An Enacted Parable

People in biblical times appreciated a good meal. Even when food was scarce, providing a meal for others was a sign of one’s generosity and hospitality. The sacrifices that people offered in Old Testament times at the Jerusalem temple were essentially meals with God and God’s people. When covenants were made, they were often sealed by a shared meal.

Today’s reading from Isaiah 55 expresses hope for an ideal future, in which Israel would be back in its homeland after many years of exile in the sixth century B.C. The prophet does this by inviting the prospective returnees to a free and sumptuous banquet, interpreting that banquet as a renewal of God’s covenant with his people.

Jesus was both famous and infamous for his meals. All through the Gospels he is portrayed as eating with his immediate disciples, other followers, the crowds and even “tax collectors and sinners.” His opponents criticized him for being a glutton and a drunkard, and complained about the bad company he kept. Jesus’ banquets were “enacted parables,” that is, symbolic actions intended to make a public theological statement, much as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel had done before him.

Today’s passage from Matthew 14 presents Jesus as presiding at the miraculous feeding of more than “five thousand men, not counting women and children.” The same basic story appears six times in the Gospels—twice in Matthew and Mark and once in Luke and in John. It was surely considered important by early Christians. Against the background of such texts as Isaiah 55, the miraculous feeding narrative expresses the conviction that through Jesus we share in God’s own abundance and in the promises made to God’s covenant people: “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.” It also prompts us to think about the future fullness of God’s kingdom, which in the Gospels and many contemporary Jewish writings is portrayed as a glorious banquet.

The way in which Jesus’ actions are described (“looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples”) makes a connection with Jesus’ Last Supper and the church’s celebration of the Eucharist. The eucharistic celebration is a sacred action in which God is present in a special way. But it is also a human action, for in it we share a meal and connect with Moses, Isaiah and the earthly Jesus. This meal points us toward and stimulates our hopes for the fullness of God’s kingdom (“Thy kingdom come”).

The fifth and final excerpt from Paul’s instruction on life in the Spirit is an emotional celebration of the conviction that nothing can separate us from “the love of Christ.” That expression refers to both the love that Christ has shown to us and the love that we have for Christ. Basic to our spirituality is the belief that in Christ God is for us and loves us, and so makes us “conquer overwhelmingly.”

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