Fed at God's Banquet
(Readings: Isaiah 55:1-3; Romans 8:35, 37-39; Matthew 14: 13-21)
Introduction to Mass
The readings this Sunday revolve around images of hunger and thirst, and the food and drink necessary to satisfy them. The authors of the scriptural books draw a comparison between these ordinary material appetites and the hunger present in our spiritual nature, which is only fully satisfied - in St. Paulís words - by ďthe love of God made visible in Christ JesusĒ.
To begin Mass letís acknowledge the times when weíve tried to satisfy our spiritual hunger with the wrong kind of food, and turn back to God instead.
There are lots of passages in the Bible where the writers draw a comparison or an analogy between our ordinary physical hunger for food and drink and the spiritual appetite that every person has Ė an appetite satisfied only by contact with God, as we would see it.
The short passage from the prophet Isaiah, in the first reading this Sunday, is a good example of this. Isaiah conjures up an image of God inviting people to a banquet or a feast, offering them a life of friendship with him, offering them the spiritual growth, or the spiritual nourishment, that goes along with it:
"Listen to me," Isaiah says - speaking on God's behalf, of course- "Listen to me, and you'll have rich food to enjoy, good things to eat Ė all at no cost to yourself. Come to me, and your soul will live."
In the Bible the image of a banquet is normally an image of abundance: rich, lavish food, and more than we need purely for sustenance. Itís an image of celebration: divisions and antagonisms are put aside in favour of joyful sharing and conviviality. That's why it was considered such an apt image for the impact that God makes on us when we put ourselves under his rule.
In this passage especially the banquet offered by God is gratuitous: we donít earn it and we donít pay for it; we only need to come to his banquet feeling hungry and thirsty and receive what he offers as pure gift. In the Bible, the image of the banquet is meant to conjure up all these aspects of Godís nature, and Godís invitation to us to share his life.
In Isaiahís time most peopleís experience of the material world was an experience of scarcity: the struggle to produce an adequate supply for food for the whole year. The threat of famine was never far from peopleís minds. Banquets were rare occasions for ordinary people so the image of a great, lavish, free banquet was a vivid and alluring one.
I wouldnít deny for a second the existence of poverty in our society today, but at least regarding food there isnít the same scarcity and the same precarious supply. In our culture we bring a different set of values to parties and social gatherings. Parties often become occasions for a release of tension through overindulgence - eating and drinking too much in a compulsive way. You canít help being suspicious that itís a kind of compensatory behaviour for an underlying unhappiness and lack of fulfilment.
Again, not everyone in our society is affluent by any means but I think itís fair to say that both rich and poor share the same materialistic goals. Marketing and advertising are very influential in fostering a pattern of craving for things, and any spiritual yearning - the yearning for God that people like Isaiah took for granted Ė is smothered or diverted.
So maybe one lesson from this Sundayís readings is that for us, announcing the message of salvation involves having to criticise and unmask the way that consumerism suppresses our spiritual appetite and leaves people undernourished in the one area of life that our religious ancestors thought was the most important.
Turning to the gospel passage for this Sundayís Mass we've got the same basic theme: God provides food for his people, and satisfies their hunger.
The first thing to say here is that thereís no real reason to doubt that this miracle, or something like it, actually took place.
We shouldnít be surprised by the idea that Jesus possessed the sort of spiritual power needed to heal people, to alter the weather or to provide a large quantity of food. Most of the time Christ proclaimed Godís Kingdom in words, but sometimes he chose to proclaim the Kingdom in symbolic gestures and actions as well. This is what he does here.
The important thing here isnít the miracle. This was a one-off incident, and Jesus didnít come to solve the problem of physical hunger in the world.
The important thing here is the symbolism of the incident - that in our encounter with him and his message we are fed and satisfied. To know Christ, and to enter God's Kingdom, is to have our spiritual hunger and thirst met.
This is backed up by the few lines from St Paul in the second reading. According to St. Paul, once our spiritual hunger is met, our appetite for material things starts to fade.
Worldly motives and material desires lose their hold on us when we start to gravitate in Godís direction. So things like persecutions, Paul says, lack of food or clothes, troubles and worries, all become secondary once weíve discovered ďthe love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our LordĒ.
Iíd like to think that this isnít just Paulís experience. Itís the experience of all Christian believers once they start to deepen their acquaintance with Christ in prayer, in reflection and contemplation, in reading the gospels and letting the whole message of salvation gradually sink into their consciousness.
Of course, weíve got to avoid being glib about other peopleís sufferings or deprivations. But lots of Christian believers testify that although those kinds of experience werenít very pleasant at the time, in actual fact they turned out to be occasions when they were actually sustained and strengthened, and drawn more closely towards God.
So maybe what weíre supposed to take from these images of Isaiah and Matthew is the idea that God never stops inviting us to his table.
But if we fill ourselves up with other things, as our culture unfortunately encourages us to do, then weíll end up stifling the spiritual hunger that drives us towards God, and if we do that, we just won't feel like joining in his banquet.