HOMILY—Pentecost 9—Enough for Everyone
In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
Some weeks ago, I read a brief item in a magazine which said that world hunger could be eliminated if every person living in the First World, our world, gave 200 US dollars to make it happen. It struck me at the time because it seemed so simple, some might even say simplistic. We know, of course, that we will never be called upon to donate that money. That’s not how the world works. Nothing, in fact, is ever that simple. But what those sorts of statistics or comparative examples do is help us to grasp a hugely complex problem or issue as something manageable. They help put things in perspective. The elimination of world hunger can be seen as a viable possibility if we are able to frame things differently, if we can somehow cut the problem down to size. This sort of modelling reminds us that seemingly unmanageable social problems are actually human-sized challenges.
Very sadly, however, we know that world hunger is good business. It is good business in the sale of armaments; good business in the political give-and-take between opposing forces in civil wars; good business in the forced labour of child soldiers. In many places, hunger remains a perverse instrument of state policy, wielded as a weapon of war. And so, we can ask: how much of a dent would our $200 really make? Are we fooling ourselves by thinking in such facile terms?
In two of the readings from today, and especially in the gospel from John, we are presented with stories of food and people who are vulnerable because of its potential lack. We see how solicitous Jesus was about meeting the physical needs of the people following him. He was anxious for their welfare. We also get a glimpse of the sorts of very practical concerns about numbers and costs that motivated the disciples. In this gospel, we might even say that we are confronted—challenged, might be a better word—with God’s alternate scenario to hunger: a scenario that necessarily implicates us.
This story of the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle—apart from the Resurrection—that is found in all four gospels. That tells us something about its importance. It is one of those passages that could be said to be overly familiar to us, as are its typical interpretations. The most common of these interpretations has to do with the so-called sharing thesis: the argument goes that what was miraculous about the event was that the people shared the food which they already had on them, hiding under their cloaks. Now, there’s nothing very miraculous about that, and it certainly minimizes the role of Jesus in the whole event, to say nothing of how it completely deconstructs the gospel story, almost to the point of non-recognition. Rather, I like what St. Augustine has to say about this text: “[Jesus] multiplied in his hands the five loaves, just as he produces harvest out of a few grains. There was a power in the hands of Christ; and those five loaves were, as it were, seeds, not indeed committed to the earth, but multiplied by him who made the earth.” Augustine’s perspective keeps the power of Jesus front-and-centre. It gives due credit to God. I doubt very much if Augustine, were he alive today, would deny the autonomy of the natural world. But he would not be complacent about reminding us that it is always God who is in charge. Ultimately, it is God’s power that counts. That, in essence, is what the miraculous is really all about. It can, of course, be understood and experienced in a variety of ways, but it always affirms the primacy of God’s presence and work in the world. Not God’s work apart from this world, or above it, but clearly within it. We might even say that God has no other place to do God’s work.
The miraculous makes us uncomfortable. Sure, we are willing to accept it in the pages of scripture because, well, that’s scripture and those are the wonderful stories about Jesus that we’ve been hearing all our lives. But we’re not really willing to admit of the miraculous in the everyday, and especially not now. That would be unscientific. We feel we’ve somehow moved beyond miracles. Aren’t they a tad superstitious, we might ask? But I’m really not sure. What do we lose when we lose a sense of the miraculous? What do we lose when we try to explain away this miraculous feeding of 5,000 people with some amusing and uninspiring exegesis? Where, then, does God’s power reside? I think we do harm to our faith when we no longer admit of the miraculous. And that’s really how this gospel story speaks to me. It leaves me with a sense of awe. Funny enough, it leaves me fishing for some clever but empty explanation. But all I see is God’s generous power.
In a recent homily, Pope Francis reflected as follows on this gospel text: “The story of the multiplication of the loaves and fish teaches us exactly this: that if there is the will, what we have never ends. On the contrary, it abounds and does not get wasted.” I guess this could be interpreted in two different ways. On the one hand, it might strike us as being somewhat simple-minded, in the vein of “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” But I doubt if that is what Francis had in mind. Given his particular interest in issues of social justice and economic equality, I suspect he was pointing to something deeper. He would say that it’s about God’s generosity and care, about our ability to live by it and to model it, and about the surprising sorts of possibilities that this opens us—not just in our personal lives and decisions, but also in our life together as members of a political community. There really is a powerful political message to this incident of the loaves and fishes. It is echoed in the statement that Andrew makes to Jesus, and especially in the question he asks: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Well, the politically correct answer, the utopian answer, the gospel answer that will make a difference, is: “They seem to be nothing, yet they are everything.” And Jesus, in fact, proves it. I think this is exactly what Francis meant: that from such modest and seemingly limited resources come great promise and even greater deeds; that abundance flows from generosity; and yes, that God is still in charge. That really, there is enough to go around. I can’t think of a more radical and compelling political cry for action. Perhaps that’s where the miraculous is to be found: that from such apparent lack can come such rich abundance. If only we would learn to model our political and economic lives on that principle. But what are they among so many people? Well, they are everything, and everything is possible with them, even the feeding of untold numbers of people.
Five barley loaves and two fish. Simple fare; in fact, this was the fare of the poor. Jesus reaffirms that from such humble and unpretentious provisions comes plenty. In fact, from them comes overabundance, to the point that there are lots more left over. The image reminds us how much scarcity is so often in the eyes of the beholder—how much scarcity can so often be an artificial construct, used to keep certain privileges in place and certain powers intact. We know for a fact that hunger in our world need not exist; there is enough to go around. But governments and corporations and straightforward acts of human greed prevent the equitable sharing of food. No, there will not be a miraculous solution to this problem. God will not intervene to make it all right. God will not multiply the bread or the fish or any other foodstuff. But this gospel story helps us to imagine a different way. It opens up a space for us to see scarcity and abundance with new and altered eyes. It once again reminds us that this is indeed God’s world, ultimately guided and sustained by God’s power, but that we are the ones being called to nourish it. We are the ones who must go out there and generate astounding abundance from apparent scarcity.