Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Because of the signs Jesus was performing on the sick, a large crowd followed him as he went up on a mountain with his disciples. When Jesus saw the crowd, he said, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” Philip answered, in effect, that he did not know. Another disciple said to Jesus, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what good are these for so many?” Jesus had all the people recline. Then he took the bread, gave thanks, and gave it to the people, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. After the banquet, the disciples gathered twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that were left over. Since the people wanted to carry him off and make him king, Jesus withdrew to be alone on the mountain.
We can readily identify with the disciples’ feeling of helplessness in the situation. The gospel is not about a reasonable response of compassion extended to a few people in need. Rather, it is about having no resources to match the needs of a huge crowd of people we do not even know. There is no difficulty in recognizing this situation in our own world. About every four seconds someone dies of hunger…75% are children. The shocking statistic suggests the image of an avalanche, impossible to stop and imperative to flee.
There are in fact many ways to distance ourselves from the countless people who are hungry and from the implications of this gospel. We can hurry on to the rest of this chapter in John’s gospel, and devote ourselves to reflection about Jesus as the bread of life that satisfies our deepest spiritual hunger for eternal life. As spectators, we can reduce the mass of hungry people to the status of virtual reality on a screen. We can succumb to a kind of idolatry when we believe that absolute laws of the economy make it impossible for all people to have work, basic health care, and enough food to live.
The life implication of this gospel is simple: Jesus wants to work the miracle of feeding a huge number of people who are hungry; but the miracle will not happen without someone to provide five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus must have loved the boy who was willing to share what was really his to eat. The miracle of the gospel is as much about the boy as it is about Jesus. And today the boy is each of us who has something to offer the Lord. Jesus does not spiritualize the hunger of the poor, or postpone his love for them to the next world.
Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian bishop, once said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” Today the Lord asks all sorts of people who have influence in shaping public policy to make their contribution by keeping Helder Camara’s question in the forefront of debate about political, social, and economic policies. The contribution of those who seek solutions to the very difficult question of Helder Camara is as essential as the contribution of those who are daily engaged in the immediate relief of starving people. And regardless of the effort, there will always be the feeling: but what good is this among so many?
If God gave us the natural resources, the brains and the will to achieve what we have in our country through science and technology, it is likely that with Christ we can also bring about the miracle of every child of God having enough to eat. Jesus feels so deeply about this that he said if someone is hungry, it is he himself who is hungry (Mt 25:31-46). As we celebrate our Eucharist today, let us recall the truth that Jesus is present in the total reality of his Body. The Body of Christ includes a large number of poor people. All are dear to him. Can we celebrate the Eucharist authentically and be indifferent to their plight?
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.