18th Sunday of the Year
It is difficult to avoid the reality of injustice and poverty today when we see the following Jesus whilst he is trying to find some space to deal with the murder of John the Baptism. This murder gave Jesus a double warning. First, it made clear that anyone who criticised powerful people courted danger. We see also the tragedy of trivialising John’s life and mission because his death was due to petty vengeance and a drunken promise. Whatever Jesus wanted to do, looking upon the distressed people called something from him as well as clarifying his mission.
Clearly, there is a lot of anger as people protest injustice, racism, poverty, natural disasters and poverty down to Covid-19 lockdowns and being forced to wear masks. There is much to be hot about at the moment as kids aged 10 years old are considered eligible for prison; as bishops in the USA support the regime and Australian bishops remain silent about racism and giving very little to aid people to live with the imposed solitude; or the scepticism among many that the Church leadership will not hear the calls for change in the church with the upcoming Plenary Council; or, giving little support as vulnerable people who have lost jobs or been unemployed continue to face welfare cuts for the so-called ‘good of the economy’.
Matthew tells us that Jesus had ‘pity’ on the crowd. It was not the passive pity or compassion that we usually think of. Jesus’ feelings for the crowd after the injustice that was John’s murder brought forth grief, compassion and raging anger. It was unjust that John was murdered after a stupid promise and it was unjust that the crowd was left fragile in the wilderness-as so many people continue today who go hungry because they are unemployed or underemployed without government support. How would Jesus look upon the many people who do not even qualify for assistance because ‘we need to look after Australian citizens first’ as the Federal Treasurer said recently Many of us are afraid of anger. It can be damaging in our relationships that wan isolate us and others but anger towards injustice can also be energizing and transformative. When Jesus sees the vulnerable people he thinks of Isaiah’s radical invitation to all who thirst and hunger. This is what is like in God’s reign of abundance – not in the world.
Jesus takes the suffering of people seriously because he is close to them. There is not something speculative or abstract. We see the looking upon and feeling for people in the narrative of Pope Francis’ Exhortation Querida Amazonia as he takes seriously the suffering history of people. The readings tell us that God hears the cry of the poor and Jesus through his own suffering also hears that cry. Pope Francis has connected the ‘cry that the Amazon raises to the Creator’ with the ‘cry of the People of God in Egypt (Exodus 3:7’ (QA No. 52). It is difficult to believe that Pope Francis would be passionlessly responding to the people he is referring to. It emerges from his ability to connect with people, especially the most marginalised and oppressed. Jesus responds with ‘compassion’ for a people left poor, excluded, isolated, leaderless and needlessly dying for political reasons by an oppressive system. Any anger or ‘fire in the belly’ rises up because this is not how the world should be or how people should relate to one another. This kind of seeing and hearing resulted in the silencing of prophets and Jesus himself and disparagement of Pope Francis. Philip Berrigan said: ‘The poor tell us who we are, the prophets tell us who we could be, so we hide the poor and kill the prophets.’ But, does the church and society in general hear the cry of world and of creation?
The Bible is replete with stories of people living on the razor’s edge of food insecurity, lack of shelter and the threat of exile or extinction. Today more than 65 million people are displaced and one in 113 is a refugee. People are displaced every three seconds because of violence, war and persecution.om their homes by violence, war and persecution. And children make up more than half the world’s refugees and vulnerable to people trafficking.
The so-called miracle story today was not a ‘popcorn miracle’ where five loaves and two fish suddenly multiplied. John Dominic Crossan says that the ‘miracle of loaves and fishes’ was not just about food but about just distribution. That is the way things are in God’s reign which we are called to replicate. The readings today are not just about food and drink but about just food and drink. They are about sharing God’s free gifts and not turning them into commodities that benefit the few. It means being aware of the ‘spirit of interconnection and interdependence of the whole of creation, the mysticism of gratuitousness that loves life as a gift, the mysticism of a sacred wonder before nature and all its form of life’ (QA N0. 73). I was told off by parishioners years ago when I suggested that the miracle in the gospel was more about the sharing and distribution rather than the multiplication. People bringing what they had and shared after seeing another being generous. Everyone shared even with those who brought nothing. It was a ‘miracle of enough.’
Jesus’ feelings of compassion and rage guide his actions, choices and responses and author an alternative hope that make visible the love of God. Jesus, being with people, shows that God is with people: women and children as well as men, the frail and poor, the sick and even disreputable people, Indigenous people, people with various sexual orientations, the asylum seekers and the stranger. Here before Jesus, and us, is humanity. The gospel sets for us what discipleship involves – ‘you give them something to eat; don’t send them off to get food; don’t blame them for not having enough, or being unemployed, or for any other predicament. The central message is: ‘You give them something to eat yourselves.’ The intention is to model the whole gospel and his life for us. Pope Francis has again repeated what the gospels try to do. He makes visible people who have been invisible and who have been treated as commodities by corporations, mining companies and ranchers. It is to these invisible that we are directed. ‘Give them something to eat’ but also use your sense of injustice to change was is unfair. In 2011, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that God calls us to be partners in changing a ‘crazy’ world of extreme economic inequality. ‘Dream God’s dream. Dream as you go out into a world that is so unequal. Dream of a different world.’ He said, ‘When someone is hungry we do not see samosas floating down from heaven. If that hungry person is to be fed, this omnipotent God waits on us to be God’s partners so that the miracle of feeding the hungry happens.’ Tutu used his rage against the ‘obscene’ inequality where children die of preventable disease because of unaffordable vaccines; where many are hungry whilst the rich do not know what to do with their surpluses; where billions are directed to military spending without anything going to building relationships with our neighbours through development aid and peacemaking. Speaking to university graduates, Tutu said, ‘We need you to dream God’s dream of a world, a different kind of world, a compassionate world, a caring world, a sharing world. God says ‘I have no-one, except you.’ God says ‘Help me, please help me to realise my dream'‘.
The task can seem enormous. The gospel tells us about the many thousands who were fed by a little bit of bread and fish. The point of the story is precisely the hopelessness of this equation. The resources of the Gospel always seem hopelessly dwarfed by the world's power, the world's hunger, the world's sin, and the resources that the world itself seems to offer.
We are reminded that we are with the bread of life. We have what we need to feed the world. We do not need to go anywhere to buy anything. We have the resources already even though they often seem over matched, hopeless, dwarfed, nonsensical, even wishful thinking. We might feel puny and pathetic, not up to the task of feeding a hungry, greedy world. The point of the gospel today is to take up the challenge to roll the dice on the reality of the gospel. It is adequate to the task, both of feeding the world and defeating ‘empire’. Simon Baron-Cohen, writes, ‘…..each drop of empathy waters the flower of peace.’ (Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty, London, 2011)