HOMILY for the 17th Sunday per annum (B)
“How can I do this?” Both Elisha’s servant and Philip express wonder, astonishment and even doubt when asked to make their few provisions stretch to feed a hundred, and then, five thousand people. In the Gospel, Philip says they would need over a year’s wages to feed so many with even just a little bread. And this would be the normal sane response; it’s not humanly possible. But God’s response always goes beyond our human imagination and expectations.
However, God does not work independently of us. He works alongside us, using whatever we offer him. In the First Reading a man brings twenty barley loaves from Baal-shalishah, from impure pagan territory as the name prefix ‘Baal’ indicates. And in the Gospel, a boy, a “lad” provides five barley loaves and two fish. The boy stands for someone small, weak, powerless and vulnerable. And both these people offer something paltry. So, God takes what little we have to offer him, even from our weakness, even if it originates from imperfect motivations. But God receives whatever we offer him, and he does something new with it, something that exceeds our dreams.
He accepts our poor gifts, he blesses and gives thanks for them, and so, he declares them to be good. Thus God transforms you and me when we offer him our selves, giving us in return more than we dared hope for. For God doesn’t just take and accept us, forgiving us our sins. He gives us “grace upon grace”, blessing us by filling us with the grace of Jesus Christ. This gift of grace elevates us to friendship with God, and, with his Spirit at work in us, God transforms us and makes us good, so that we can become one with him in love.
For it is only this – being united to God by being filled with love – that can satisfy our deepest longings. For only love can quench the fundamental thirst of the human heart, our search for happiness and pleasure. St Augustine understood this well when he said: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”. Because we have been created with this profound longing for God. It’s manifested as a desire for love and truth, for goodness and beauty. These fundamental desires, which surpass every material want, every physical hunger, can only be satisfied by God’s love. So, as we said in the psalm response: “You satisfy the desire of every living thing”.
Now, you might be thinking, this is all very well, but what about food for our bodies? After all, we’re human beings not angels. There’s a danger about spiritualizing the Gospel when it has such tangible material effects. For we need to eat, and there are many people who are poor, starving, suffering from the effects of famine. So, what does God do about our physical hunger?
Well, first Christ enables us to share what little we bring to him. So, he takes what the boy brings to him, and then he distributes it, hence he is the basis of our sharing with one another. And he tells his disciples to gather up the leftovers so that nothing is lost, nothing wasted. Research has found that 25% of the food we buy is wasted. Indeed, just the bread and other cereal products thrown away in this country annually would be enough to sustain 30 million people. So, the scandal isn’t just that people in our world go hungry, but, even more scandalously, that so much is wasted. So, when it comes to material needs, to physical hunger, the Lord calls us to share what we have and not to waste the plenty he has given to you and me.
Some people may find this unsatisfying, a ‘cop out’ even. But it is precisely an issue like this that reveals the scandal of the Incarnation, and the radical difference of Christianity from other religions. For in our true Faith, God is doing something new. Traditionally, religions conceived of God as a kind of celestial jack-pot machine: we pray hard enough, and God would rain down food from heaven. But in the Incarnation, God has come close to humankind, he works in the material world, co-operating with us. So, his Spirit re-fashions us in Christ’s image so that as children of God, we are to feed the hungry. God, at work through us, making us his co-workers, feeds the hungry. Because we don’t learn love by talking about it, or even by praying to God about it. We learn love by doing it, by its becoming flesh in our lives, in our actions, with our bodies and the sacrifice of our self. This co-operation of God and Man is the newness of the Christian way, and Jesus, like a new Moses, is teaching this new way to his followers.
Two little details in the Gospel point toward this. John says: “Now there was much grass in the place; so the men sat down…” Like students around the Master, they gather to be taught by the Lord. And, on the one hand the grass points to the green pasture where the Lord had shepherded his flock in order to feed them with his wisdom and with bread. But the green grass also points to Spring, a new season, indicating that God was doing something new, fresh, and life-giving among his people.
Another little detail indicates that God is doing this work in his Church because the twelve baskets of fragments remind us that as God fed the twelve tribes of his people, Israel. So now, God feeds his new Israel, as it were; a people founded on the twelve apostles. Hence, we who have been fed on Christ’s Word and Sacrament, who are filled with his grace, and have become sharers in his divine life have custody of those twelve baskets of God’s largesse. From the abundance that God has given us, God calls us to share with the hungry, to feed the poor, to love our starving brothers and sisters.
But there is so much to do, so many to help, that we might feel paralyzed. Like Elisha’s servant and Philip, we may wonder and even doubt if we can make any difference. We feel helpless and uncertain where to start because the problem is so enormous, and we have so little. But that is why today’s Gospel, this “sign” of Christ’s miracle, is offered to us: to give us faith and hope. For however paltry our contribution might be, whatever our weaknesses and imperfections, God graciously accepts whatever we offer him. He takes us, blesses us, and uses us so that we can help satisfy the hungers of our neighbour, indeed, so that they can come to experience God’s love.
The miracle is that in loving others like this, through practical acts of love, we become united to God. And so, we, too, have our deepest desires satisfied because God’s love has taken flesh in our lives and filled our hearts.