A third post for the day: The following is my homily for Exegesis for Preaching. Constructive criticism is welcome.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Just before today’s very familiar reading starts, Jesus hears that John the Baptist has been murdered by Herod the tetrarch due to a promise made at a banquet, in a moment of passion. Now Herod thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist come back from the dead, so he sets his sights on Jesus, even though he has no idea who Jesus really is. So we see that Jesus has very serious business to address, and much of it is unjustly thrown at him. The Scripture says that he withdraws from the situation, but is met at that very moment by the same publicity that got Him into trouble in the first place. We know from John’s and Luke’s gospels that, if Jesus had wanted to, He could have avoided this great crowd who had sought him out (Jn 7.20; Lk 4.30), but this isn’t what happens. Christ’s first reaction is one of compassion on behalf of other people, in spite of events in His life that would drive most of us to distraction! And this is very comforting; we know that the One we are seeking to approach is greatly compassionate, and that any moment is appropriate for coming to Him with the cares of this life.
Yet this Gospel reading is not simply a story about how patient or helpful Christ is with us, though it is that. It also serves as an example for how we are to act with others, even in moments of severe stress. And that’s not an easy example to follow, I admit! I know that, in my own experience, on those days when parish responsibilities are particularly heavy, when encounters in the hospital are extremely negative and dark, when personal or family affairs seem to press in to the point where I’m tempted to make it all about my stress, to refuse to see beyond my issues—it’s on those days when the first thing that greets me at home is a crying three-year old with a snotty nose, a thoroughly stressed-out wife, and a honey-do list as long as my arm. And it’s precisely in those moments of inconvenience that we are called to do what Christ did: just as He sacrificed to serve others—even to the point of death later on—so we are to be included in a life of sacrificial service to other people—particularly to those we see around us right now.
We read that the disciples suggested that evening that Jesus send the crowds to nearby towns to get food for themselves. A very practical solution to a very immediate problem. But Christ’s answer takes them aback: “"They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They are understandably surprised, given their apparent lack of resources. And we, as Orthodox Christians, may share in this uneasiness today; our call to be witnesses to the world of the reality of the Lord’s death and resurrection often feels like a tall order considering how isolated our parishes might be or how meager our budgets can sometimes get. It can be tempting to wondering how or even if our meeting here is “worth it,” and wouldn’t it be more effective to look to other, larger, more well-funded or sophisticated ways to help others—and even ourselves—find satisfaction in the world.
Yet Christ considers it vital to keep the multitude together on the hillside and include the disciples in ministering to the hungry. He takes the small amount of food they have at their disposal, then blesses, breaks, and gives it to the disciples, who are then able—to the surprise of everyone!—to meet this multitude’s need.
The crowds that Jesus fed that day no doubt remembered that the prophet Elisha had done something very similar in former times, and they knew that the Messiah—God’s chosen One—would multiply bread for Israel once more; they no doubt knew that Someone special—even greater than Elisha!—was in their midst. Likewise, the hearers of Matthew’s gospel, from the beginning of the Church until now, have recognized the language of this hillside banquet: Today bread will be blessed, broken, and given to us all, for the forgiveness of sins and for healing of soul and body, surpassing even the miraculous bread in our reading. We are no longer at the banquet of Herod, of this world, where it’s “All about me” and my desires that so often get me into trouble. We come here, to this banquet at which Christ presides, specifically to meet Him, at His table, on His terms, and His terms are ones of compassionate sacrifice and service to others, even when it seems like we don’t have much to offer them.
We may neglect that call or sympathy card to someone who is grieving because we feel our words might be inadequate; we may leave undone a simple touch or a prayer for someone we know who is struggling because it seems “impractical.” We might not help out in church school because we don’t “know enough,” or we might neglect to help someone struggling financially because, really, what good could I do with a little amount in today’s economy (and, if we’re honest, we feel the tug of needing that little bit ourselves). What we notice about the disciples here is that they were honest about what little they had, but in spite of this, they were generous with it; they gave it to Christ and to others in a spirit of total detachment. This obedience out of love for Christ—even if it was an inconvenient move that made them vulnerable to embarrassment—is what Christ would have us do.
Indeed, this is in contrast to the chaos of Herod’s banquet—where frenzied passions and the desire to look good and save face ended in an innocent victim’s murder. The humble Host of our Banquet is the One Who suffered shamefully for us in the Body on the Cross, and who gave, even to the point of shedding His Blood, for our salvation, and Who calls us to live sacrificial lives for Him and for other people.
Let us come to the table of our Lord’s broken Body and shed Blood, then, and get ready to look for ways in which we can be blessed to be broken for, and given to, other people. In all of the places we will go in our day-to-day lives, and in all of the resources of which we avail ourselves to live those lives, let this Banquet set the tone for us in every moment, so that we, like the disciples, will know that this One, the Host of our Banquet, truly is the Son of God who feeds us even in the wilderness, and Who sends us to meet the needs of those around us who hunger for Him. Amen.