Eighteenth Sunday of the Year
Whenever we reflect on the scriptures we face another aspect that makes up the image of the God of Jesus. The question is: will we live into God's image or will we try to force God into our image? Our actions or failures to act; our neglect or violence can obscure God’s image in the world. The first reading gives us a glimpse of an emerging relationship with God. The people in the wilderness were still getting to know this God who had been instrumental in their liberation. Their complaints against God and Moses also reveal another aspect of God and the way God relates to us.
The readings reveal God’s unconditional love – a love that reaches out to all people. God loves without conditions despite their grumbling, complaining and speaking out. God never stops loving us, trying to connect with us - no matter what we do. It is not always easy to accept. It requires a change in our thinking – to accept God’s unconditional love and extending that to others.
As we watch Christianity move toward the global South, we find that the people there are both poor and teach us to trust God and that whatever we have is from God. Many people forget this. They have a sense of entitlement believing that they have worked long and hard and so deserve what they have nothing to do with God. The more extreme form, but not uncommon, is countries going to poor countries and taking whatever they want or think they need. Among many examples, a contemporary one is the practice of ‘vaccine apartheid’ where Covid-19 vaccines are hoarded by rich countries to the detriment of countries in Africa, Caribbean (Cuba) and Asia struggling to deal with the pandemic as well as vaccinate their people. It is not just about food but about life in all its broadness.
In recent weeks we saw in the gospel people coming and looking for food – a larger version of Jesus at ‘table’ with people, who are often unacceptable to so-called ‘righteous’ people. The table metaphor reveals Jesus’ relational ministry in order to connect with people and people connecting with one another. Today, the people searching for Jesus are no longer physically hungry but are looking for last night’s miracle worker. But, Jesus knew that they, having had their physical needs met, could now accept the true bread from heaven; that they could hear and receive the good news that Jesus had to offer - a relationship with him. God works from the ground up. God met the Israelites need for food in the desert. Jesus met the crowds’ need for food in Galilee. Only then did Jesus offer them the bread from heaven - his very self. God uses us, the church, as did Jesus, to meet the physical needs of God’s people. Only when ‘stomachs’ are full, and physical and emotional needs met, can we like Jesus, begin to offer them the true bread from, a living relationship with Jesus Christ. I suspect our seed will then fall on good ground.
Pope Francis often speaks of the church as a field hospital:
The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up. (Aug. 19, 2013)
As we encounter Jesus present in the Eucharist, we do so also through our encounter with the poor. The body of the Crucified One is visible in the battered, bruised, tortured, abused and naked bodies of the suffering poor. They cannot be separated. The 4th century Church Father, John Chrysostom, said: ‘To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ, given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest!’ He warned against hypocrisy: “Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same who said: ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food’, and ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers (and sisters) you did also to me…’”
Jesus did not just give bread but his life for the liberation of others. He was put to death for championing justice, truth, the poor and those who are exploited. He stood up toinjustice, deception, greed, and exploitation. Like the bread that he broke and gave his disciples, his body was broken, scourged and crucified by the power of the day and their agents. It signifies being broken for others. And to share in the Eucharist is to share in the struggles of people around and of the poor.
Juan Mateos, a Spanish theologian, says that the people who had sought and found Jesus ‘had been the beneficiaries of the love of God expressed through Jesus and ... a child, but they only remember the satisfaction of their hunger.’ The child's example of unstinting generosity was overlooked as they came looking for Jesus, seeking food and oblivious to the signs. They had forgotten that the bread and fish they had shared the day before were a donation from a child – everything he had. This was what allowed it to become the bread of life. Looking so hard for miracles, they missed what was right before their eyes. God’s providence is all-around us. All around us the small, ordinary and mundane incubate the sacred. People can marvel at the life of one like Princess Diana who volunteered her time for people with HIV/AIDS but fail to recognise the 1000’s people, and many that I knew, who in the 1980’s and 1990’s cared for people living that pandemic and never getting in the news. We don’t have to look far to find reflections of the child who gave everything he had so that Jesus could share it with the hungry. How often do we remain oblivious to simple signs of the reign of God in our midst while pining for miracles and saints whose holiness shines irrefutably in the public square? The work God gives us is to realise that our eyes can perceive God’s presence in simple ways. Faith has no need of miraculous coercion.
Images of things we don’t have constantly bombard us. We are encouraged to forget about others as we chase the ‘bright, shiny objects’ of our desire. Unlike the theme of the readings today, we are being told that fulfilment comes only when we own enough, eat enough, experience enough, or know enough. But this process causes our relationships and communities to deteriorate and our hearts to grow increasingly empty. We know there is another way. As we trust in God’s abundance, we can find the freedom that comes from simplicity, the unity that comes from collaboration, and the abundance that comes from generosity. The question is whether we trust in Jesus enough, to risk living according to his way, and commit ourselves to seek the unity that is possible when we share whatever we have with others. How might our world change with this kind of attitude? Would we leave millions of people without a vaccine because of patents, profits and self-preservation? Would we continue where a billion people lack water, food, healthcare and proper education? Would we continue to have wars and conflicts if we used just enough rather than stealing resources from other nations? Past and contemporary conflicts and struggles can be reduced to one basic reality: some people have more than they need and hoard it. God has given us what we need to feed, house and care for everyone in our world, but many sacrifice peace and unity on the altars of greed. To make a difference involves valuing unity, simplicity and sharing with one another in order to build peace, find freedom and end to poverty, disease and war. To make a change, we must embrace God’s generosity - not just for us, but as flowing through us to others.
The Letter to the Ephesians calls us to ‘Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.’ We are called to be leaders, agents of change – not passive puppets. The writer says we have ‘learned’ Christ. This learning or education is not a learning about Christ, but where Jesus becomes the centre of our lives. With his presence within us, we can begin a transformation and bring about a revolution; and the Eucharist can transform us and bring about a revolution within us and around us. A change in our thinking can lead to a change in the way we act and make God’s reign happen in our world.
By providing food for the crowds, Jesus drew them beyond the signs before them to the true bread that satisfies every human hunger; a hunger that is satisfied by a relationship with him. Jesus wanted them to move to another level of awareness - to see as he sees. He was able to see dignity and beauty in the beggar; to see the need for healing and reconciliation in a shamed woman; to see potential in those who denied and betrayed him our fear; to see beyond the colour of skin, or gender, or politics or socioeconomic status.
Over the coming weeks, Jesus will continue to challenge our seeing and believing. We will be invited to listen behind the words and look beyond the bread to perceive the mystery behind the sign. So, when we eat and drink what has become the body and blood of Jesus, something extraordinary is supposed to happen, and it will happen. A transformation takes place because Jesus becomes more deeply alive within us and begins to transform us. Jesus living within us changes us, makes us more like him.
Being more like him, we can see as he sees, and respond with his heart. We are called to look at the world differently: to see it from the perspective of abundance rather than scarcity; of love rather than fear; of generosity rather than greed; of peacemaking rather than violence. God is at work in our lives and other people providing possibilities, insights, and energy to embody these in our daily lives. What would Jesus’ words mean for communities and churches tempted to think small and shrink the table of hospitality rather than extend it. God wants us to think big and act boldly. Returning to the boy in last week’s gospel, we see that God’s vision of possibilities and the energy to realise them is diminished when we fail to align ourselves with God’s reign of peace, beauty and justice. These enable God to do new and creative things in our lives and the world. We open the door for a greater influx of God’s activity and care. This means being active in working to do justice, widening our circles of relationships. The more we work alongside marginalised and impoverished communities to bring about justice, the more we see the face of God. ’I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.’ Jesus calls us to be relational: just as bread is broken and shared among friends and family, we are most nourished when we are living out Jesus’ message to care for one another and build just relationships in society. It is not about religious rules, doctrine or dogma because they often provide reasons for us to disconnect from others. We must not see these meal stories as stories about how they came to be an exponential multiplication of the bread and fish. If we see it as a story about Jesus and the why of his life, we will find the clear invitation to seek his ways. What we see is the heart of God with boundless compassion for people who are hungry and thirsty in any way and we are part of that. This is the miracle. It calls for a new mindset with which we gather with people and create a space where all kinds of differences can be acknowledged and welcomed.