Monday, August 2, 2010

Moved With Pity, He Said The Blessing, Broke The Loaves, And Gave Them To The Disciples, Who Fed Them To The Crowd.

Monday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Jeremiah 28:1-17
In the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah,
in the fifth month of the fourth year,
the prophet Hananiah, son of Azzur, from Gibeon,
said to me in the house of the LORD
in the presence of the priests and all the people:
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel:
‘I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.
Within two years I will restore to this place
all the vessels of the temple of the LORD
which Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon,
took away from this place to Babylon.
And I will bring back to this place Jeconiah,
son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah,
and all the exiles of Judah who went to Babylon,’
says the LORD,
‘for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.’”

The prophet Jeremiah answered the prophet Hananiah
in the presence of the priests and all the people assembled
in the house of the LORD, and said:
Amen! thus may the LORD do!
May he fulfill the things you have prophesied
by bringing the vessels of the house of the LORD
and all the exiles back from Babylon to this place!
But now, listen to what I am about to state in your hearing
and the hearing of all the people.
From of old, the prophets who were before you and me
prophesied war, woe, and pestilence
against many lands and mighty kingdoms.
But the prophet who prophesies peace
is recognized as truly sent by the LORD
only when his prophetic prediction is fulfilled.

Thereupon the prophet Hananiah took the yoke
from the neck of the prophet Jeremiah and broke it,
and said in the presence of all the people:
“Thus says the LORD: ‘Even so, within two years
I will break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon,
from off the neck of all the nations.’”
At that, the prophet Jeremiah went away.

Some time after the prophet Hananiah had broken the yoke
from off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah,
The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah:
Go tell Hananiah this: Thus says the LORD:
By breaking a wooden yoke, you forge an iron yoke!
For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel:
A yoke of iron I will place on the necks
of all these nations serving Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon,
and they shall serve him; even the beasts of the field I give him.

To the prophet Hananiah the prophet Jeremiah said:
Hear this, Hananiah! The LORD has not sent you,
and you have raised false confidence in this people.
For this, says the LORD,
I will dispatch you from the face of the earth;
this very year you shall die,
because you have preached rebellion against the LORD.
That same year, in the seventh month,
Hananiah the prophet died.
We read today of the dispute with the false prophet, Hananiah. It is nice, of course, to hear encouraging words but not if they are false and misleading and that is what we see in today’s reading.

Internal evidence seems to indicate that chapters 27-28 were a distinct unit from the rest of the text. They may have formed a special collection for those in exile.

The setting is the beginning of the reign of King Zedekiah over Judah and the year is 593 BC. Zedekiah had been installed by the Babylonians as a puppet king; he would not last long.

The prophet Hananiah addresses Jeremiah, also a prophet, in the Temple. The name ‘Hananiah’ means “The Lord is gracious”. It was a fitting name for a prophet who brought soothing, but misleading, promises of the return of the exiles and the Temple vessels.

Speaking with the same words of authority that Jeremiah uses (”The Lord, the God of Israel, says this…”), he predicts that in two years’ time the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon over Judah will be broken. Everything that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away, especially the vessels from the Temple, will be brought back. Jeconiah, the exiled son of King Jehoiakim, and all the exiles will also return. Jehoiakim had been brought off to Babylon in 597 BC. Saying that all this would take place within two years directly contradicted what Jeremiah had predicted earlier (25:11-12), namely, that the Babylonian occupation would last 70 years.

Jeremiah then makes a response to Hananiah’s prophecy. In a strongly sarcastic tone he says it would be wonderful if the words of Hananiah were indeed true and that the exiles and the Temple vessels could return. Then he gives a warning. In the past, “from remote times”, prophets normally forecast war, famine and plague. Very often their prophecies came true because these things were likely to happen anyway. They were the results of the people’s sinfulness and idolatry.

But “the prophet who prophesies peace can only be recognised as one truly sent by the Lord when his word comes true”. In other words, Hananiah’s genuineness as a prophet will only be proved if his prophecy about Nebuchadnezzar is fully realised and peace returns to Judah and Jerusalem. Which, of course, did not happen.

As if to prove his point by a symbolical gesture, Hananiah then removes a wooden yoke from the shoulder of Jeremiah and smashes it. This, he predicts, is how the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar will be broken within two years. By so acting, Hananiah was perhaps symbolically trying to break the power of Jeremiah’s earlier prophecies, which contradicted his own.

At that point, Jeremiah went off but Yahweh soon had a message for him. Hananiah is to be told: “By breaking a wooden yoke, you only produce an iron yoke!” Now, an iron yoke will be placed on the shoulders off all the peoples Nebuchadnezzar has conquered and they will be reduced to servitude, along with their animals. The yoke of the King of Babylon will not be broken until the Lord sees fit to do so. It will, of course, eventually be broken but the pie-in-the-sky promises of Hananiah will be proved illusory.

Jeremiah then confronts Hananiah. He is no true prophet; he has not been sent by God. Thanks to him the people have been given a false sense of security. Hananiah will be removed and he will be sent to his death within the year. And this indeed happened. Making false predictions was tantamount to rebellion and was punishable by death. He who had predicted restoration within two years himself died within two months.

The fulfilment of this short-term prophecy by Jeremiah gives credibility to his other more important prophecies. It was, in a way, an indication of who was the true and who was the false prophet and which of their predictions about the future should be believed.

Perhaps Hananiah meant well and he may even have believed what he told the people. On the other hand, he may have been simply seeking popularity and his own advantage. His words were in fact little more than propaganda with little basis in reality.

Jeremiah had earned a great deal of unpopularity in predicting suffering and defeat for his people and in telling them in the plainest words that their difficulties were entirely due to their own failure to follow God’s way. Very often the truth hurts but we need to hear it.

There are times and places for encouragement (the apocalyptic literature is full of it) but there are also times when people need to be brought face to face with reality (as when Winston Churchill said that all he could promise the British people during the early days of the Second World War were blood, sweat and tears).*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 119
Lord, teach me your statutes.
Remove from me the way of falsehood,
and favor me with your law.
Lord, teach me your statutes.
Take not the word of truth from my mouth,
for in your ordinances is my hope.
Lord, teach me your statutes.
Let those turn to me who fear you
and acknowledge your decrees.
Lord, teach me your statutes.
Let my heart be perfect in your statutes,
that I be not put to shame.
Lord, teach me your statutes.
Sinners wait to destroy me,
but I pay heed to your decrees.
Lord, teach me your statutes.
From your ordinances I turn not away,
for you have instructed me.
Lord, teach me your statutes.
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Matthew 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.”
He 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.
The announcement of John the Baptist’s death is followed immediately in Matthew by the feeding of the 5,000 in the desert.

Matthew says that Jesus, on hearing of his cousin’s tragic death, withdrew by boat to a desert place by himself. He clearly wanted time to reflect. He knew that, if things continued as they were, he too could be facing trouble.

However, the crowds knew where he had gone and followed along the shore on foot. “When he disembarked and saw the vast throng, his heart was moved with compassion, and he cured their sick.” His own troubles were set aside as he saw the greater need of the people. We have here, of course, an image of our God, filled with compassion for all of us and anxious to bring us healing and wholeness.

As evening comes down, the disciples suggest that the people be sent to neighbouring villages for food. It is the first mention of the disciples’ presence. In Mark’s version of this story, the disciples had accompanied Jesus in the boat at his invitation, so that they could all have a period of quiet away from the crowds. Jesus’ response is simple and to the point: “You give them food to eat.” They reply: “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish. What good is that?”

This, of course, is a sign of the future. It will be the responsibility of Jesus’ followers to give the people the nourishment they need for their lives. At times, their resources will seem very inadequate but time will show that wonders can be done with very little. Just look at what Mother Teresa achieved with nothing of her own.

The people are then ordered to sit down on the grass. Jesus takes the loaves and fish, looks up to heaven in the direction of his Father, blesses the food, breaks it, gives it to the disciples who in turn distribute it among the people. The whole action clearly prefigures the Eucharist and leads up to it.

It is not explained how it all happened but five thousand men not counting women and children had their fill. Matthew alone notes the presence of women and children. As Jews did not permit women and children to eat together with men in public, they would have been in a place by themselves.

And what was left over filled 12 baskets - a perfect number symbolising abundance and also the number of the apostles.

There are two clear lessons. God takes care of his people. We can read the feeding in two ways. On the one hand, we can simply take it as a miraculous event, pointing to the divine origins of Jesus. On the other hand, there is another possibility with its own meaning. Once the disciples began to share the little food they had with those around, it triggered a similar movement among the crowd, many of whom had actually brought some food with them. When everyone shared, everyone had enough. A picture of the kind of society the Church should stand for.

Some people might say that this is explaining away the miracle but it also makes an important point. The second lesson is that it was the disciples and not Jesus who distributed the bread and fish. And so it must be in our own time. If the followers of Jesus do not share with others what they have received from him, the work of Jesus and the spreading of the Gospel will not happen.

Lastly, there are clear Eucharistic elements in the story. Especially the ritualistic way in which Jesus prayed, blessed, broke and distributed the bread. The breaking of the bread (a name for the Mass) is very important because it indicates sharing and not just eating. The Eucharist is the celebration of a sharing community. If sharing of what we have in real life is not taking place, then the Eucharist becomes a ritualistic sham, a whited sepulchre full of dead people’s bones.*

The Irish Jesuits


Sarah in the tent said...

Was Jeremiah's yoke a mark of his status as an official prophet - like a mayor's chain of office? If so, perhaps it was supposed to indicate that he was in the service of Yahweh for the benefit of the people.

A yoke of wood is used for work, but a yoke of iron is placed on a prisoner who cannot be trusted.

John the Baptist did not wear a yoke for Herod to remove and break, but the act of beheading has a similar symbolism.

The breaking of bread seems here continuous with the beheading of St John. It is a sign of the New Covenant - an old yoke broken and Christ's 'easy' yoke offered to a weary people. (St John's head was bizarrely also offered on a platter within Herod's household.)

The cross Christ bore is itself a kind of yoke - one that did not itself break but caused the earth to crack and the Temple veil to rip. It is an eternal sign of the eternal covenant.

'Give them some food yourselves.'

St Peter must have thought back to this occasion when wondering how to go about obeying the Risen Lord's instruction to 'feed my sheep' in the Church's earliest days.

Cammie Novara said...

“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel:‘I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon." I am astounded by the truth in those words.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Both previous comments focus on the yoke. A wooden yoke was placed on the shoulders of two oxen that are pulling a plow, an iron yoke on the neck of a prisoner. The judge at the bench and the priest at the altar wear silk or linen stoles as badges of honor -- symbols of the yoke of office.

Saint Augustine reminds us that our free will can be a yoke. If we succumb to temptation, it will be burdensome; if we resist temptation, with the help of grace, it will be a badge of honor. God created us, Augustine says, for the purpose of forgiving us. He will not take away from us the possibility to say No to his designs for us even when we know we ought to say Yes.

Sarah in the tent said...

Yes, Father, I see now the priest's stole is another beautiful yoke.

I have heard that a Bishop's pallium is supposed to be made of lambswool to symbolize the flock. It links to image of the Good Shepherd carrying a lamb on His shoulders. Seen as a yoke, it is another beautiful portrayal of Christ' solidarity with humanity, helping us to reach salvation.