One commentator suggested that in today’s Gospel reading there are two miracles; one is Jesus feeding of the people, the other is the generosity of the boy.
Picture that scene. There are over 5,000 men, if that does not include women and children likely many more people, out in the countryside, hungry and probably getting restless. No McDonald’s for miles. In last week’s Gospel Jesus looked out at the crowd and felt pity, compassion for them, like sheep without a shepherd. Through this miracle of multiplication he conveyed that he is their good shepherd, and ours. As the psalm response reminds us: The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.
It is interesting to observe the characters in this Gospel rendering and how they dealt with this challenging moment.
There is Phillip. Jesus asks him where they could buy some bread for the people. Interestingly the Gospel says Jesus was testing Phillip. Phillip was the immediate naysayer. Two hundred days wages would not be enough to buy all that would be needed to feed them, he declares. It is hopeless.
Our human nature seems to respond to problems or difficult situations with negativity. When a problem arises or a new idea is put forth we often immediately identify the negatives, the reasons why we cannot or should not respond. It happens in business, in government, in the family and in the church.
I remember when I first felt called to the priesthood. I was in my late thirties with a reasonably successful career in law. Rather than responding with joyful expectation to the opportunity God was presenting, I focused on why the idea was absurd. I’m too old, I don’t have enough brain cells left to study theology, what would others think. Sadly this negativity returned when I was asked to become Bishop of Sioux Falls. Once again I thought I’m too old, I did not study in Rome; I have never been to South Dakota. Fortunately the nay became a yes from which I have received many blessings.
Certainly it is important to think things through, to appreciate the factors that make issues difficult to deal with. There are limits in life. But in life and in faith to allow God to work miracles we need to see beyond the immediate obstacles and believe that nothing is impossible for God. We need vision and visionaries.
Jesus looked at the crowd not with doubt or as a problem, but with compassion and with love. God provides when we open our hearts to him, truly trusting in Him.
Then there is Andrew. He was not as negative as Phillip but still felt hesitation recognizing the magnitude of the task to feed all these people. He called Jesus’ attention to a boy with five barely loaves and a couple of dried fish. Yet, he noted, that won’t go far. The disciples had already seen Jesus turn water into wine, cure a sick child, and restore freedom to a cripple. Andrew seemed to have an inkling of the possibilities and that Jesus could deal with the situation. He did what he could but remained doubtful.
We can be like that as well, remaining hesitant in part because of the assumptions we make. A woman was in a grocery store and bent over to look at some tomatoes. Immediately she felt a sharp pain shooting down her back and let out a shriek. Another shopper leaned over and said, “If you think the tomatoes are expensive, you should see the price of lettuce.” Our assumptions can sometimes be wrong.
In matters of faith, it is natural to be hesitant, but we should also evaluate our assumptions. We do not have all the answers; we do not know what the future holds. But our hesitancy should not cause us to miss the opportunities God provides. Faith means to trust. Someone wrote that strong faith is dead to doubt, dumb to discouragement and blind to impossibilities.
Then there is the little boy. Children so often show us the way. They respond to the moment, free from the protections we adults build around ourselves. I read about a little boy who was having nightmares. His parents tried all sorts of things to help him move beyond them. They explained the difference between real and make believe; they left the lights on all night; they showed him videos on overcoming fear; they read him stories of brave children; they consulted self-help books. Nothing worked. Then the nightmares suddenly stopped. When asked what changed, the boy told his parents that he had asked God to help him not to have bad dreams. “And he did,” said the boy. The parents were taken aback and wondered why they had not thought of asking God.
The boy in the Gospel reading had brought basically a snack: five barley loaves, the cheapest and smallest of breads, and a couple of dried fish, perhaps the equivalent of Ritz crackers and sardines. We can almost envision the boy overhearing the discussion the disciples had with Jesus and then naively offering his snack to help. It seems like a silly gesture, but a generous one, and look what Jesus did with it.
Jesus uses what we bring to him, including ourselves. We may not seem like much in the eyes of the world but we are all worthy in the eyes of God. If we offer ourselves in God’s service, who knows what God might do with us and through us. We may be embarrassed that we do not have much to offer, but that is no reason for failing to offer what we have. A simple smile, a gentle presence, a thoughtful prayer can brighten the spirit of another, become a miracle and feed a spiritual need. In the hands of God, there is nothing and especially no one too small.
There is a legend about the boy. It says that when he got home he told his mother about the wonderful experience he had just had. He told her how his barley bread and fish had been multiplied by Jesus to feed thousands of people. He paused and said, “I wonder, mother, whether it would be that way with everything we gave him?” Perhaps we might give it a try by without condition giving him our very selves.
As St Paul put it in our 2nd reading: I . . . urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received. May we recommit today to seek more fully to do so.