Life is a wilderness

Matthew 14:13-21 (Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21, Romans 9:1-5) 

I came across a story told about Fr. Michael Renninger, a Catholic priest.  Back in his days as a college student, he came home to visit his grandparents.  His grandfather had suffered a series of strokes, was bedridden, and was under the care of Michael’s grandmother.  I am sure you can imagine the scene into which the young man walked: the sounds, sights and smells of such an all-too-human predicament.  Michel turned to leave; discretion being the better part of valor, and wishing to spare his grandparents any embarrassment.  As he walked towards the door, his grandmother’s voice bellowed out: “Don’t you dare.  Don’t you dare leave.  Sometimes this is what love looks like.” (Baptist News Global, July 23, 2020.)

Sometimes, life is a wilderness.  It can take the form of a barren dessert, such as that through which the Hebrews walked on their journey from slavery into freedom.  At such times, scraps of nourishment such as manna and quail, keep folks nourished enough to complete a journey from death to life.

Sometimes the wilderness is simply a place apart from the busyness of life, as is the case with Jesus and the feeding of the multitude.  Here it was a portion of countryside that was neither his hometown, which had rejected him (Matthew 13:54-58) nor the land of Herod, who had John the Baptist executed (Mathew 14:1-12).  This wilderness hints at the alternate world, or way of being, that Jesus was instituting.  The food promised to Moses (Exodus 16) and the food provided by Elisha (2 Kings 4) served the people for a day or a season, but Jesus’ banquet points to the Last Supper; the “medicine of immortality” as Ignatius of Antioch describes it.  Here, on a grassy slope the multitude is invited to not just sit, but to recline (anaklinomai) – for this is a banquet, not a snack!  Herod’s banquet lead to death; but Jesus’ banquet will lead to abundant life.  

The wilderness is backdrop to an incredible feeding.  A one-sided affair in which the Ancient-Near Eastern model of patron-client and its quid pro quo, is set aside as Jesus provides without strings attached: No reciprocity is expected nor possible.  In this wilderness, the people are not sent away (vs. 16).  Instead, they are to be a new community together in sight and touch of  Jesus’ teaching and feeding.  They are the Church; the assembly of the faithful gathered around Word and Sacrament.  

The feeding of the five thousand is merely a beginning – and a rather small beginning at that, despite the numbers involved.  5000, out of all Creation?  Out of all that was, and is and ever shall be?  Truly, this meal seems to have more in common with the mustard seed and the yeast (Matthew 13:31-33) than it does with the heavenly banquet.  Yet, notice what led to this banquet: “[Jesus] saw a great crowd; and he has compassion for them…” (vs. 14).  Love does that, you see.  It looks like a meal shared; a glass of water given. It looks like tears shed during a wedding dance, and in grief at the end.  It looks like sleepless nights waiting to hear a key in a front door and the refusal to give money to the same child for fear of what it will buy.  Love looks like a bloodied corpse nailed to rough wood. And, love looks like a spouse washing clean the love of their life, who cannot even remember their name.  Sometimes, this is what love looks like.