In a sermon on the feeding of the vast crowd in a deserted place, Peter Gomes insisted that the message of this miracle is clear: It is not the will of God that people should go hungry (Sermons: Biblical Wisdom For Daily Living, William Morrow and Co., 1998). Repeated six times in the four Gospels, the feeding of the multitude attests to the fact that Jesus met people's real needs.
He fed the hungry, said Gomes, not with metaphors but with food, not with resolutions and presidential commissions but with so much bread and fish that there was an abundance left over.
Jesus met their physical needs in a generous manner so that, their physical hunger satisfied, he could then address the hunger of their hearts. Through his action, Jesus acknowledged that there is a real connection between the hunger of the body and the hunger of the soul. Both the physical and spiritual needs of humankind are God's concern.
Jesus' action and his generosity were reminiscent of several similar events concerning food that are preserved in the Hebrew Scriptures. One of those is featured in today's first reading, where Deutero-Isaiah, speaking for God, invites the poor to come, eat, drink and be satisfied. Only after their physical hunger has been addressed does the Lord invite: "Come, listen and be renewed in the everlasting covenant. Come, enjoy all the benefits assured to David." Not the least among those benefits was the promise of God's protective presence, forever.
From the beginning, our faith ancestors regarded food as God's gift. Recall the many fruit trees in the primordial garden of Eden (Genesis 2). Recall the manna, quail and water from the rock that sustained the desert wanderers en route to Canaan. That land of God's promise was always described in terms of food -- a land flowing with milk and honey. As Gail Ramshaw has explained, that description assured the hungry and the hopeful that their future homeland would have good food, both staples and treats, in abundance (Treasures Old and New, Augsburg Press, 2002).
Israel's sapiential literature also contains invitations to banquets. In Proverbs (Chapter 9), Wisdom is portrayed as a generous hostess, spreading a table with meat and wine. She invites, "Come and eat ... let whoever is simple turn in here!" Then she proceeds to feed those who hunger for God.
Surely, the evangelists recognized Jesus and his desire to feed the hungers of others as Wisdom-made-flesh. In that capacity, Jesus fed others through his gift of bread in the wilderness, through the bread of his teaching and, ultimately, through the gift of himself as Living Bread in the Eucharist.
As we celebrate Jesus' gift on a weekly (or daily) basis, Ramshaw voices the hope that this shared sacred meal will become more of what it was meant to be: a realistic image of God's gift of food, a profound symbol of the messianic banquet and an opportunity to share the "leftovers" with those who could not be present. Moreover, the weekly Eucharist also challenges all who are fed to give not of their surplus but of their substance to feed the hungry of this world, not once in a while, not only on holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas) but on a daily basis.
Mother Teresa tried to impress upon her sisters the importance of following Jesus' lead in tending to physical hungers and then the spiritual needs of the poor. She told them, "Charity begins today. Today, somebody is suffering. Today, somebody is in the street. Today, somebody is hungry. Our work is for today. Yesterday has gone, tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today to make Jesus known, loved, served, fed, clothed, sheltered. Do not wait for tomorrow. Tomorrow, we will not have them if we do not feed them today" (The Joy of Loving, compiled by Jaya Chalika and Edward Le Joly, Penguin Group, 2000).
Mother Teresa lived and served with a generosity and an urgency that continue to challenge the church long after her death. Her example, along with that of so many others similarly devoted to ending hunger, calls forth the best in us. If people die of starvation, she said, it's not because God didn't care for them. It is because you and I were not instruments of love in the hands of God to give them bread, because we did not recognize him when, once more, the hungry Christ came in distressing disguise. What can we do today?
[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]