18th Sunday in Ordinary Time August 2, 2020
The First Reading
In this week's pericope from Isaiah, we hear the prophet inform us that God will take care of our needs. Those needs are not merely physical, but also spiritual in nature. Isaiah says, "All you who are thirsty, come to the water!" For the Israelite, such a message would immediately call to mind the Exodus event and Moses striking the rock in the wilderness to provide them with water in their time of thirst. In the New Testament we hear Jesus say that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness shall be satisfied. Yes, God will take care of those whom he calls his children, but he also wants us to thirst for him. In the person of Jesus, God tells us that he is life giving water and that those who drink of the water he has to give will never die (Jn 4:9-15).
Isaiah also reminds us that only God can satisfy our needs. He asks, "Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy?" Bread in the wisdom tradition was symbolic of wisdom itself. Like last week's reading from 1 Kings, Isaiah reminds us that only God's wisdom will ever bring true happiness, peace of mind, and satisfaction to our lives, so why seek life in and from other things.
If we heed the Lord, that is if we submit our will to his will, we will "eat" well. Isaiah isn't speaking of physical food, but food for our spiritual nourishment. All life comes from God. Seeking life from any other source, be it wealth, fame, fortune, power, etc., will only lead to death. We cannot serve both God and mammon.
What a wonderfully affirming reading we have from Paul this week! "What will separate us from the love of Christ?" The answer of course is nothing! When we find ourselves at our darkest hour, in the throes of anguish, despair, persecution, or dire need, we can take consolation in the fact that we are not alone. The love of Christ will sustain us through these difficult times and so much more. We can overcome all adversity through Christ Jesus who loves us unconditionally and completely.
Not even sin can separate us from the love of Christ. As his earthly ministry demonstrated, God loves the sinner as much as the righteous, and longs for the sinner to return to the fold. He actively seeks out the sinner because the sinner is separated from his love. Knowing all of this brings us to one conclusion. "If God is for us, who can be against us?"
As Christians, we have a tendency to focus and dwell upon the divinity of Jesus to the exclusion of his humanity. This reading from Matthew provides us with a wonderful reminder that Jesus was fully human too. The story opens with Jesus receiving news that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been killed. Jesus is devastated. He immediately ceases ministering to the crowds, and climbs into a boat, setting sail for a deserted place, leaving the crowds and his disciples behind. He needs time to process what this means. He needs time to grieve. He needs time to pray. He needs time to ponder the implication of his own mission. Will he meet a similar fate if he continues his own preaching and ministry?
He manages to arrive at his deserted place only to find that the crowds and disciples he left behind somehow managed to arrive ahead of him on foot. What does that tell you about the hunger of the crowds for Jesus? Take note of what happens next. In spite of his pain and personal loss, upon seeing the crowd his heart was moved with pity for them and he cured their sick.
We often hear about how Jesus took pity on someone or how he was moved by compassion and how these emotions were the driving force behind his ministering to those in need. It drove him to cast out demons, to heal lepers, to feed the multitudes, and to forgive the sinner. He used the term in several of his most famous parables: The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, and the Merciful Lord and the Unforgiving Servant, but what exactly does "taking pity" or being "moved by compassion" mean?
The Greek word that is being translated as pity or compassion in these instances is "splanchnizomai" (splank nid zo my). In the medical profession it forms the root of the word "splanchnology," which is the study of the body's visceral parts, better known as the gut. In the entire Bible, the word splanchnizomai only appears in reference to Jesus and his response to the needs of the people, or Jesus uses it himself in a few of his parables. The Gospel writers are revealing something very powerful about Jesus by using such a word. This is something unique about Jesus. There were plenty of other Greek words for pity or compassion to choose from, but they chose this word for a specific reason.
This is not any casual pity. He didn't merely feel sorry for them. He wasn't merely empathizing with them or their plight. This is no mere emotional response. What the Gospels are trying to infer is that Jesus was moved to the very core of his being by the people's hurts, by their loneliness, their hunger, their desire for a restored relationship with God. He felt their pain in his gut, which was at that time seen as the source of emotion for the heart, mind, and soul of a person. He was so moved, one might even say overwhelmed, by their hurts that he set aside his own needs and healed their hurts. This is the epitome of agape love, i.e., volitional love, in the New Testament, a love that all disciples are called upon to mirror.
This is phenomenal when you think about it. In Jesus, we encounter a God who not only knows our pain, our hurts, our sorrows, our longings, but who also shares fully in them with every fiber of his being. For those of us who are grieving the loss of a loved one, Jesus feels the pain of our loss and mourns with us to the very core of his being. For those of us beleaguered with addiction, Jesus shares in our struggle for recovery to the very core of his being. For those of us who feel trapped by our constant struggle with areas of personal sin, Jesus yearns to the very core of his being to set us free. For those of us who crave for something more in our relationship with God, Jesus longs to the very core of his being to satiate our hunger. For those of us suffering from physical pain, disease, and illness, Jesus bears our suffering and wants to alleviate it to the very core of his being. As Paul said in our second reading, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. What incredible news this is, but do we believe it? Do we live it as Gospel Truth?
Matthew links this event with the Eucharist to drive home a theological truth. The mission of the Christian to minister to those less fortunate and those in need springs forth from Jesus sharing his life with us in the Eucharist. Christ feeds us and we are expected to feed the world, to address physical suffering as well as spread the Gospel message of love. How does Matthew do this? He has Jesus instruct his disciples to feed the crowd. The exact rendering of the Greek is "You give them to eat." This should sound somewhat familiar to us as Matthew has Jesus use these exact same words in 25:35, when he says, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink." Jesus' actions mirror those he will come to do during the Last Supper. Here he takes the loaves and fish, blesses the loaves, breaks them, and gives them to his disciples. During the Last Supper, Jesus will once again take, bless, break and give. The ties to Eucharist couldn't be clearer. The disciples "get it" because they in turn give it to the crowds.
Our mandate to care for those in need, to set aside our needs so that we may serve the needs of others flows from the Eucharist. It is what agape love is all about. We set aside our wants, needs, and desires, and choose to make of ourselves a self gift of love for someone else. We place their wants, needs, and desires, before our own. Loving God and loving neighbor is firmly grounded in this love. Jesus sets the perfect example during his moment of grief when he'd rather be anywhere but with the crowds. If we are bold enough to call ourselves his disciles then we must be willing to do the same and lives our lives for others and for God.
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