02.08.2020 Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
(Place of the multiplication
of the Loaves)
The site's name is derived from the Greek name Heptapegon ("Seven Springs"). The name was later shortened to "Tapego", and was eventually changed to "Tabgha" in Arabic.
The earliest building at Tabgha was a small chapel built around 350 A.D. by the Jewish convert to Christianity, Joseph of Tiberias. According to Epiphanius, Joseph was a contemporary of the Emperor Constantine, a Rabbinical scholar, member of the Sanhedrin and a disciple of Hillel II. Following his conversion, the Emperor Constantine gave him the rank of Count, and gave him permission to build churches in Galilee, specifically, in Jewish towns which didn't yet have a Christian community. This was probably the shrine described by the pilgrim Egeria at the end of the 4th Century.
This small shrine was dismantled in 480 A.D. and a bigger chapel was built by Martyrius of Jerusalem, Patriarch of Jerusalem from 478 to 486 A.D. Martyrius was Egyptian by origin, and this may be the reason why the floor of this chapel was covered with such a beautiful Nile mosaic.
The mosaic of the fish and loaves is laid next to a large rock, which has caused some New Testament scholars to speculate that the builders of the original church believed that Jesus had stood on this rock just before the feeding of the crowd who had come to hear him.
A large monastery and church were built there in the fifth century. The church was most likely destroyed in 614 A.D. during the Persian Invasion. By the time of the Crusades, the Byzantine site had been forgotten, and was only rediscovered in the 20th Century.
The area was bought in the 18th Century by a Catholic German Association, so they could build a hotel for pilgrims to the Holy Land. As they began digging foundations for the construction, they discovered archaeological evidence of an earlier church, but could not make excavations of the site due to Ottoman Law. Only in 1932, in the time of the Palestine Mandate, did two German archaeologists (Mader and Schneider) uncover a number of the Byzantine Church's walls and mosaics. In 1981, after further excavations, the Church was finally restored by German Benedictines to its Byzantine form, incorporating portions of the original mosaics. The windows are fitted with alabaster panels.
Today, the Church and surrounding land are the property of the German Association for the Holy Land. The site is maintained by Benedictine monks from the Dormition Abbey, which is located on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.
13 “Now when Jesus [received the news of John’s death], he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16 Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17 They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18 And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”
We cross the threshold of Chapter 14 and encounter the second part of the Gospel of Matthew.
Last week we saw Jesus explaining the Parables of the Sower and the Darnel to his Disciples by using further parables. Jesus tried to answer the question: “Is it worth following Him when that implies hardship and persecution?” He answers with the Parables of the Hidden Treasure, the Pearl and the Scribe who brings out things old and new.
Immediately after this, Matthew describes many things in the few verses that close Chapter 13: Jesus left the place where he was teaching, went to Nazareth (his hometown) and preached in the Synagogue there.
Chapter 14 begins with the death of John the Baptist. We had left John in Chapter 11:2-3 wondering if Jesus was the ‘Expected One’. Now, the disciples of John the Baptist went to tell Jesus that John had been executed. This means that before he died, John came to accept who Jesus was and believed him to be the Messiah.
Surprisingly, Jesus did not go to meet John’s disciples or their community after the death of the Baptist nor did He go to confront Herod for having put John to death. Jesus rather goes off to a lonely place to rest with his own Disciples.
The meaning of the multiplication of the Loaves
To understand this text, we need to remember, that the intention of the writers of the Gospels was not to offer a cold scientific reconstruction of facts around the person of Jesus, but to make a proclamation of faith in Him.
Therefore, we will not give due credit to the Gospel writers if we read this episode simply as a proof of the omnipotence of Jesus or of his majestic power as a miracle worker.
This event is recounted by the four Gospels with different details, but none of them is interested to answer important questions that justify the feasibility of the miracle, e.g. how many stewards (only the 12 Apostles?) would a person need to distribute food for about fifteen thousand people (!) counting the five thousand men together with women and children? The Gospels do not try to explain if the actual multiplication of food took place as the Disciples had the food in their hands or if they had to come back to Jesus every time they finished distributing their particular portion, and so on. Only being concerned with these type of questions, makes the whole story simply out of place, indeed far fetched.
So, if the intention of the Evangelists was not to detail a scientifically proven fact, we may ask ourselves if the Evangelists borrowed the story from an earlier Christian tradition and with poetic license simply exaggerated numbers to convey their message.
A ‘normal’ story
The First Christians did not find this story about Jesus particularly difficult to believe, because on hearing it, they would think immediately about the biblical references to the feeding of the people of Israel during the forty years in the desert; or the story of the Prophet Elisha.
The objective of the Gospel Story
So, if the main purpose of Matthew was not to provide a historical description of the miracle, what is he trying to tell us here about Jesus?
The main point that stands out in the story is the description of the heartfelt feelings of Jesus toward the multitude that follows him.
We do not know how people came to know where Jesus was; and we do not know where they came from (fifteen thousand people would have emptied all the villages round about, making it impossible for anyone to go back to their own village to look for food).
Those are irrelevant details if we understand that what Matthew stresses is that Jesus was moved to compassion towards the multitude and that He cured the sick among them.
Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus worried about the people He met and about their immediate (physical) needs.
In making a clear parallel between Jesus and Moses and then Elisha, Matthew wishes to underline that Jesus was even greater than both of them. The main difference is that, unlike Moses and Elisha who had to ask God to provide food for their people, Jesus fed the multitude at his own volition and through his own power. And if Elisha fed a hundred people with twenty loaves, Jesus, with five, fed five thousand men with women and children, and then had an abundance leftover.
The compassion and power of Jesus equals only the power and compassion of His loving Father.
Reminiscent of the Eucharist
It is interesting to note that in the presentation of the bread and fish, the main food on the menu is the fish. We ourselves would not be happy if having a meal at a restaurant we were served large quantities of a side dish but little of the main course. However, Matthew says that having taken both fish and bread in his hands, Jesus only multiplied the bread! Matthew is evidently making a clear and immediate reference to the Eucharist.
The collection of the leftovers
Another interesting point that the Gospel stresses is the reference to the leftovers after such a huge improvised ‘picnic’.
All this was at the end of a long day searching for Jesus. It does not make sense that such a large group of people, after eating in the open, would be told to collect the leftovers when it was getting late and they were naturally worried about making the trip back to their homes.
However, the symbolism of the twelve baskets of bread and fish, point out to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the new community of faith gathered around the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
The Christian Symbols of the Eucharist
Christians know that even if the Eucharistic Bread does not satisfy physical hunger, it does satisfy the hunger of the soul that longs for communion with Christ and with the members of His faith community.
And that makes this miracle story so important in the Gospel tradition and it explains why the four Gospels narrate it, albeit in slightly different ways.
Therefore, the real miracle is not so much that Jesus fed five thousand men with women and children, but that Jesus gives us his own Body and Blood to satisfy our hunger for God, and that God shows his compassion for each and every one in their very own needs. That is the real miracle that matters!
The community of the Disciples of Jesus feed on the Eucharist and without this there is no community. Being fed at the Eucharistic table and filled with the compassion of God, the community sets out to feed the many who hunger for love; and takes care of their most basic human needs.
As in days of old, our message to the non-Christian world of today is the same: “God cares”, so we are not afraid to ask for our daily bread:
Give us THIS DAY our daily bread, Lord,
knowing that we cannot fight today’s battles
with yesterday’s bread.
Knowing that we cannot fight today’s battles
with the hope of tomorrow’s bread.
Knowing that today we will be nourished
by this daily bread,
and this is what we have to fight today’s battle.
And so, we say:
Give us THIS DAY our daily Bread!
Jesus needs men and women to whom He can give, in order that they may give to others. Our task is to be available to receive from Christ what He wants us to give to others.
Jesus sets in front of us the great task of bringing Himself to others, but He does not demand miracles from us. Little is always much in the hands of God. The little we can offer, God will transform into something beyond our expectations.
The works of Jesus are not just things that happened in the past, but works that continue to happen in our day because the power of Jesus Christ is made present by the Spirit, through the Church.
The miracles we experience nowadays, although different, are nonetheless great and are happening:
When we share our goods with those who have less;
When we are able to leave our selfish ways and turn our attention to the service of our neighbour.
When we make of our community a more welcoming place where others may experience something of the care and compassion of our Lord.
After hearing of the death of John the Baptist, Jesus looked for a lonely place, but was not troubled when a multitude came to look for him. Rather than focusing on his desire for rest, Jesus turned his attention to satisfying the needs of those who were looking for him.
How is Jesus feeding us, and showing us his compassion, today?
 Ex. 16:2-4: “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.”  2 Kings 4:42-44: “A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.”