Our readings for this Sunday are deceptively simple – but just as in the parables we have considered the last few weeks, only faith uncovers the deeper good news beneath the poetry.
In the Gospel, Jesus is “moved with pity,” and he cures the sick. Then he sees that there is no food, and he multiplies what the disciples give him: five loaves and two fish for five thousand, with twelve wicker baskets left over. (We should note that in the thought-world of the Bible, numbers have symbolic value; but we do not have time to pursue that here.)
We see Jesus’s love, we see his provision, we see how he multiplies the little that we have. All lovely, and profound.
And in an especially poetic passage from a book filled with beautiful poetry, the prophet Isaiah says, “Thus says the LORD: All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”
Without being sentimental, let us say: the words are beautiful, healing, life-giving. The Word of God is balm. It is not too much to say that being a Christian and luxuriating in this beauty are almost one and the same.
But there is more, hidden beneath the filigree.
Isaiah continues: “Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy?”
What is this? The poetry is still beautiful. But the words challenge our understanding. He just said, “You who have no money” – and now talks about how we spend our wages. He offers us wine and milk, then tells us that what is not bread fails to satisfy.
Two chapters after our Gospel reading, Jesus will tell the disciples, “O ye of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves, because you have brought no bread? Do you not yet understand, neither remember the loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you took up? . . . Then they understood how he did not warn them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees” (Mt 16:8-9, 12).
He’s not talking about bread.
Indeed, our reading from Romans asks, “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will . . . famine . . . ? No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.”
The answer is not, “you will never face famine, because Christ can multiply bread.” The answer is, “Neither death, nor life . . . nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The funny thing about our reading from Isaiah is that when he says, “Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy?” it is bread itself that fails to satisfy. “I have food to eat that you know not of . . . . My food is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work” (Jn 4:32, 34).
Or as our reading from Isaiah says, “listen, that you may have life. I will renew with you the everlasting covenant.” The “rich fare” he offers is not material bread, but “the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The real gift of Jesus is not the bread, but his healing mercy. The bread only shows us what he offers, and his power to provide. But he provides so much more than bread.
Incongruously (it seems) our Gospel reading begins, “When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” What do the five loaves and two fish have to do with the death of John the Baptist?
John preached repentance, died in fact for steadfastly preaching repentance even to the king. He preached that God is worth giving up everything first.
And so John went out to the wilderness, the deserted places, drawing others after him, to live not for bread but for God alone.
Jesus goes to the wilderness to preach God alone. And there in the wilderness, to all who will follow him there, leaving all else behind, Jesus provides every necessity and every good thing.
In the wilderness of repentance, they discover the rich fare of God’s mercy.
What obstacles prevent you from following Jesus to the wilderness?