Cycle A | ORDINARY TIME | WEEK 18
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
A comedian once observed that while Jesus fed 5,000 hungry people as reported in this Sunday’s Gospel, pastors are being fed today by 5,000 hungry people.
Finding themselves with the flocking crowd in a deserted place with no food and disconcerted by Jesus’ seeming lack of foresight, the disciples had moved for the adjournment of the gathering so that people can go and buy themselves some food. Still appearing indifferent, Jesus blithely tells them to feed the multitude themselves. How? They have only five loaves and two fish. Jesus asks for those. He blesses and breaks the bread, and then hands them out for distribution. All eat and are filled; twelve baskets-full were left-over!
Immediately evident here is the common tendency to simply give up rather than do what one can while invoking God’s assistance. When we face some challenging situation and it seems that we do not have enough of what it takes to get us through, we should entrust whatever we have, however small it may seem, into the hands of Jesus and ask him to bless it. A miracle is not God working for us; it is God working with us.
God does not work miracle from nothing (grace operates through nature). That is the significance of the five loaves and two fish to the people presented. We need to present something which Jesus then transforms in his love like the water that he turned to wine. Thus, expectant faith does not make us fold our hands doing nothing. Rather, it spurs us on to make our best contribution, to bring something to the table no matter how small. It could be your time, your talent or resources. These are your five loaves and two fish on which the Lord acts to bring an increase.
Meanwhile, the first time bread was mentioned in the Gospels was when Jesus was tempted by the Devil who asked him to turn stones into bread since Jesus was very hungry. He had fasted for forty days and forty nights. Jesus refused on that occasion. So, why perform the miracle now? Yes, Jesus cares about the hungry but he places things in their proper order. The crowd in today’s Gospel came primarily to hear God’s word; they have therefore opened their hearts to God and to one another and are thus ready to receive the bread with the proper disposition.
Bread is important but godliness is even more important (hence his telling the Devil that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God). When this order is not respected but turned on its head, the result is not justice or concern for human suffering but ruin and destruction even of material goods themselves. When a system lacks godliness, people starve even in the midst of plenty. We see as people starve to death in countries blessed with abundance of resources because the ungodly are in power. “When the godly are in authority, the people rejoice. But when the wicked are in power, they groan” (Proverbs 29:2).
Jesus had isolated himself at the deserted place to come to terms with the news of the death of John the Baptist. It is part of human nature to take time to process news and events that have an impact on our lives especially the loss of someone close to us. Yet, as Christians we can’t get stuck at the tomb as perpetual mourners. There is a time for us to refocus on the resurrection and move forward into the community where our presence and gifts are needed. That is what Jesus modelled in rising and attending to the people.
Like John, he would also be put to death by evil, but he would not allow evil and the culture of death to hold him down. We refuse to be overwhelmed by the culture of death. We are pro-life. We are people of hope, people of God. In today’s Second Reading St Paul tells us that no matter what the world throws at us, nothing can separate us from the love of God. The glory of God is man fully alive (St Irenaeus).
The response of Jesus equally invites us to review how we generally react to sudden and unexpected calls on our time and energy especially when strangers or people we do not particularly like come knocking. There are normally two possible reactions to such calls for help. On the one hand, one can completely ignore them when they conflict with one’s own plans. In this case, one puts one’s own perceived needs first. Once you are known this way, you won’t often be asked for help but it is hardly the Christ-like response.
On the other hand, one may be among those who cannot say ‘No’ because they want to preserve good image. They put aside what they have planned and go to help the needy even though it’s against their will, and they may be boiling with anger and frustration inside. The final outcome of this kind of response is “burnout” (exhaustion). Neither of these responses is appropriate and they are not the ones that Jesus made.
It requires great sensitivity and discernment to know when we are required to show compassion by giving all the help we can, even at some inconvenience to ourselves, and when we show equal compassion by making people stand on their own feet rather than take advantage of others. I am not responsible for saving the whole world. I will have to watch many people going without my help. But there will be times when I am the only person who can help this person now. Recognising these moments needs a combination of honesty and firmness.