18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The last and third section of the Book of Isaiah is the source of this weekend’s first reading. The three sections spanned a relatively long, but significant period in the history of God’s Chosen People.
The first section was written when the Hebrews still were living in the Promised Land, although clashes among them had resulted in two kingdoms. In time, the strong Babylonian Empire overran the Hebrew kingdoms. It was a fearful day and many died. Others were taken to Babylon, the empire’s capital, located in modern Iraq. Those who were left in the homeland languished in misery and want.
At long last, Babylonia itself fell. The exiles returned, only to find a sterile and unhappy place. Little improved as generations passed.
Then came the composition of the third section of Isaiah, a section of which is read this weekend.
At the time of this composition, people literally had to worry about the next meal so the prophecy’s words were very relevant. These words reminded discouraged audiences that God indeed would supply.
For its second reading, the Church offers us a selection from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. When this work was written, stress also was quite evident. The Christian Romans lived in a culture very hostile to the Gospel, and therefore to Christians. Furthermore, the political and legal systems were turning against Christians. Indeed, St. Paul himself eventually would be executed.
Very clear in the reading is Paul’s encouragement. He calls upon those facing temptations and doubts to be strong in their resolve. He urges them to hold to Christ, letting nothing separate them from the Lord.
St. Matthew’s Gospel provides the third reading. It is the familiar and beloved story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand.
The story line is well known. A large crowd follows Jesus, and within this crowd are sick people. Typically, and as surely the sick hoped, the compassionate Jesus healed the sick.
Here immediately, however, it should be noted that healing then had a meaning far different from healing an injury or disease today. It was overcoming the evil effects of sin. The ancient Jewish idea was that human sin brought every distress into the world.
Also, there was almost no food, only five loaves of bread and a few fish.
Unwilling to send the people away, Jesus provided for them. He took the food, blessed it, gave it to the disciples to distribute, and the leftovers filled 12 baskets.
This miracle anticipates the Eucharist. Two elements are important in the story. One is the role of the disciples. The other is the utter vastness of the number of people.
A major effect of original sin, to return to an old theological fact, is that everything dies, animal or plant. Every human being, and indeed any animal higher along the scale of awareness, fears death.
The great message of the Scriptures is that God subdues death and gives life. Thus, the author of Third Isaiah reassured those loyal to God that nothing needed to be feared.
Facing the terrifying consequences, humanly speaking, of being a Christian in Rome, St. Paul constantly urged believers to be of stout heart and good cheer. God would give life, despite whatever might come.
St. Matthew’s Gospel, source of the last reading, emphasizes this point yet again. When the people were hungry, the Lord supplied — creating sufficiency from just meager provisions. Nothing can halt God’s love and mercy. He gives life.
The Gospel makes clear the bond between Jesus and the disciples. They are special students, and they work in the Lord’s name. Their power lives, still in the Church. The key to receiving this divine promise of life, of course, is in our loyalty personally to the Lord.
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