17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fish - Do we face problems with calculation or wonder when the Lord asks us to give?
Soon after coming to St. Charles three years ago, I began networking to put together a board or a leadership team to develop and to implement a strategic plan for the long-term stability of our parish school. I met with a developer who has a history of supporting Catholic charities and other charitable works. One of the first questions he asked me was whether I thought the school had a chance of staying open. I said that I wouldn’t be having this conversation with him if I thought the school was a lost cause. From his perspective, it was a reasonable question. Everybody wants to “make a difference” or contribute in a way in which they can see results. There is no point in “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” or “throwing money down a rat hole” as they say. Why should I get involved or give to something if it will just be “wasted” and not make a difference? It is a very reasonable question when one has limited time and resources or thinks that their time and resources may make a bigger impact someplace else. We often think this way as well when a problem seems too big or impossible to solve when we look at our limited resources - what we have to offer. We make a calculation that what we have won’t make a difference - is not going to be enough to make an impact, so we throw up our hands in discouragement. It is a way of “washing our hands” of the problem - not getting involved.
In today’s account of the multiplication of the loaves and the fish in John’s Gospel, the Lord presents the disciples with this “test” when he sees the large crowd coming to him on the mountain. He says to Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” The “test” is whether this problem becomes an opportunity to grow in faith or not. How does Philip respond? With a calculation. He thinks in terms of money. In a similar way, when Andrew finds that they have just five barley loaves and two fish, he says, “but what good are these for so many?” What difference would they make? We don’t have the resources to make even a dent in the problem. When we focus on our limitations or the enormity of the problem, we freeze and are filled with anxiety. Things look hopeless. We don’t give - we hold back - also because we think, “I can’t afford this”, meaning that to give of my resources here would negatively impact me. We get worried or fearful of the negative impact such giving might entail. John notes that the large crowd was following Jesus “because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick.” They are interested in Jesus for wonders he can work - perhaps what he can do for them. This is a shallow reason to follow Jesus. It is not about a relationship with him but what they can get out of it. If I don’t see in advance the “return on investment”, why should I follow or invest myself here? It is interesting to note from where Jesus gets the resources from which he will feed the large crowd. They come from a boy - a child. Children face the world with wonder, not calculation. Jesus is always inviting us to “become like little children”. The child is the model of faith. Jesus instructs the people to “recline”. “Reclining” was the position in which people ate at a banquet. “Reclining” is a position of rest and receptivity. What Jesus does next: “He took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining” is very similar to the way Jesus’ actions are described in the Last Supper accounts in the other Gospels. John doesn’t give an account of the institution of the Eucharist in his Gospel, but what he describes in this scene makes the connection with the Passover, the Last Supper, and how God through Jesus will feed his people superabundantly with the Eucharist, even more so than how God fed his people with the manna in the desert. With the manna, anything more than what was needed, if kept, would spoil. With the bread that Jesus provides, anything that is left over is to be gathered up, “so that nothing will be wasted.”
The request to give of ourselves in situations that seem beyond our capability or when a problem seems impossible and we don’t know how what we could do would make a difference, is an opportunity to grow in our relationship with the Lord. It is an opportunity to grow in faith. When we give the little that we have to Jesus in these situations without defending ourselves or protecting ourselves from loss, Jesus reveals himself. Things may look impossible to us, but Jesus himself knows what he is going to do. Whatever we offer to the Lord not only will not be wasted, but experiencing his presence with us through the unexpected result satisfies a need that goes much deeper than our physical needs. There is something “left over” - more than we expected - that in turn enables us to feed others. When facing our problems, we have to start with what we have been given and not focus on what we don’t have. For the solution lies in what is given, not in what we wish we had. What we wish we had doesn’t exist. What is given to us is real and can be offered to the Lord. That is when the “miracle” happens - not that there is some amazing result that solves our problems, but that we become less stingy and more willing to give and to trust in the Lord. We face reality less with calculation and more with the wonder of a child and are more free to follow and to respond to what the Lord is asking of us. Mother Teresa was at times criticized by secular commentators because what she and the Missionaries of Charity were doing seemed like a waste - not making any difference in the poverty rate in Calcutta and other places among the “poorest of the poor.” But her work was miraculous because it revealed Jesus and satisfied the deep need of many people - to be looked on with love and tenderness - to be seen with the eyes of Christ. If we only give from our surplus, what we have left over, in order to preserve things according to our measure and calculation, what we have will be wasted for so much more happens when we give in faith.
Throwing money at problems usually does not fix them, but facing those problems with the Lord opens up new possibilities for deepening our relationship with him. The fellow I spoke to joined our team. What has been most helpful to me is not that I now have answers to all my problems but that we are walking together in faith and are open to how the Lord will reveal himself along the way. That is how the problems cease to overwhelm us and how we walk forward in hope.