An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Eighteenth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 14:13-21, July 31, 2011
Nothing probably more indicates the wide economic gulf between the rich and the poor than the food they eat, in both quality and quantity. In the United States, the problem is whether it is healthier to eat beef or not. It is the American food—TV commercials say—and it is the food most Americans eat virtually every day. But as notes Richard Corliss, in “Should We All Be Vegetarians?” it is for many an obscene cuisine. More and more Americans have started going vegetarian, believing that it would help them live longer and healthier lives. But, ironically, in other parts of the globe, a choice between beef and vegetables is a luxury, nay, a dream. Reuters, for instance, reported sometime ago that widespread food shortages and rampant AIDS have put nearly 13M southern Africans on the very edge of survival. The region’s crisis—the worst since the 1992 drought—was brought about by a combination of severe draught, floods, economic decline and government mismanagement. According to Reuters, the residual debilitating effect of past conflicts and the region’s extremely high AIDS infection rate that has killed many farmers and left millions of orphans, aggravated the famine.
The reality of hungry millions recalls the Gospel today. According to Matthew, when Jesus disembarked and saw a vast throng in a deserted place, “his heart was moved with pity” (Matt 14:14). Obviously, the miracle story on the multiplication of the loaves is about the compassion of Jesus on the about 5,000 men, not including the women and children, who in following him have experienced hunger. This story is quite relevant. For one thing, this serves as a corrective to the idea that limits the mission of Jesus to the spiritual realm. For some people, the Church should have nothing to do with the material problems of humanity; her province is only the Bible and the altar. For another, it shows us that Jesus was in touch with the problems of society, and that he tried to meet what was needed by the hungry crowd—food. What is implied here goes beyond the exercise of one of the corporal works of mercy. Rather, it has reference to the unjust social structure in which millions of people are condemned to hunger and poverty. That countless people go to bed without food because they are deprived of it politically, socially, and economically—this is a moral evil that cries to heaven for an answer. In the Old Testament, when Israel was journeying in the desert, God gave them flesh to eat in the evening and fill of bread in the morning. So the people would not go hungry, he provided them with quail and manna in the desert of Sin (Exod 16:7-8.13-14).
Hunger, then, is a social problem that seeks solution. How is this solved? Today, in view of the controversy spawned by the RH Bill, some columnists and editorialists write that the single obstacle to progress is the Roman Catholic Church for its refusal to countenance measures to curb population growth. Beneath this observation is, of course, the perception that the problem is basically that too numerous are the mouths to feed. This easily calls to mind the perception of Jesus’ disciples in the Gospel. Seeing the thousands of hungry folks, the disciples suggested to Jesus to dismiss the crowd so they could go to the villages and buy some food for themselves (Matt 14:15). Today, a number of experts propagate a Malthusian outlook, anticipating the collapse of civilization if population growth remains unchecked. Too many women and men divide among themselves the small pie. Since it is their teaching that hunger and poverty result from population growth, they flood us with condoms, pills, and all kinds of anti-life gadgets. The fewer the family members, the more comfortable life is.
The Gospel, however, does not see the problem this way. While an unchecked population increase is to be recognized as a problem, a more fundamental one is the unjust sharing of the world’s goods—resources, knowledge, power, technology— which drives people to poverty and hunger. Far from being a problem of dismissing the crowd, Jesus saw the problem as one of breaking and sharing the bread available. Thus, he took the five loaves, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to distribute (Matt 14:19). Because the loaves were broken and shared, a big miracle happened—all those present, thousands of men, women and children, ate their fill, and when the fragments were gathered up, these filled twelve baskets (Matt 14:20-21). What are we to say in connection with this miracle story? We say that the basic problem today is not so much the growth of the population, but that only a small percentage of it—those in the West—have the greater share of the world’s goods, while the many have to content themselves with what falls from the rich countries’ table.
Indeed, rich nations, rather than share their technical know-how, resources, technology and other goods, would even take advantage of the poor. They would, for example, not countenance balanced trade relations. John Paul II, in his Sollicitudo rei socialis, emphasizing that imperialism is the cause of deteriorating poverty, points out that rich countries use mechanisms to get the wealth of poorer nations: “One must denounce the existence of economic, financial, and social mechanisms which, although they are manipulated by people, often function almost automatically, thus accentuating the situation of wealth for some and poverty for the rest. These mechanisms, which are maneuvered directly or indirectly by the more developed countries, by their very functioning favor the interests of the people manipulating them. But in the end, they suffocate or condition the economies of the less developed countries” (n 16).
It has been noted by many scholars that the Gospel today has Eucharistic overtones. One, of course, does not have quarrel with that interpretation. The fact that the wording in v 19 (“He took the five loaves and two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed and broke them, and gave the loaves to the disciples”) recalls the words of Institution is an indication of its Eucharistic allusion. But if this means anything, it is that a correct understanding of the meaning of the Eucharist must take into account the problem of hunger.*