We must take up Jesus' challenge to 'give them something to eat'

by Thomas Gumbleton

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Now in order to begin our reflection on today's Gospel lesson, it's important to remind ourselves once more where we are in this Gospel of Matthew that we read every Sunday this year. At the beginning of his public life in the Gospel, Jesus had proclaimed the good news: "The reign of God is at hand. Change your lives." The reign of God is at hand; that's what the good news is.

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 55:1-3
Psalms 145:8-9, 15-16, 17-18
Romans 8:35, 37-39
Matthew 14:13-21
Full text of the readings

The reign of God: Remind yourselves that's the dynamic rule of God's infinite, unsurpassable love. It's a situation where every human person -- all of creation, in fact -- are guided and made to develop and grow under this power of God's love. It's a time when the reign of God, when it comes to its fulfillment, every person will have a full human life. There'll be peace and joy. All that we ever long for comes to fullness in the reign of God, and it's at hand; it's beginning.

In the last few Sundays, we heard teachings of Jesus to help us try to understand what we mean by the reign of God -- the different parables. You can go back and reflect on those by rereading those Gospel lessons from the last three or four Sundays. But today, we move on. It's not just teaching about the parables -- Jesus shows what happens, how the power of God's love works as the reign of God breaks forth.

God's love is extraordinary because it's a love that is not a response to our love. [In] the first letter of John, John says, "God is love. Where there is love, there is God. But this is what I mean by the love of God: that God first loved us." See, the reign of God is breaking into our midst because God first loved us, brought us and all of creation into existence through love.

And isn't that, if you reflect deeply on it, what the first lesson today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is telling us? "Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the water. All who have no money, come. Yes, without money and at no cost, drink wine and milk. Why spend money on what is not food and labor for what does not satisfy? Listen to me; you will eat well. You will enjoy the richest of fare. Incline your ear and come to me. Listen, that your soul may live."

See, that love of God is always present, always calling us: "Come, come; receive, be fulfilled," and that's what Jesus is talking about when he says, "The reign of God is at hand." That kind of a love of God for us where there's no limit, there's no cost. God is waiting to bring us to fullness of life through love, if we come to the one who proclaims that good news: Jesus.

And in today's Gospel lesson, we see Jesus in a way that surely we were meant to imitate: the Jesus of compassion. God's love breaking forth in the world through the compassion of Jesus. Remember for a moment, and reflect on this, how at this point in his life, Jesus receives absolutely terrible news. John the Baptist, whom Jesus had followed, by whom Jesus had been baptized, and where Jesus began his public life, following out the work of John, this one whom Jesus loved, had been brutally executed, and it was a deep profound loss for Jesus.

Any of us, I think -- well, we've all experienced loss of those we loved, or have loved and do love, and it's devastating. Here is Jesus, realizing that this one he loved is gone. He goes away to be by himself, to pray, to reflect. He's looking for a place to be alone and to try to come to terms with what has happened. But then as he gets there, he takes the boat to go across the bay, and the people come around the shore and are there before he gets there.

But what did Jesus do? Matthew tells us in a beautiful way, "When Jesus saw the crowd gathered there, he had compassion on them." Compassion: entering into their experience, their feelings. See, to feel with, to suffer with, to rejoice with -- that's compassion. And immediately, Jesus reaches out so his love embraces these people who are looking for healing, looking for comfort, looking for consolation, looking for wisdom. Jesus is there to minister to them immediately. He has compassion on them.

Then this love of God Jesus makes clear is present in the world as a powerful way of God's acting among us and for us. After Jesus has ministered throughout the day to this huge crowd of people, turning this way, that way, being taken by this one, by that one, it's a long day, and the disciples begin to worry that the crowds are going to be hungry. There'll be nothing to eat. If they don't leave soon, they will not be able to find something to eat, and so they come to Jesus and say, "Send the crowds away. Let them go to the villages around and get themselves food."

Jesus says, "No, no, they do not need to go away. You give them something to eat." See, the reign of God was God's love beginning to permeate everything, every person, enables all of us to begin to reach out with that same compassion of Jesus. If we enter into the reign of God, then, "You give them something to eat." The disciples, of course, said, "Well, we don't have enough. Five loaves, two fish -- how's that going to take care of this multitude?" But Jesus assures them, "God's power of love is at work as the reign of God begins to break forth."

So Jesus prays, raises his eyes to heaven, prays, blessed the loaves, hands them to the disciples to distribute to the people. They begin to do it and suddenly there's enough. God's power of love can multiply loaves of bread in astounding ways so that even after everyone had their fill, there were 12 baskets left over to be saved for another day, to be given to other people elsewhere.

This is the reign of God, the power of God's love within our creation. But now, as always, we try to listen to the Gospel in the context of what's happening in our lives. Each of us can do this in our own personal spiritual lives, our development in our relationship with God, but also in the church in which we live and the community in which we live. We want to see how this power of God's love, the reign of God, can transform our world just as it transformed that situation on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

So now, how does this love of God -- dynamic power of God's love entering into us and into our whole church community -- how does this power of God's love transform? It isn't hard, is it, to think of a situation where we have thousands of people, tens of thousands of people, in need of food, in need of water, in need of refuge, on our own borders.

Think of Jesus. If he were at that border, would he not have the same compassion for those people that he had for the ones that had come around the shore to be with him? Jesus is filled with compassion, and surely he looks upon those, especially the tens of thousands of children, with compassion. His love is going out to them. But how will that be made real today?

Well, it's through us, we who bear the life of Christ within us, we who become other Christs through our baptism. We must be the ones who show compassion, not send them away. Jesus said, "No, don't send them away. You give them something to eat," and isn't that the same message Jesus gives to us today? I'm convinced, if we listen deeply in our hearts, Jesus is saying to each of us, to our nation, "You give them something to eat," and especially as we are celebrating this Eucharist, reflecting on the reign of God, what it means, how it works, how God works within this reign of God, how it's gradually transforming our world.

Within this celebration of the Eucharist, the Gospel of today becomes very, very present, because in this Gospel, Jesus, in a way, foreshadows the Last Supper. Listen to the words. They're the same words we'll hear in a few moments when we offer the Eucharist, celebrate the Eucharist: "Jesus took the bread, raised his eyes to heaven, prayed, blessed the bread, broke it, gave it to the disciples to distribute."

That's our Eucharist; our Eucharist becomes something very, very real and very powerful if we take the Eucharist from here in this church building, go out into our world and give people who need it something to eat. In our immediate neighborhoods, in our cities, our country, but now at this particular instance, on our borders, people are in desperate need -- fleeing violence, fleeing economic oppression, trying to find a way of life, a way to live.

We must make this Eucharist we celebrate today something very real for ourselves so that we take on more and more the way of Jesus, that we begin to be more aware of how much Jesus loves us, and how we must begin to spread that love of God into the world around us.

The reign of God is at hand. The reign of God is breaking forth. The reign of God will transform our world as we take up the challenge that Jesus gives to us: "You give them something to eat." You be the ones who show compassion, who bring the love of God into our midst, into our world, right now. More and more as we do this, this world of ours -- human society, all of creation -- will be transformed until it becomes the fullness of God's reign.

 [Homily given at St. Anne, Frankfort, Mich. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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