Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
29 July 2012
My dear friends,
Today’s Gospel reading is a very familiar one. It is a story oft repeated, so often repeated that it can lose its power. It describes an incident that can be understood at many different levels and from many angles.
The setting to what happened is pretty straightforward. Jesus went off to the other side of the sea of Tiberias. A large crowd followed him because they were impressed by him. We were told that they were impressed by the signs he gave, for instance in curing the sick. There is a suggestion that this man was not a magician. He did not offer wonders or tricks to people for their entertainment; he gave them signs and these had to do with healing. The power he displayed in what he did was not to boost his own ego or status; it was used to cure, it was directed towards the benefit of others.
A very practical consideration arose – how are we going to look after this crowd of people with food? This is a lonely place, without facilities, and these people have been on their feet for a very long time. The Apostles were stumped and could not see a solution. The small amount of money they could put together would not look at feeding such a crowd, and while they could muster a few fish and barley loaves, where would you be going with such meagre helpings to feed a crowd of this size?
Jesus himself seems to be calm about it all, and shows no sign of panic. The five thousand were directed to sit down, and presumably Jesus spoke to them and taught them with his customary power and authority. Then the most extraordinary thing happened. He took the bit of food which was available. The first thing he did was to bless the food. Then it was distributed and, to everyone’s surprise, there was sufficient for everyone’s needs and in fact there were scraps left over to be picked up afterwards.
We are told that the crowd were more than impressed. There’s that word again; we are told that what he did was not so much a marvel as a sign. They were so impressed that the crowd were saying, “this must be the prophet that was to come.” They saw him as a possible solution to another form of hunger. They were badly in need of a leader with power, one who could unify the people, take them out of the doldrums, restore the power to the kingdom of Israel, become strong enough again to strike fear into enemies. This must be the one. He has shown us his credentials many times over in what we have seen him do, so let’s make him king!
We are told that Jesus slipped away. There is further education needed, and it is going to take these people a long time to understand that there are many kinds of power. It will be much later before they can get their heads around the idea of a kingdom of the spirit, where priorities and values may be quite opposed to those followed by people who believe in a different God. To those who follow the Christian way, the most effective and enduring power is found in knowing and loving. When we reach that level of understanding, and allow God’s Word to guide us, we may discover – like the bemused little boy with the loaves and the fish – that a little can go a long way. Knowledge is vision and loving is life giving.
If we read the lives of people like Leonard Cheshire (friend of the severely handicapped), Jean Vanier (founder of l’Arche Community), or Nelson Mandela (South African liberator), we find they started from much the same territory as ourselves; they are ordinary human beings. Andrew scarcely had any inkling of what was about to happen when he brought the young lad with the few loaves and fishes to Jesus. When the bread was blessed and shared, no one felt hungry. Martin Luther King gave a famous speech in 1968 saying that he had been to the mountain-top, looked over and had seen the promised land. Eventually the cause of equality among the races was advanced because Martin Luther King made himself available to God.
Philip and Andrew differed in their reactions. Philip said the situation was hopeless; nothing could be done. Andrew’s starting point was that he would do what he could and the Lord will do the rest. Mother Teresa and Pope John XX111 made a difference because they trusted in God to do the driving and they co-operated. If we examine our hearts with an honest eye, we may have to admit that we often love God more for what we can get than for what we can give. We may be like the people in today’s gospel who wish to use Jesus for their own purpose and to fullfill their own dreams. They wanted to make him a king and conqueror, someone to put down the Roman occupiers. Jesus has told us clearly that he has come into the world not to lord it over us in power and authority, but to serve us.
So what kind of sign have we been given? Maybe in gathering for the Eucharist as we have done this morning we are like the crowd that gathered around Jesus in Galilee. We are drawn to this prophet, this Son of God. We are hungry. We seek knowledge and understanding of life. We seek the inspiration and the courage to live life well. The Lord answers our needs. He teaches us and he feeds us. He gives himself to us and strengthens us. Food is nourishment and also when shared an occasion of joy and harmony. This is the Eucharist for us. The Lord is our light and our help. If we put the little we have at his disposal and co-operate we can leave the rest to the Lord.
+Liam S. MacDaid
Bishop of Clogher
29 July 2012