Reflection  - 2nd August - Jesus Christ, The Bread of Life

Many of the stories which we read about Jesus in the Gospels show him to be someone with a deep compassion for people in need, especially those suffering from illness or disability. This compassion often led him to reach out to people with the touch of healing, and in laying his hands on those who were weighed down with physical or psychological burdens he gave them relief from pain and anxiety. The stories of his miracles of healing have brought comfort and inspiration to millions of people down the centuries, and we turn to them as sources of hope and light in times of darkness.

It is less easy to know what to make of the so-called ‘nature miracles’ in the Gospels – that is to say, those instances where Jesus appears to exert power over the natural forces of the earth, and even to set aside normal physical realities. How, we ask ourselves, could he possibly walk on water, or still a storm just by talking to the wind and the rain, or turn some jars of water into wine? And even if he did, what relevance does it have to our lives nowadays, as we wrestle with the tough decisions that need to be made when there are inadequate resources for our own needs and the needs of those around us?

So what is our response to the Gospel – the Good News – which the Church sets before us this Sunday? Our reading from St Matthew gives us one of the most familiar stories in the New Testament – the feeding of five thousand people with just a small quantity of bread and fish. It’s a lovely story, but did it really happen, and if so, how? Was Jesus really the wonder worker he appeared to be, and is this the basis on which we are called to put our trust in him?

The image of Christ as one who feeds and sustains those who approach him in openness and need is a very powerful one, and it is significant that the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle story which is recorded in all four Gospels. Yet the evangelists tell the story in remarkably different ways, and Matthew’s version carries with it some important clues as to its meaning and implication for us. In particular, having set out the story in the middle of chapter 14 he proceeds, in the next chapter, to tell the story again, this time altering some of the figures. In the first version there are five thousand people fed with five loaves and two fish, after which twelve baskets are filled with the leftovers, whereas in the second version there are four thousand people fed with seven loaves and “a few small fish”, and there are seven baskets filled with the leftovers. The figures are not arbitrary, for to Jewish readers ‘five’ and ‘twelve’ would have immediately signified the five books of the Law, and the twelve tribes of Israel, thus suggesting that the feeding in this instance was a specific ministry on the part of Jesus to his own people.

The other version of the story comes, as I say, at the end of the following chapter, and quite a lot happens in between, as we shall see in our readings from Matthew over the next couple of Sundays. In particular, Jesus leaves the Jewish territory in which he had been teaching, and travels to a Gentile district, where he initially resists the request of a woman that he should heal her daughter. After appearing to concede that she and other Gentiles can, like the Jews, also be recipients of his life-giving power, he carries out a number of acts of healing, and then at this point Matthew introduces the account of the feeding of the four thousand. Here the figures ‘four’ and ‘seven’ are dominant, both of them suggesting completeness (the four seasons, the four corners of the earth, the seven days of the week), though without the specifically Jewish connotations of the earlier numbers.

Matthew, like Mark (whose Gospel he copies at this point), is surely wanting us to understand that Jesus is the revelation for all people of God’s universal and unconditional love. This was the hardest thing for those early Jewish followers of Jesus to accept, and it is no less hard for us today. We are so inclined to set boundaries to God’s love and power, and to suppose that these are restricted to those who believe or say the ‘right’ things, or who adhere to a strict moral code, or who are ‘people like us’, whom we like and understand and get on with.

Today’s Gospel reading is one of a number of passages in the New Testament which challenge this viewpoint, and it does so particularly vividly. It is doubtful whether it was originally conceived as a piece of literal history, and it makes more sense to regard it, especially in its ‘dual version’, as a parable illustrating the limitless extent of God’s love, without boundaries of class or colour or race, and based, not on what we deserve, but on the compassion of Christ, who is himself the Bread of Life, and who, through the Holy Spirit, fills us day by day with nourishment and strength for our journey through life. (As an aside, the statement that twelve baskets – or seven in the second instance – were filled with the leftovers suggests that the quantity of those leftovers would have been even greater than the original bread and fish, illustrating the extravagant nature of God’s
love, providing for his children far more than is needed. Or, as Jesus promised elsewhere, “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap”.)

In today’s passage from the Letter to the Romans the apostle Paul, writing long before Matthew’s Gospel was put together in its present form, expresses in a very different way the far-reaching nature of God’s love. He writes in exasperated terms to his fellow Israelites, listing the huge blessings arising from their covenant with God, but drawing attention to the dangerous pride which had led them to conclude that they, and they alone, were God’s chosen people. In what to us might seem an obscure and complex set of arguments, he quotes a number of Old Testament texts to demonstrate that God’s mercy ‘overflows’, as it were, beyond the confines of those who might be described as ‘children of the flesh’ (that is to say, those who could trace their ancestry back to Abraham himself), and points out that it is the ‘children of the promise’ – including outsiders and, yes, Gentiles – who receive God’s blessings, for ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’.

And as a beautiful prelude to all this, the prophet Isaiah invites those who are hungry and thirsty to partake freely of water, wine, milk and rich food, expressing this in the form of an open invitation from God to “listen carefully to me, and eat what is good”. He refers to God’s everlasting covenant with the people of Israel, but goes on to predict that “you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you”, thus emphasising once again that God’s bountiful goodness – expressed here, as in the Gospel, in the form of food and drink – extends far beyond the boundaries of Israel.

So the great challenge to us from this week’s readings is: can our goodness and generosity be as outwardlooking and far-reaching as that shown by Christ, who is the Bread of Life for all.

Venerable David Painter

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