By Christian Bergmann
There is something violent about birthdays in the Bible. As far as I can tell, there are only two birthday celebrations mentioned and they both turn bloody. In Genesis, when the Pharaoh prepared a feast for his birthday, he hung his chief baker for offending him (40:22). In the Gospel of Matthew, when the tetrarch Herod laid out a feast for himself, he ended up beheading John the Baptist (14:1-12). It is this second bloody birthday that pivots us towards this Sunday’s Gospel, the feeding of the five thousand (14:13-21). This miracle, taken by itself, is certainly impressive, but to a certain extent it is something that only begins to make sense when we see this birthday murder for what it was: a dramatic and violent turning point in the Jewish story, the significance of which went perhaps unnoticed.
Origen of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas follow similar lines of thought in this regard. In both of their commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew, they point out that since Jesus said of John the Baptist, “the law and the prophets were until John” (Luke 16:16), in putting John to death the ruling authorities of the Jews cut themselves off from the law and the prophets, from whom they derived their authority in the first place. In cutting off John’s head, they shot themselves in the foot, so to speak. It was this dramatic moment in which Origen sees the fulfilment of an ancient Messianic prophecy: “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Genesis 49:10). Herod’s father was king of Judea, and he was given a portion of it when his father died. In terms of the “sceptre” and the rule of Judea, then, this is an almost revolutionary moment in which the rulers of Judea don’t realise they have been emptied of any authority, comically revolting against themselves.
Let’s read that line again: “the sceptre shall not depart from Judah . . . until he comes to whom it belongs; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Gen. 49:10). We can begin to see a fragment of this obedience of the peoples as we watch, in today’s Gospel, the multitude, thousands of people, follow Jesus to “the lonely place” (Matthew 14:13). What is the significance, then, of this miracle of multiplication?
Today’s Old Testament reading holds the key. It is a verse with which we are very familiar, but with enough context to give us perspective: “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! Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy? Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare. Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life. I will renew with you the everlasting covenant, the benefits assured to David.”
Jesus isn’t simply feeding the hungry here. He is exercising his kingly rule as the descendent of David, the one who inaugurates the everlasting covenant. The benefits assured to David, we read. The whole purpose of his miracles, the signs and wonders, was not just to demonstrate how powerful he was, but to show us what the kingdom of God looks like; to show us what a new creation looks like with God in charge. God’s kingly rule doesn’t look like a king putting a prophet to death and giving up his head on a platter – a grotesque mockery of what Jesus then proceeds to do. It looks like God himself, in the flesh, being moved to compassion for his people, healing them and feeding them.
In his commentary on this passage, Aquinas says this of Christ: his power consists in healing his people, feeding his people, and rescuing his people.
People have rightly seen a foreshadowing of the Eucharist in this miracle, too: “taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds” (Matthew 14:19). There’s lots to be said, but maybe just this for now: in the Eucharist, Jesus exercises his kingly rule, as well. Except, the feast he puts on is not for himself, but for us; being moved to compassion for us, he feeds us, the multitudes, with his own divine life, a life given up for us. In the Eucharist, he heals us, he feeds us, and he rescues us, putting back together a creation gone horribly wrong.