Saturday, August 2, 2014

Believing There Is Enough

The story commonly known as the “Feeding of the Multitude” is one of the best-known of the miracles of Jesus. It has been reflected on by countless theologians and preachers and is among the most frequently portrayed in works of sacred art. And yet, it seems that this is one of those stories that is wrapped in a sort of holy cocoon, isolated and unrelated to the realities of our day-to-day lives.

But it’s a very real story with the very real experience of hunger at its center.

Matthew’s account of this miraculous meal follows immediately after the account of the death of John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod (Matthew 14:1-12). Jesus, having heard of John’s murder, goes into the wilderness to pray and grieve. And with this journey into the wilderness, the scene is set. Jesus and the Apostles are joined by a huge crowd of people who are hoping to see and hear this famous teacher. Jesus was moved by their presence: “his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.” Although he was mourning the brutal death of John, Jesus attended to those who were in front of him and, as one commentary notes, “From the midst of his own grief at the death of his mentor, his wounded heart fills with compassion for others who are suffering. The same faithful God who provided manna and quail for Israel in the wilderness wandering [cf. Exodus 16; Numbers 11:31-35] and who worked through Elisha to feed a hungry crowd [cf. 2 Kings 4:42-44] acts now through Jesus to bring well-being to the people” (from The New Collegeville Bible Commentary: The Gospel According to Matthew).

A 5th century mosaic from the historic
Church of the Multiplication in Tabgah, Israel,
the traditional site of the Feeding of the Multitude

We know the rest of the story. Jesus, taking what has been given—a few loaves of bread and a couple fish—instructs the Apostles to use that small amount of food to feed the large number of people who had gathered around him. The Gospels also include that there was even food left over, after “they all ate and were satisfied.”

That’s how it is with God—there is always enough. In fact, there is more than enough. We are the ones who don’t believe there is enough—enough justice, enough food, enough peace, enough love. But as a friend recently observed, “We don’t believe there is enough because we don’t believe there is enough.” We even see this at work in this story. The people need to eat and so Jesus’ friends encourage him to send the crowd away so that they can get what they need for themselves. The Apostles seemed to think that it was someone else’s responsibility to provide for the physical needs of this huge crowd of people. This included believing that the people in the crowd had the money and the wherewithal to buy what they needed and that the surrounding villages would have enough food on hand to feed so many people. But Jesus teaches them another way by directing them away from this belief in independence and self-sufficiency to a solution that is “based on remaining in community and pooling and redistributing their resources. It is a eucharistic action, he transforms all that they have, and there is enough” (from Abiding Word: Year A).

We can see that this story of the Feeding of the Multitude is important because it highlights two realities. The first is that God can work wonders in the midst of the most practical needs of daily life. Beyond that, it reminds us that we have a role to play in providing for the needs of those around us. In essence, Jesus is telling us to go out and feed the crowds.

As I was thinking about this Gospel passage, I was reminded of the phrase “The love of Christ compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14). These words were offered by Saint Paul as his justification for his mission to take the Good News into new territories, despite harsh treatment and suffering. Over the centuries, they have come to serve as the motto for some of the religious communities in the Catholic Church that have dedicated themselves to those who have the lowest places in our society (e.g. the Alexian Brothers, the Daughters of Charity, and the Society of the Catholic Apostolate [“the Pallotines”]). The members of these communities didn't set out to be heroic (although the work that they have done can certainly be described as such). These religious communities, like so many Christians throughout the ages, were inspired by love and have understood that the wonders and signs performed by Jesus were not just intended to entertain or astonish the people crowding around him—they were demonstrations of God’s love. We share in that miraculous work when we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, elderly, and incarcerated, and when we work for peace.

Our Christianity has to express itself in tangible, concrete acts of charity and justice. This isn’t negotiable or dependent on where our particular theology falls on the “faith versus works” scale. The needs are great and we only have to scan the news to gain some sense of how much unrest and suffering there is in the world. The Feeding of the Multitude challenges us to resist the temptation to believe that all of these sad realities are other people’s responsibilities. When we try to pretend that we don’t bear some responsibility and that the care of refugee children at the American border, the persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria, the stalled efforts for peace in the Middle East and Africa, and the exploitation of women and children (even in America) aren’t spiritual realities or are only the responsibility of elected officials, then we fail—we fail to imitate Jesus and we fail to live out our baptismal covenant. And these “troubles” aren’t just found on the international level. In our communities, the sins of exploitation, human trafficking, racism, sexism, homophobia, and abuse are too common. We become complicit in these injustices when we refuse to share the Apostles’ burden of “feeding” our sisters and brothers. 
When Isaiah the Prophet envisioned God’s kingdom (cf. 55:1-3) as the place where the hungry are fed and have their thirst quenched, he was speaking to an exiled community that was longing for the security and comfort of the home it was beginning to forget. When we do what Jesus is asking, we are helping make Isaiah’s vision a reality for those modern-day exiles who live in want and isolation; it’s a meal to which we are also invited if we are willing to accept the invitation and stop trying to satisfy our own hunger and thirst with those things that can never truly satisfy our deepest longings.

Henri Nouwen reflected on all of this when he wrote these words:
[This] is a story about the value of the small people and the small things. The world likes things to be large, big, impressive, and elaborate. God chooses the small things which are overlooked in the big world. Andrew’s remark [in John’s account of the Feeding of the Multitude], “five barley loaves and two fish; but what is that among so many?” captures well the mentality of a calculating mind. It sounds as if he says to Jesus, “Can’t you count? Five loaves and two fish are simply not enough.” But for Jesus they were enough. Jesus took them and gave thanks. That means that he received the small gifts from the small people and acknowledged them as gifts from his heavenly Father. What comes from God must be enough for all the people. Therefore, Jesus distributed the loaves and the fish “as much as they wanted.” In giving away the small gifts from the small people, God’s generosity is revealed. There is enough, plenty even, for everyone—there are even many leftovers. Here a great mystery becomes visible. What little we give away multiplies. This is the way of God. This is also the way we are called to live our lives. The little love we have, the little knowledge we have, the little advice we have, the little possessions we have, are given to us as gifts of God to be given away. The more we give them away, the more we discover how much there is to give away. The small gifts of God all multiply in the giving.

Key to all of this is our accepting that we do, indeed, have enough. When we realize how blessed we are, even if life isn’t quite as comfortable or secure as we might want it to be, we become free to give to those who stand in need of our time, our attention, a share in our resources, and our love.

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