Who forgot the mustard? Such pleas often punctuate summer cookouts and picnics in the park. The Gospel, though not exactly describing a picnic on the Galilean hills, tells of Jesus meeting the needs of hungry followers.
Matthew alternates in his presentation of Jesus between stories about his preaching and stories about his deeds. After hearing his preaching in last week’s Gospel, we now begin a series of three Sundays whose Gospels tell of his powerful works (miracles.) The first of these is the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, one of the few miracles found in all four Gospels. The feeding is a “gift miracle,” in which through a prophet God meets material needs in surprising ways (1 Kgs. 17:8-16; 2 Kgs. 4:42-44). Unlike other miracles, in which a request precedes the miracle, Jesus’ action here arises from his compassion for suffering people.
Though the story is a shortened version of Mark’s account (6:3-44), it has distinctive Matthean emphases. Matthew omits Mark’s challenge by the disciples to Jesus (6:30), portraying them instead as wondering how they will feed the people. This suggests the Matthean theme of “little faith,” which is strengthened by Jesus (6:31; 8:26; 14:31). By explicitly stating “it was evening” and by omitting the distribution of fish, Matthew heightens the connection with the Eucharist (Mt. 26:20-29).
The readings provide rich fare for reflection and preaching. God is the one who summons the thirsty and hungry that they may have life (first reading). Jesus provides food out of compassion for suffering people—a mandate for the church in a world of staggering hunger. The feast also recalls the banquet of “Lady Wisdom” (Prov. 9:1-2), who provides spiritual nourishment to her disciples. The “deserted place” evokes memories of the manna given to a pilgrim people in their wilderness wanderings, and anticipates the Eucharist as nurture for a pilgrim church. The abundance of food is also a symbol of the Messianic banquet, when death and hunger will no longer stalk our lives (Mt. 26:28). A good menu for a summer picnic, but don’t forget the seasonings.