Friday, July 29, 2011

The Bread of the Berith: The Readings of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Holy Mother Church serves up a rich fare for us in the Liturgy of the Word this week.
We begin with one of the most striking prophecies of the Book of Isaiah:
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).
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) 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.  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 isn’t 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) the promises of the Davidic covenant?

Nonetheless, Holy Mother Church pairs this OT text today in order for us to make the connection between the promised covenant-bestowing meal and the Feeding of the 5,000.
The Responsorial Psalm focusses 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.
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.
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, all 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.
Finally, the Gospel:
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 here 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.
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.”  It is the meal by which we enter the Davidic Covenant, receiving the gift of Divine Sonship and kingship over the earth.  Out of his loving concern to provide this meal for us, Jesus endured “anguish,  distress, persecution, nakedness, peril, sword,” and ultimately, death.


Vaughn Kohler said...

Thank you so much for this rich and meaningful meditation. As a recent convert to the Church from Protestantism (I was a Baptist pastor for nearly a decade), I not only loved the careful exposition of these passages, but also the way you drew out the Eucharistic and sacramental image. So great! I LOVE the unity of Scripture, and my commitment to studying the Bible has grown immensely, now that I am able to study its truth within the safe haven of Mother Church. The peace of Christ to you!

Glenna said...

When we translate that Psalm, "His Mercy endures forever", it seems like we're missing some of the conotations of "His covenant love endures forever."

Pieter said...

Thank you for your incredible synthesis of the Word of God for this Sunday. It is amazing to see how God's promises in Isaiah are fulfilled in Christ and the Eucharist

John Bergsma said...

@Pieter and @Vaughn: Thank you for visiting the site, and sharing some encouraging words!
@TheresaRita: Yes, that's a good point. I think the answer is to catechize folks, so that they realize what we mean when we say "God's mercy." The Greek word eleos, "mercy", was used to translate the Hebrew hesed already in Jesus' day (in the Septuagint [LXX]). So biblical "mercy" really is hesed. "Lord, have mercy!" can mean "Lord, show yourself faithful to your covenant!"

Benoit Meyrieux said...

To add to the discussion, I would like to quote Fr Hardon:
"Another example of the need of Hebrew is the way the translations deal with Hebrew hesed. It means the bond between those who have made a covenant, such that each has rights and duties, and should act as kinsmen toward each other. (We can see an implication for the sprinkling of the blood in Exodus 24:8. It meant the people were becoming kinsmen of God). Unfortunately, Greek had no word for hesed. So they usually translated by eleos, which means mercy. There is partial truth in that translation. For if we ask why God gives good things under the covenant, the answer comes on two levels. On the most basic level, He made a covenant and gives things under it out of unmerited, unmeritable generosity. No creature by its own power can establish a claim on Him. All is basically mercy. Yet on the secondary level, given the fact that He did make a covenant, if the people do what He prescribed, He owes it to Himself to give favor (or punishment for disobedience). Incidentally, this twofold sense explains the difficult text of Romans 2;6 where Paul says God will repay each one according to his works. That is part of a quote from Psalm 62:12 which says, in the full text: "You, O God, have hesed, for you will repay each one according to his works." Many English versions unfortunately render it to say: "You O Lord have mercy, for you will repay...." Mercy and repayment do not go together."

By the way great article Dr Bergsma!

John Bergsma said...

@Benoit: That is a GREAT quote! Can you give the reference? I've been saying things like that for years, unwittingly "reinventing the wheel" when Fr. Hardon--and doubtless others, too--saw it long ago.

Benoit Meyrieux said...

I have mixed the name of two great priests...The quote is actually from Fr Most and comes from a course called "Basic Scripture" here is the link
Fr Hardon speaks a lot about the covenant and the link between Tsedaqa (moral righteousness) and Hesed (covenantal love), for example "We already noted that Psalm 33:5 in the parallel second half of the verse said that "the earth is full of the covenant fidelity [hesed] of the Lord." Psalm 36:10 speaks similarly to God: "Keep up Your covenant fidelity [hesed] to those who love You, Your moral righteousness [sedaqah] to the upright of heart." We notice here that God's exercise of faithful righteousness is conditioned on love and uprightness of heart in the human beings. Psalm 103:17 speaks in much the same way: "But the covenant fidelity [hesed] of the Lord is from age to age on those who fear Him, and His moral rightness [sedaqah] on children's children." This picture is quite in line with the solemn admonition given by Moses to the people in Deuteronomy 11:26: "Behold, today I am putting before you a blessing and a curse. The blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God . . . and the curse if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God." In other words, in the covenant God has said, in effect, that He will respond to them according to their response to Him. Psalm 103:17 puts hesed and sedaqah in parallel. The thought seems to be that for God to do what He has pledged in the covenant -- whether it be blessing or curse -- is a matter of what moral rightness calls for, it is a matter of sedaqah. His holiness calls for this. " This from his "Commentary on the Pauline Epistles" and here is the link:

John Bergsma said...

@Benoit: Thanks for links! These comments are very useful!