The readings are from the Catholic lectionary for daily mass, while the headline is meant to keep my thinking real:
Isaiah 25:6-10 ©
On this mountain,
the Lord of hosts will prepare for all peoples
a banquet of rich food.
On this mountain he will remove
the mourning veil covering all peoples,
and the shroud enwrapping all nations,
he will destroy Death for ever.
The Lord will wipe away
the tears from every cheek;
he will take away his people’s shame
everywhere on earth,
for the Lord has said so.
That day, it will be said: See, this is our God
in whom we hoped for salvation;
the Lord is the one for whom we waited.
We exult and we rejoice
that he has saved us.
This oracle, which dates from maybe the 5th century BCE has been included by the editors of the book of Isaiah, as part of a body of material (chapters 24-27) that looks beyond immediate political history, presenting God as a hope for all humanity and not just for Israel. It takes the custom of a sacred meal, such as might have been celebrated in Israel, and amplifies it to include all peoples, who are gathered to receive the bounty of God, which goes far beyond mere hospitality. The sad reality of death, which covers all peoples will be removed and tears of mourning will be wiped away. This is one of the few passages in the Hebrew Bible which clearly promise an end to death. Its language is also significant, using the image of God as mother wiping the tears from her child’s face, which was subsequently picked up and used by rhe author of The Revelation (Revelation 21).
The image of God’s banquet for all people is developed in Judaism as The Messiah’s Banquet, and lies behind Jesus’ parables about feasts, and the stories of his provision of food for 5000 and 4000 people.
Following the influence of such a passage reminds us of how ideas, phrases and even individual words are active in the biblical tradition, creating new material and even in some cases new events. For example, when we read Matthew’s diescriptions of the feeding of the 5000 / 4000 in the light of this passage, we can see that what may have started as a story about Jesus sharing food with a crowd in a lonley place, has become an image of the Messiah’s banquet, closely linked to Jesus’ power to heal.
The spare poetry of the Isaiah passage recognises the sadness of mortality and the human longing for liberation: “this is the Lord for whom we have waited.” It earns its influence on the life and thought of subsequent believers including Jesus.
Matthew 15:29-37 ©
Jesus reached the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and he went up into the hills. He sat there, and large crowds came to him bringing the lame, the crippled, the blind, the dumb and many others; these they put down at his feet, and he cured them. The crowds were astonished to see the dumb speaking, the cripples whole again, the lame walking and the blind with their sight, and they praised the God of Israel.
But Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I feel sorry for all these people; they have been with me for three days now and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them off hungry, they might collapse on the way.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Where could we get enough bread in this deserted place to feed such a crowd?’ Jesus said to them, ‘How many loaves have you?’ ‘Seven’ they said ‘and a few small fish.’ Then he instructed the crowd to sit down on the ground, and he took the seven loaves and the fish, and he gave thanks and broke them and handed them to the disciples who gave them to the crowds. They all ate as much as they wanted, and they collected what was left of the scraps, seven baskets full.
People easily forget that the story of the miraculous feeding comes in two versions, one with 5000 and the other with 4000. The gospel writers use this double-take technique to characterise Messiah Jesus’ banquet as involving both Jews (12 tribes/ 12 baskets leftover) and Gentiles (7 nations / seven baskets leftover). Mark’s version especially emphasises Jesus as leader and feeder of the people, whereas Matthew emphasises Jesus as the compassionate and effective healer. For Matthew, the food becomes an extension and symbol of the healing that Jesus offers to all, which he explains with a quotation from Isaiah chapter 53, “he himself took our diseases and carried our infirmities.” (Matthew 8:17). Jesus, God’s servant takes upon himself the burden of human sin and suffering. The feeding of 4000 people is presented as a joyful fulfillment of Isaiah 25 “this is our God in whom we hoped for salvation”, and also a foretaste of the Christian Communion Meal in which through bread and wine believers give joyful thanks for the sacrificial ministry of Jesus.
Matthew depicts the gentile crowd as praising the God of Israel and gladly sharing a meal with Jesus but the reader knows that the healing and sharing are not without a cost, which Jesus pays. The English poet George Herbert catches this distinction in his lines:
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine
which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.
Some readers may feel that today’s exploration of what scholars call te “inter-textuality” of the Bible, the intricate cross-stitching of themes, words and images across different books and different times, is a bit of a fiddle. Scholars will say that my linkages are not nearly fiddly enough. It’s not a modern technique however as anyone can see from looking at the cross-references in any old edition of the Bible. Close reading and exploration reconnects us with the biblical authors who would have memorised all the material available to them and seen all new events through the lens of scripture.