Tuesday, August 1, 2017

PENTECOST IX 2017 (Proper 13)

Feeding the Multitude -- 10th century ivory
The feeding of the five thousand, the subject of this week's Gospel, is a strange episode for modern readers. Are we to believe that bread and fish actually multiplied? Can we visualize how this might have happened? However perplexing these questions may be, we cannot ignore the fact that this miracle is recorded in all four Gospels. It even occurs in Matthew a second time (with four thousand), as it does in Mark. Evidently, 'the feeding of the multitude' was a strikingly important event for the Gospel writers. But what are we to make of it?

As with many other instances, it is crucial to remember that the ancient world (like most people at most times and places, in fact), thought in terms of symbolic meaning rather than explanatory hypotheses. For the Jews, if symbolic meaning was to be truly revelatory, it had to be connected with their Scriptural inheritance. In other words, their understanding of who Jesus really was and what his words and actions meant relied on the parallels they could find with the promises of God recorded in Scripture. This is where we too should seek understanding since, as St Paul emphatically declares in the Epistle, it is the Israelites who were given "the adoption, the glory, the covenants, . . . the law, the worship, and the promises . . .". Furthermore, "from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever".

Duccio -- The Prophet Isaiah
Whatever the actual events that underlie Christ's feeding the multitude, when we look for its symbolic meaning there is one clear analogue in Scriptural history -- the manna that God provided for the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. There is also an echo of the words of the prophet Isaiah in this week's Old Testament lesson: "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food." Isaiah is not making dietary recommendations, of course. The background to his remark is the Mosaic warning that "man does not live by bread alone".

In John's Gospel Jesus himself dwells on  the significance of the feeding miracles.  He draws a key contrast which we might express as 'bread for life' versus 'the bread of life'. It is the 'bread of life' that he declares himself to be. The essential message is that even the provision of amazing quantities of bread for life is not an adequate substitute for the one True Bread of spiritual life. Viewed from this perspective, the feeding miracles carry an important lesson for a deeply consumerist culture such as our own. The fact that modern technology has an unprecedented capacity to  provide for our material needs can lead us,
mistakenly, to place our ultimate faith in it.

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