Scripture and the Liturgy

Bread of the Covenant: 18th Sunday of OT

When approaching this Sunday’s Readings, I’m again reminded of the Eucharistic symbolism in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, especially the elven lembas bread that strengthened Frodo and Sam’s bodies and spirits as they journeyed through the darkness of Mordor. Mordor symbolizes the sufferings of this mortal life, in which so often it seems that Satan exerts great power and mercilessly persecutes the faithful. Yet the lembas bread of the Eucharist strengthens us for the journey and reminds us that the darkness is not everywhere—there is a land of light, peace, and life, even it is if far away at the moment.

We begin with one of the most striking prophecies of the Book of Isaiah:

Is 55:1-3

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!

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.

Like many oracles in the Book of Isaiah, the prophetic author provides very little information about the time or place when this oracle will be fulfilled.  In antiquity, the second half of Isaiah (chs. 40-66) seem to have been understood as a long description of the Messianic or Final Age (the “Latter Days,” cf. Isa 2:2).

This oracle is an invitation to the thirsty, hungry poor to come to the LORD, who will simultaneously: (1) provide them with a satisfying meal, (2) grant them life, and (3) renew with them the Davidic covenant. 

Hebrew poetry operates on the principle of parallelism, whereby paired poetic lines (a bicola) are mutually illuminating.

Thus, the final verse of this reading is describing one action, not two.  We should read as follows:

         I will renew with you the everlasting covenant (Heb. berith ‘olam),

         that is, the covenant love assured to David (Heb. hasdey dawid hane’emanim)

The “everlasting covenant” (berith ‘olam) is nothing other than the hesed or covenant love that was given to David (hasdey david).  In other words, the “everlasting covenant” is a restoration or transformation of the Davidic covenant.  The word hesed (appearing here in the masculine plural construct form hasdey, “mercies of”) is a very important term in the Hebrew Bible.  It designates the love appropriate for covenant partners, and is frequently found in the near vicinity of the term berith and other words associated with a covenant relationship.  Traditionally translated “mercy,” but more recently “steadfast love,” hesed is arguably the most important concept in the Book of Psalms, the canonical message of which is summarized by the phrase, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, and his hesed endures forever” (e.g. Pss 100; 106; 107; 136).

The main text of the Davidic covenant is widely understood to be 2 Samuel 7:4-17 (but see also Psalm 89:1-37).  According to this covenant, David and his sons enjoyed the privileged status of Divine sonship and were promised to rule over the entire earth.

Isaiah 55:1-3 foresees a coming age when the LORD will extend the privileges of the Davidic covenant to all the poor of the earth who come to him.  Arguably, this passage is an important but often forgotten background text for the Beatitudes which we read some weeks ago:

Matt. 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Aren’t the poor, the hungry, and the thirsty the invitees of Isaiah 55:1-3?  And don’t the promises of the Davidic covenant include the Kingdom of Heaven (2 Chron 13:8), the entire earth (Ps 89:25-27), and divine sonship (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 89:26)?

Holy Mother Church pairs this OT text with this Sunday’s Gospel in order for us to make the connection between the promised covenant-bestowing meal and the Feeding of the 5,000; but the Feeding of the 5,000 is itself a pre-enactment of the Eucharist, the meal that bestows the New Covenant on its guests.

The Responsorial Psalm focuses our thoughts on gratitude for God’s provision of our needs and the needs of all creation.  In light of the Eucharist we are celebrating, we should understand God’s provision not only in a physical and material sense, but in a spiritual and sacramental sense.  The deepest hungers of the soul are satisfied by the living God: he answers all our needs, even the most profound.

Ps 145:8-9, 15-16, 17-18

Responsorial Psalm

R. (cf. 16) The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.

The LORD is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger and of great kindness.

The LORD is good to all

and compassionate toward all his works.

R. The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.

The eyes of all look hopefully to you,

and you give them their food in due season;

you open your hand

and satisfy the desire of every living thing.

R. The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.

The LORD is just in all his ways

and holy in all his works.

The LORD is near to all who call upon him,

to all who call upon him in truth.

R. The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.

The Second Reading is part of the ongoing lectio continua of Romans in this period of the Church’s Lectionary.  Although it does not have explicitly Eucharistic themes, we do see in it a description of God’s hesed, his covenant love.

Rom 8:35, 37-39

Reading II

Brothers and sisters:

What will separate us from the love of Christ?

Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine,

or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?

No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly

through him who loved us.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,

nor angels, nor principalities,

nor present things, nor future things,

nor powers, nor height, nor depth,

nor any other creature will be able to separate us

from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Hesed is a specific kind of love.  It is not infatuation, nor merely affection, nor is it simply erotic love, although it may include eros and indeed can and does describe the relationship between husband and wife (e.g. Jer 2:2; Hos 2:19).  But most of all, hesed is a love of fidelity, a love that does not fail.  St. Paul beautifully captures the hesed of Jesus Christ in this passage of Romans. In the middle of all the turmoil reported in the daily news—indeed, “anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword” sounds like a description of the nightly world news report—St. Paul’s words are perennially relevant and comforting. So many of our friends and relatives have abandoned the Christian faith for various reasons, criticizing its moral demands, its rejection of abortion and homosexual activity, its irrelevance, the hypocrisy of its members or clergy, etc.  And now they face the same sufferings of the world that we face, only without the comfort or hope of God’s presence. 

Suffering in life is inescapable, even for those who capitulate to every social and political bully in order to preserve their peace and comfort. Suffering is inescapable, but despair, loneliness, and hopelessness are not. As disciples of Christ, we can be assured of his love and presence in the middle of the most horrific sufferings, and his embrace in the world to come.  As St. Paul says elsewhere, “we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

Finally, the Gospel:

Mt 14:13-21

When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist,

he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.

The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns.

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd,

his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.

When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said,

“This is a deserted place and it is already late;

dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages

and buy food for themselves.”

Jesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away;

give them some food yourselves.”

But they said to him,

“Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”

Then he said, “Bring them here to me,”

and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.

Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven,

he said the blessing, broke the loaves,

and gave them to the disciples,

who in turn gave them to the crowds.

They all ate and were satisfied,

and they picked up the fragments left over—

twelve wicker baskets full.

Those who ate were about five thousand men,

not counting women and children.

Although the text is not explicit, we are probably correct to assume these crowds were made up of the common and poor people of the land, rather than the wealthy elite.  We hear the themes from Isaiah 55: Jesus is providing a free, satisfying meal to the hungry and thirsty poor.

But the language Matthew employs is intended to remind us of another incident in Jesus’ ministry, in which he also “takes loaves,” “blesses,” “breaks,” and “gives” them to the disciples.  Of course, this is language from the narrative of the Institution of the Eucharist (Matt 26:26), which is indeed the covenant meal promised by Isaiah 55.  Specifically, it is a meal which extends the covenant of the Son of David to those who participate in it.

This account in Matthew stresses Jesus’ mission to restore the people of Israel, to whom the promise of a New Covenant was given by Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-34).  This is the point of the twelve baskets left over—it is a sign of God coming to collect the scattered people of the Twelve Tribes, gathering them up from all the places they had been scattered through various wars and exiles, gathering them back into the Kingdom of David reconstituted around the twelve apostles, who are twelve new patriarchs of the spiritual restoration of Israel.  In the next chapter (Matt 15:29-39) Matthew will tell the account of a different feeding miracle that Jesus performed, that took place in Gentile territory and foreshadowed the Gospel going out to the Gentiles.  There, 4,000 will be fed (possibly for the four cardinal directions of the compass) and seven baskets will be left over (a covenant number, and perhaps related to the traditional seventy Gentile nations in Israelite ethnography).  But here, the focus is on the restoration of Israel.

The Feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew, as in the other Gospels as well, is an anticipation, foreshadowing, and type of the Eucharist, the meal which along truly satisfies and “answers all our needs,” as we sang in the Psalm.  It is the meal by which we enter the Davidic Covenant, receiving the gift of Divine Sonship and kingship over the earth, as Isaiah predicted.  Out of his loving concern to provide this meal for us, Jesus endured “anguish, distress, persecution, nakedness, peril,” and ultimately, death.  In turn, this meal is one of the primary ways that he stays with us and loves us as we suffer our own “anguish, distress, persecution, etc.” This aspect of the Eucharist was foreshadowed in the Old Covenant by the “bread of the presence”—fresh loaves of bread continually set out in the Holy Place to represent God’s presence with his people. As we celebrate this Mass, let us thank Jesus for remaining with us in the Eucharist as we journey through this valley of tears, and pray for those who—because of the pandemic, imprisonment, or other impediment—lack the comfort of the tangible sacrament and must rely on the spiritual indwelling of Jesus in their souls alone. 

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