in our story, Christ was kind to them and pointed at their problem obliquely but they didn’t quite get it. That is why he taught them: “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” Out of the mouth of the Pharisees came words revealing the nature of their heart’s intentions. They were self-appointed religious leaders. The powerful witness of Jesus made them look bad. Even the simplest people could see that the works of Jesus came from God. The Pharisees could do none of that. The goodness and effectiveness of Jesus moved them to envy and jealousy.
The disciples were eating bread with unwashed hands. Bread makes its first appearance in the story. It will appear many times in Chapters 15 through 17. When Jesus goes to visit the Jews living north of the country’s border, he finds a woman who wants him to liberate her daughter from demonic oppression. In their conversation, bread makes its second appearance. Jesus compares grace to bread reserved by God for the sons of Israel. Through an extraordinary act of humility, the woman moves Jesus to help her. Her actions are comparable to those of the good thief who, facing death, would beg Jesus to save him at the last minute.
We see the third item in the catalog of afflictions is the demonic influence on human affairs. Christ resolves that problem. First, the woman recognized Christ’s kingship and Jesus confirmed his royal power and authority by ordering the evil spirit to leave the young girl immediately.
In the next passage, Christ visits the people living by the Sea of Galilee. There the scene repeats and all kinds of illnesses and afflictions are cured. That is when bread makes a new appearance.
Matthew 15: 29-39 — Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?” “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.” He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven baskets full of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children. After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan. (NIV)
Jesus feeds the four thousand men and their families with only seven loaves of bread and a few pieces of fish. In the end, seven baskets filled with leftovers are collected.
The bread to feed the people comes from the compassionate heart of Jesus. Here the comparison is inevitable: from the heart of the Pharisees came envy and a prohibition to eat bread: “Do not eat with defiled hands!” From the heart of Christ comes the kind compassion that feeds them with miraculous bread.
Here we see a clear sign of the Eucharist. The crowd have been with Christ for three days. The seven loaves seem to point at the Seven Sacraments sustaining the Church until Christ returns. The final collection reminds me of the great catch of fish symbolizing the triumph of the evangelization of the world at the end of time. Seven is the biblical number for spiritual perfection.
Many times we have heard some misguided liberation theology priest preaching that the bread and the fish were simply “shared” by the people, that there was no miracle. That denies the words of the evangelist that clearly states the people had no food. Such denial of the miraculous negates the grace of God.
As we go though this story we will see how bread plays an important part. The bread that feeds the people of Israel comes directly from the heart of God. It is pure, undefiled bread meant to cure all the ailments of mankind, setting us free from the bondage of sin.
Remember this reflection during Christmas, when you celebrate the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem, the house of bread.
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