Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

Imagine the Gospel passage with different circumstances—5000 people wandering in the wilderness in search of food.  The 12 disciples are also there but Jesus is not. Somehow they need to work together to provide for their own needs as well as the hungry crowds, but without the Lord’s presence. You have all the ingredients for another television reality show called Feast or Famine.

And when all the dust settles, and all have been voted off the desert but one, who will be the one remaining? Who will be the only one with enough cunning, enough deception, and possessing more than enough food to eat, the only one savvy enough to survive? Could the answer be Judas Iscariot?

Keep imagining now Judas on the front cover of People Magazine “The New Celebrity Hero: The Sly Deceiver Wins Again.” “How did you do it?” asks David Letterman, “How did you get Peter and Andrew to vote against each other, and get James and John to eliminate each other?”

“Simple”, Judas responds to the hoots of the crowd, “sibling rivalry.” “I kept telling each one that their father loved the other one more, and considered the other one a better fisherman. Resentment and jealousy will do it every time!”

Meanwhile, his former fellow disciples are busy writing their “tell all” books, while taking turns on cable TV talk shows describing how they were so shocked at the deception, betrayal, and abandonment; and how they are all awaiting justice and their first payment from the publishers.

Remember the disciples were people just like us: working people with good hearts and trying to do the best they can. But, like us, they also had their weaknesses and sins preventing them from always knowing and doing what is right. With Jesus and facing 5000 hungry people, they were still protective of what little food they had. Without Jesus, these 5000 might become even more threatening to the disciples and like many of us, might become even more protective of what is theirs. However, we must always remember, Jesus chose them, and Jesus chooses us as well.

We might be overwhelmed with the magnitude of need throughout our world, in our own country, and even our own locality. The young boy with a few loaves and fish is only one in the gospel placing trust in Jesus. Jesus’ compassion for the crowd and the young boy’s generosity answer the question, “How are we going to feed all these people?” God doesn’t expect any one of us to do it all. But each of us is asked to do our part.

Does the story above describe parts of our society and nation today? Do we at times live in fear that someone else might get what belongs to us? Do “others” become “strangers”, “potential enemies” or “competitors” for scarce resources?  Does our ability to see “others” as “neighbor” or “brothers and sisters” fade in the face of such fear?

Pope Benedict XVI, in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharistic celebration, Sacramentum Caritatis, states this: “The Eucharistic mystery thus gives rise to a service of charity towards neighbor, which consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God… Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ.  In all those I meet, I recognize brothers or sisters for whom the Lord gave his life, loving them ‘to the end’” (Sacramentum Caritatis, no. 78).

For the next five weeks, we will proclaim and meditate on the Bread of Life Discourse, the 6th Chapter of St. John’s Gospel. Drawn more deeply into the mystery of the Eucharist, we will come to learn more deeply our call to go forth in loving service of that same Eucharistic Lord.

These five weeks will focus on one question Jesus asks of his disciples: “How are we going to feed all these people?” Not “how are you”, or “how am I”, but “how are we going to feed all these people?”  The Lord is not offering to do this by himself nor is asking the disciples to do this without him. Our celebration of the Eucharist is a call from the Lord to work with him to feed the world’s many hungers.

The Lord’s question to his disciples causes them panic and anxiety. You can almost hear them muttering under their breath, “Maybe if we just ignore them, most will go away.”  “Maybe we can just vote them off the desert, and be done with them.” But the Lord demands more of them, and the miracle he will perform will draw forth faith from within them.

In our time and our experience of church, it is still the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist demanding more from us as well. The Risen Christ and all his saving deeds remain present to the whole Church, especially in the celebration of The Eucharist. The Eucharist stands contrary to a culture where the strong oppress the weak, the marginalized are exploited, and the only definition of “who is right” is “who survives.” The Eucharist declares that no one escapes responsibility for providing for the needs of others.

Mercy is one lens to penetrate the seriousness of this responsibility. Mercy is both divine and human requiring both physical and spiritual actions.  The Church Fathers taught that divine mercy comes in the forgiveness of sins, and human mercy extends in caring for the sick, poor and abandoned.

Too often many try to separate the two. On one hand, some want mercy for their spiritual lives, but see no connection to providing basic material needs for a deprived humanity. On the other hand, there are those that work diligently to address the physical needs of the destitute, but refuse to acknowledge any need to also feed their souls. The former can reduce the church to a disembodied institution void of any relevance to daily life. The latter can reduce the church to a social welfare institution uninterested in the matters of heart and soul.

There are many forms of hunger and poverty in our world, physical and spiritual. The Eucharist acknowledges them and seeks to heal them all.  Faithful and active participation in the Eucharist provide us the opportunity to connect what we celebrate at the altar with what we do in daily life. We come to realize that every part of our humanity and every person come under the sovereignty of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

When we open our eyes, our hearts open as well. The Church’s liturgy draws us into the vision and sight of Lord Jesus. He saw the crowd and had compassion for their many wounds, weaknesses, burdens, sorrows and sins. He knew exactly what he would do about it, and summons his disciples to respond with him to their needs. This must be our call as we focus our attention and heart on the Eucharistic celebration. Part of our responsibility is to make sure that no one is voted off the desert, that no one is excluded from the abundance of God’s blessings. We need to rediscover the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. These works have been part of the Church’s heritage since the earliest centuries. Renewing our commitment to these great works can serve to renew the parish and our surrounding communities.

Again Pope Benedict from his exhortation, "The Christian faithful need a fuller understanding of the relationship between the Eucharist and their daily lives. Eucharistic spirituality is not just participation in Mass and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. It embraces the whole of life… one of the most serious effects of secularization… is that it has relegated the Christian faith to the margins of life as if it were irrelevant to everyday affairs. The futility of this way of living – ‘as if God did not exist’ – is now evident to everyone. Today there is a need to rediscover that Jesus Christ is not just a private conviction or an abstract idea, but a real person, whose becoming part of human history is capable of renewing the life of every man and woman" (Sacramentum Caritatis no. 77).

In this gospel passage, Jesus takes the barley loaves and fish offered by the young boy. He then tells his disciples, “Have the people recline.” St. John then notes, “Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number.” Sitting on the ground symbolizes their helplessness and powerlessness.  Barley bread is the poorest of all foods, discarded by most as animal feed. But for the hungry, it is a meal that brings forth gratitude.

In our day, this can describe 47 million refugees in many nations around the world.  The United Nations defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”

Many refugees have found safety in many welcoming nations. But countless others linger in refugee camps surviving only with humanitarian efforts also provided by many nations.

Pope Benedict makes a special reference to those in refugee camps in his teaching on the Eucharist. “We must denounce those who squander the earth's riches, provoking inequalities that cry out to heaven. For example, it is impossible to remain silent before the distressing images of huge camps throughout the world of displaced persons and refugees, who are living in makeshift conditions in order to escape a worse fate, yet are still in dire need. Are these human beings not our brothers and sisters? Do their children not come into the world with the same legitimate expectations of happiness as other children? The Lord Jesus, the bread of eternal life, spurs us to be mindful of the situations of extreme poverty in which a great part of humanity still lives: these are situations for which human beings bear a clear and disquieting responsibility” (Sacramentum Caritatis no. 90).

Over these next five weeks through the Lord’s “Bread of Life Discourse” in St. John’s Gospel, we will reflect together some of the vast deprivations in our world and the gross injustices people live with on a daily basis. We will also provide ample opportunities for families and our parish family to respond as Pope Benedict teaches us. We will hear the Lord say to each one of us, and all of us together, “How are we going to provide for all these people?”