Hugh Bates looks at the fourth Beatitude, and its dramatic expression in the feeding of the five thousand
Even before climate change, from the earliest times, there has been the scourge of famine, drought and failed harvests. Wars and conflicts will aggravate the situation. The better off will cope, at least temporarily, with scarcity and inflated prices. For those on a subsistence economy, there can be little hope.
There is, however, another sense of hunger, in which it is no longer a tragic misfortune but ‘structural’. The downside of the crossing of the Red Sea for the Israelites was the loss of access to the flesh-pots of Egypt. They had to survive on their daily ration of manna (‘what is it?’) from heaven, the supply of which they were quite unable to manage or control. In the same way, people needed to be reassured that they would not suffer as the result of the suspension of all business and agricultural activity during the holy years of Sabbath and Jubilee. God will bless the previous working harvest to such a degree that there will be sufficient both for the fallow and even the following year.
In this context, the later sayings in the Sermon on the Mount about ‘taking no thought for the morrow’, and anxiety about what we shall eat, drink or wear, should be taken not as pious platitudes but stern warnings. It may also lie behind
the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, whatever the exact translation of ‘daily’.
Bread of Heaven
The Beatitude receives dramatic expression in the feeding of the five thousand, the only miracle to be recorded in all four Gospels. The ‘desert place’ into which the crowds had followed Jesus was not environmentally hostile. There was ‘much grass’ there. But there were no shops -intolerable in a consumer society! Like the Good Shepherd in the psalm, the Lord causes his flock to ‘lie down in green pastures’. The hungry eat and are filled. The meal is given, not purchased.
Perhaps the crowd only thought that they had enjoyed a free lunch. They had failed to discern the sign. Misapplying the verse from the psalm, they were expecting Jesus to give them ‘bread from heaven to eat’, just as Moses had done long ago. In a typical example of Johannine irony, they were uttering the truth without knowing what they were saying. Moses did not, in fact, give you the Bread of Heaven. My Father is giving it to you now. The Bread of Heaven is the One who comes down from Heaven and gives life to the world. T am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes
to me will never hunger. ‘Whoever eats this bread will live into the age to come.’ ‘The bread which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’
This is certainly more than just a passing reference to the Eucharist somewhere in the background. But even the Eucharist itself is a sign of something deeper. Think of it as an analogy or (an acted) parable. The physical organism will not survive for long when ‘bread’ is withheld. Whatever ‘bread’ is to our present physical life, Christ is that and so much more in whatever lies ahead of us, both now and in the age to come.
The Prayer of Consecration in the Book of Common Prayer gives the parable liturgical expression. Christ ‘instituted, and commanded us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death until his coming again…’ Thus, in the night that he was betrayed, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying ‘This is my Body’, keep on doing this for my remembrance. To quote Dom Gregory Dix, ‘Was ever a command so obeyed?’