I don’t know about you, but I’m more than a little slow to learn things, and I often have to go through lessons more than once. One of the lessons I often find myself repeating is the lesson not to covet stuff. I see something that I’d really like to have, and I can’t get it out of my mind; eventually I give in and buy it, and it doesn’t take long before I realize that I didn’t really need it and don’t care as much for it as I thought I would. In anticipation, it seemed like owning it would be a wonderful thing, but in retrospect, it turns out to be a disappointment. And then I remember the last time I learned that lesson, and I think, “How come I never seem to learn?”
The gospel for today in the Daily Office lectionary is Matthew 15:29-39. It takes place in Gentile territory; Jesus has been travelling through the region of Tyre and Sidon and is now on the eastern side of the lake of Galilee.
‘Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.
‘Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”
And immediately we think to ourselves, ‘Haven’t we been here before? Wasn’t there an earlier feeding story?’
Yes, there was – the feeding of the five thousand, in Matthew 14:13-20. There are some similarities between the stories – a large crowd, a lonely place, a teaching session with Jesus prolonged for several days, the lack of food, Jesus’ challenge to the disciples. But the setting is different; the earlier feeding is in Jewish territory, while the later, as we’ve seen, is in the Gentile area east of the lake. The numbers are different too – five thousand in the earlier feeding, four thousand in the later.
The story continues:
His disciples answered, ‘Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?’
‘How many loaves do you have?’ Jesus asked.
‘Seven,’ they replied, ‘and a few small fish.’
‘He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. They all ate and were satisfied. Afterwards the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children. After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan.’
So it’s the same procedure as in the earlier feeding: the loaves and fishes are brought forward, the crowd sits down, Jesus gives thanks and breaks the bread, the disciples distribute it, everyone has enough to eat, and the disciples pick up the leftovers. It’s so similar that some scholars have suggested that it may be the same story repeated, told in two different ways. Personally, I don’t believe that; the differences in setting are significant, and later on in the gospel Jesus refers to both incidents (Matthew 16:5-12).
In fact, I find this story very true to my life. For the crowd, the experience of having their hunger satisfied by Jesus in a supernatural way was new. For the disciples, it was not; they had seen it before, and they ought to have remembered the earlier occasion, and exercised a little more faith when they found themselves in similar circumstances again. But they did not – just like I don’t remember the last time I was going through the experience of covetousness, and then find myself repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
Fortunately for me, God is patient. God sees me repeating those mistakes, and once again he repeats the lesson. Some of those lessons have been repeated hundreds of times over the course of my life; apparently I’m a very slow learner, but God is patient. That’s one of the things we mean by ‘Gospel’: the good news that God doesn’t mind taking a long time to transform the hearts of stubborn people like me.
And of course, I’m called to show the same patience with others. I tend to forget that. Even though God doesn’t mind teaching me the same lesson over and over, I find that I get easily irritated if I have to do the same thing with other people. “Didn’t I explain this to you once before?” I think (I don’t very often say it out loud, although occasionally I do). “How come you didn’t learn this the first time around?” I need to learn to be more patient with people, as God is patient with me.
Thank you, heavenly Father, that you are patient with us, willingly repeating the lessons of life over and over again until we learn to think and act according to your will. Please give us the same patience and love for others. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.