18th SUNDAY OF YEAR A, 2020
GOD IS COMPASSIONATE AND GENEROUS
Is 55: 1-3; Rom 8:35, 37-39; Matt 14:13-21
In today’s Gospel, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to the disciples to distribute to a crowd of 5000 people. (It sounds very much like our Eucharistic celebration today.) The evangelist notes, “They all ate and were satisfied.” In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah says, “All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!” (Is 55:1) And in the Responsorial Psalm we spoke these words of gratitude to God: “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.” The message of today’s liturgy is that we have a God who is compassionate, takes care of our every need. We can depend on him without fear.
- BACKGROUND TO THE GOSPEL OF TODAY
Matthew begins by telling us the story of how John the Baptist was killed. Still in the shock and pain of John’s death, Jesus and his disciples get together in a boat and head to a quiet and lonely place for a retreat. But the crowds had other plans. Learning about their plans, the crowds followed them to whatever ‘lonely place’ they were heading to. We are told that they did not even get a chance to be on their retreat before they were once again met by a mass of people. One can imagine some frustration on the part of the disciples, because they were surely worn out from their experiences. Even though they were probably all exhausted, Jesus welcomed the people and began to teach. After several lessons and healing sessions, the disciples came to Jesus and warned him that it was getting late in the day and the people would be getting hungry soon. So, THEY TOLD JESUS (notice that they did not ask or suggest!) to send the people back to the surrounding villages so they could find food and lodging. Jesus’ response was, “You give them something to eat.”
We are also told that there were about 5.000 men there. It is possible that if many of these people had brought their families along with them, then there could have been a crowd of 15.000 to as many as 20.000 people there. The disciples were somehow frustrated with Jesus’ response. “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here”, they told Jesus. Nonetheless, Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, prayed to God over them, gave it to the crowds and everyone ate to his/her satisfaction. At the end, twelve baskets full of broken pieces were collected after the meal.
- JESUS TEACHES IMPORTANT LESSONS FOR US TO REMEMBER
This gospel story is told by all four evangelists. That shows how important it was for them. The evangelists are not only telling us what happened 2020 years ago. They are also giving us an idea of why it happened as it did. Like any other miracle that Jesus performed, he performs this particular miracle not to gain honour for himself nor to entertain and satisfy the crowds so that they can acclaim him as the Messiah. He performs it out of his compassion for the people and to show to them the loving providence of God for his creatures. By this miracle, Jesus is training his disciples. Through it, he is also instructing us even today.
- a) Our God is compassionate: In spite of his physical and psychological tiredness, after the death of his cousin, John the Baptist, we are told that Jesus forewent his personal time and space for the crowd. Today’s Gospel says: “His heart was moved with pity for them”. He was moved with pity for the hungry crowd that kept following him. Instead of sending them away, as his disciples had asked him to do, Jesus put himself into their shoes (Mt 14:14).
For God, Compassion supersedes convenience. Compassion must take priority over comfort. Putting ourselves in the situation of Jesus, our natural instinct would have been that of frustration, anger, and temptation to shout: “Could you, please, just leave us alone for one night!” We would have likely seen the people as an interruption because of our own exhaustion. Jesus saw them differently. He saw them as hurting people who were crying out for help. He saw them as the people to whom he did his ministry not just because of duty, pressure or fear; neither did he do it for favour or popularity. The reason was LOVE. Christ’s concept of compassion is not just feeling sorry for people, but a sensitivity that flows into action or seeks to “go out of the way.” It would do us well today to ask ourselves why we do what we are doing.
- b) Sometimes, the greatest opportunities to be of service to others come at the times that seem most INCONVENIENT to us. As mentioned above, Jesus and his disciples were exhausted. They just wanted to have some time to recharge, and to be on their own. It is only at this time that the crowds show up again. Jesus did not hesitate. He did not tell the people to go and come back later. He did not complain about how busy he was and how tired he was. He immediately seized the opportunity to minister to the people.
No ordinary person would enjoy such an interruption. Yet, it seems to be a common theme in Jesus’ teaching. Let us think back on another familiar story that Jesus told: the parable of the Good Samaritan. The first two people who walked past the injured man were prominent religious leaders. You can imagine that they were probably busy. They had important things to do. After all, they were on their way to teach the people in Temple in Jerusalem. That was where their time was going to be best spent. Jesus disagreed with that assessment. He said that these men were actually the “bad fellows” of the story, because their self-important view caused them to miss an opportunity to truly share the love of Christ with someone in dire need. Yet, this is the most important thing one can do.
It is not easy to apply this in our daily lives! There are many times when you just want to tell people to leave you alone, because you are doing something important. Jesus encourages us to look at interruptions differently. When you are working on something, or you are running late for a programme, or working under pressure for some reason, and someone interrupts you, try to look for what opportunity genuine to render service may be standing there before you. This may be a chance to render some urgent and much-needed service to your spouse, your kids, your boss, the people you work with, your neighbour, or friend, or even a complete stranger. Instead of looking at these interruptions as intrusions into our busy schedules, we should look at them as some God-sent appointments—a time that God has set aside for you to touch the life of some other person.
- c) God can multiply our meager resources to accomplish great things: The disciples of Jesus were probably planning to prepare a meal for thirteen people (the twelve of them and Jesus), but instead, several thousand hungry people showed up! One can imagine the panic of preparing a meal for 13, only to find you were short by thousands of servings. Looking at the five loaves and two fishes they (rightly) concluded that there was no hope. But, unfortunately, they failed to see what God could do with those same materials!
Sometimes, we fall into this same trap. We look at the needs around us and conclude that we do not have the resources to help. Jesus is calling our attention to the fact that God is not just in the business of multiplying loaves and fishes. He can multiply anything that we will give to him. That means that we can give of our talents, our time, or our treasure, and God can use those things to accomplish far more than we could ever imagine.
One may look at his/her reserve of money and feel discouraged. Or one may see his/her lack of education as a hindrance to his/her ability. Being naturally shy or lacking in some skill in a certain area, a person may feel helpless in doing great things. We are reminded that God can take whatever we give him and multiply it to do great things. The key is to trust God to the extent of giving him whatever we have, even if we think it is insignificant.
- d) God expects us to be part of the solution: The disciples saw a problem. They told themselves that it was getting late in the day and everyone was getting hungry, and they alerted Jesus on the consequences of any further delay. Jesus did not do what they told him to do. He did not just feed everyone right then and there. Instead, Jesus told them to meet the need that they saw. He told the disciples to feed the people.
God may help us to identify a problem. But, in doing so, he also gives us a responsibility to be a part of the solution. Quite often, are very good at seeing problems, and knowing what other people should or should not do concerning the problem. Unfortunately, we do not do much to fix the problem. We are more inclined complain or point fingers (which really does not solve the problem either.) For Jesus, a better approach is to look at problems and say, “What can I do to make this better?” Unfortunately it is a lot easier to point fingers than to be a part of the solution, because sometimes the solution is not something we want to do. The real solution is for us to take the first step, trying to do what will help solve the problem.
- “GIVE THEM SOME FOOD YOURSELVES.”
A common way in which people approach problems is by praying. Prayer and good wishes, appreciable as they are, are not always enough. Sometimes when we pray God’s answer to us is, “But you, you can do that yourselves.” This is what we see in today’s gospel where the disciples are so concerned about the hungry crowd that they pray Jesus to dismiss them so that they could go and buy themselves something to eat. Jesus turns and says to them, “Hey, you give them something to eat. You can take care of that yourselves.” Only then do they remember they have five loaves and two fish. Jesus blesses the five loaves and two fish and, to their surprise, that was more than enough to satisfy the enormous hunger of all the people. That is how we have the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand!
Why did the disciples not think earlier of sharing their provision with the crowd? Is it that they did not care? Yes, they did care and they did wish the crowd well. But probably they were simply being realistic and practical. Let’s face it: five loaves and two fish are nothing before a hungry crowd of five thousand men, plus women and children! We see this more clearly in the gospel of John where one of the disciples, Andrew, says to Jesus: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” (John 6:9) In Mark’s gospel accounts, we are told that one of the disciples complained that it would take eight month’s wages (two hundred denarii) to feed this crowd. The action of faith to which Jesus calls his followers often goes beyond the dictates of human logic and realism.
Like the disciples, we find that our care and compassion is very often limited to prayer and good wishes. No wonder wish-you-well messages are being coined, designed and circulated in the social media daily! They have become very popular. Like the disciples we wish people well but have no intention of taking positive action to help the situation. Take the typical example of the French version of the prayer before meals. (“Bénissez-nous, Seigneur, bénissez ce repas, ceux qui l’ont préparé, et procurez du pain à ceux qui n’en ont pas ! Ainsi soit-il!”) Literally, the prayer asks God to “bless US, bless the FOOD, bless THOSE WHO HAVE PREPARED THE FOOD, and give bread to those who don’t anything to eat”. Over a good meal, from which one will come out with a full stomach, we wish God to “provide food to those who don’t have”! What have we done to help, or share our food with those who do not have? And, again like the disciple, what prevents us from taking positive action is often the realistic assessment that the little we are able to do is not really going to make any appreciable difference.
But in the gospel we see that when we translate our care and compassion into positive action, the little we are able to do is multiplied by God’s grace in such a way that it becomes more than sufficient for the need. All that Jesus needs from us to feed the hungry crowds of the world is our “five loaves and two fish.” Why did Jesus not just go on and produce bread from thin air to feed the crowd? It is because God needs our “five loaves and two fish” in order to perform the amazing miracle of feeding the five thousand.
God our Father is compassionate and generous. He is, truly, good all the time! He furnishes us with all that we HAVE, and all that we ARE. He blesses us without charge or pay: “All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!” (Is 55:1) Let us pray for the grace to be appreciative to God for all his gifts to us, and also to be open-handed in providing for the needs of others from our own resources.