Matthew 14:13-21
Hunger Tames
 by Rev. Jerry Porkorsky
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

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 are were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, the Lord miraculously multiplies the loaves to feed the multitude. There is an obvious echo of the feeding of the Israelites in the Old Testament with manna, “the bread from heaven.” More apparent, in light of the Last Supper and the paschal mystery, is the foreshadowing of the Blessed Eucharist, the “the Bread that comes down from heaven” to satisfy man’s spiritual hunger” in the new and everlasting covenant. However, there is also some revelation here of the necessity and dignity of basic human physical hunger.

It is occasionally observed that there hasn’t been any serious or chronic civil unrest in the United States because of the continuing abundance of relatively inexpensive and good food. In the main, hunger in America is normal and cyclical in our lives, like the sunrise and sunset. Only in exceptional — and usually dysfunctional — situations is hunger chronic and a “problem” in America. And even here, the problem is more of a nutritional dysfunction, a “hidden hunger” often resulting in problems like obesity rather than that of debilitating hunger and starvation, as found in many other countries. Today, we sometimes pervert the natural impulses of hunger with our obsessions with diets and our too-hasty acceptance of the latest fashionable food taboos. Even at the physical level we respond to the same food very differently when we’re really hungry than when languidly munching out of boredom.

But the natural cycle of hunger is a very useful sensation for many reasons, including a sign of spiritual hunger in need of fulfillment.

Hunger directs our attention to immediate needs: nourishment and bonding. God has given a newborn a remarkably piercing cry that cannot fail to get attention. An infant’s nighttime squawking is designed to awaken (usually) Mom (as Dad rolls over and puts a pillow over his head). As a result the child not only gets fed, but begins a lifetime of precious bonding with Mom and, eventually, Dad. Hence the demands of hunger are indispensable in forming a proper life, living in community as intended by God (cf. first two chapters of Genesis).

Normal hunger should have the effect of promoting a sense of healthy dependence upon others. After all, Jesus Himself says, “Give them some food yourselves.” The delivery of food doesn’t just happen. The food chain extends from farm to grocery store to the household, for food preparation. An infant depends upon Mom to deliver the goods; children gather around the supper table expecting to be fed, dependent but feeling entitled to their meals, as Mom and Dad provide for them. A generous and joyous spirit responds to these demands. Even a master chef at a five star restaurant (know any?) must be generously attentive in responding to the demands of human hunger — not only to be successful, but for his own self-respect and self-worth.

Contrary to the mythology of “rugged American individualism,” a sense of dependence on others — honest, proportional and reasonable — is necessary for the cultivation of virtue. (Perhaps this is the reason human childhood is so long compared to other species. And maybe it’s partly to give self-centered new parents the opportunity to grow up and grow out of their self-centeredness, too.) Hunger, when satiated, should also give rise to the virtue of gratitude in those being fed. This is evident when family members thank Mom for a delicious meal, or when a restaurant customer sends a message, “My compliments to the chef.” It’s hard to judge the exact state of mind of a relaxed baby in the arms of Mom after a feeding, but there seems to be a hint of gratitude in its tiny demeanor (at least mother can be grateful for the child’s sleepy eyes). Wise parents teach their children gratitude for a nice meal by reinforcing a need to say, “Thank you.” And good parents never neglect the recitation of the prayers before meals and after meals expressing a recognition of dependency and thanks for “these Thy gifts.” (Without the cultivation of gratitude, a dangerous and all too common entitlement mentality becomes entrenched and stunts true moral development.)

Such is the natural cycle of hunger having profound spiritual effects: dependency, community, generosity and thanksgiving. A true self-giving generous spirit based on a sense of gratitude (sublimely, “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving”) is the result of the normal cycle of human hunger. Christ in the Blessed Eucharist, after all, satisfies a hungry heart as we rejoice in thanksgiving and respond in generosity. So turn off the television (for good?), wash up, say your prayers and come to the family supper. And don’t miss Sunday Mass — under penalty of mortal sin, unless you have a good and sufficient reason. Without the cultivation of gratitude, a dangerous and all too common entitlement mentality entrenches and stunts true moral development. It’s that basic.

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