No one really knows the precise number of hungry people in our world, but the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates it to be 925 million—that is approximately one of every seven people. The vast majority are in Asia and the Pacific (578 million), then sub-Saharan Africa (239 million), followed by Latin America and the Caribbean (53 million), then North East and North Africa (37 million) and, finally, some 19 million in developed countries. In 1996 the World Food Summit set out to reduce the number of malnourished people by half by 2015. Although there has been modest progress in some areas of the world, the number of hungry people has actually increased in the past decade and a half.
Hunger was no stranger in the days of Isaiah and of Jesus as well. In the first reading, Isaiah voices the dream of the returning exiles. With their pitiful resources, they long for all to be able to eat well, without having to pay a cent. No one would die of thirst or malnutrition. In the Gospel, Jesus enacts God’s promise to fill the hungry with good food as he feeds a crowd of thousands. This is not only an act of heartfelt compassion, but it is also a politically subversive action. In Jesus’ day, as now, food is about power. The rich who had control of land and the means of food production and distribution, who comprised about 2 percent to 3 percent of the population, were the ones who ate well and plentifully. The rest struggled daily to feed themselves and their children. Taxes, pestilence and drought often ate up their reserves and left them at the brink of starvation.
In today’s world, there is easily enough food for everyone and then some. But not all have land enough to grow food or sufficient income to purchase it. In the Gospel, Jesus’ disciples presume that there is enough food for everyone, but they figure it is someone else’s responsibility to provide it. They want to send everyone off to buy their own food, thinking that everyone has money and that the surrounding villages have the resources to feed the multitude. Jesus directs them away from an impulse toward self-sufficiency to a solution that depends on remaining in community and pooling and redistributing their resources. In a eucharistic action he transforms all that they have, and there is enough.
At the end of the episode, Matthew’s notice that the count of 5,000 did not include the women and children is a reminder that children and their mothers are the ones who are hardest hit by hunger. Even when women make sure their husbands and children are fed before they themselves eat, some five million children die every year because of undernutrition.
The Gospel today invites us to resist the temptation to consider it someone else’s responsibility to address the problem of world hunger. When we gather at the Eucharist, we not only give thanks for God’s gifts received freely and abundantly, but together we seek to understand the causes of hunger and redouble our efforts to galvanize the church’s energies toward aiding peoples and nations to take the drastic measures needed.
The opening verses of today’s Gospel remind us that such actions provoke opposition from those who benefit from the unequal distribution. On the heels of the execution of John, Jesus fed the crowds, knowing he could be the next victim of Rome. Was it because he was counting the women and children who would otherwise perish?