Helping one another in any way we can (17th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
IN OUR Gospel reading this Sunday, the Lord performs perhaps one of his better known and more spectacular miracles: the feeding of the thousands. In the context of the Gospel according to Saint John, the multiplication of the bread and fish serves primarily to help the people understand their need for the Son of God, “the true Bread that came down from heaven” (cf. Jn 6:48ff.). He can very well be symbolized also by the fish, as the paleo-Christian representation of Jesus as IXTHYS (literally, “fish” in Greek) connotes. It is an acronym that stands for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” (Iēsous Xristós Theou Hyiós Sōtēr). However, the episode can also be interpreted in other ways well beyond its Johannine context to make it more applicable to present-day situations. This is what Biblical hermeneutics is all about.
As in many other episodes in the Gospel accounts, Jesus demonstrates himself as very sensitive to the situation of the crowd. It is not hard to picture their condition. They followed the Lord whole day long, listening to him, and now mealtime comes and they need to look for something to eat. The disciples suggested that they be sent off so that they could find food for themselves, but Jesus had other plans in mind. Thus, instead of dismissing the crowd, he challenged his disciples to figure out a way to help the people.
The disciples initially thought of asking around to see if anyone among the people brought any food that could be shared with others. They found a boy who had five barley loaves and two fish (v.9) – too little, yes, to feed thousands, but enough for the Lord to perform what he wanted to do. In fact, right from the very beginning he knew what he was about to do (v.6). The miracle he performed served not so much as to feed the crowd, but to communicate a message.
Today God continues to challenge us to discern what the message is and how to actualize it. It is not only about recognizing him as the “bread of life” and helping us understand our need for God. It is also about knowing how to respond to the various needs of the people around us. As followers of Christ, we are invited to lend a helping hand to our neighbor in any way we can. We can do this not only by extending material help to the poor and the needy, feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, etc. (cf. Mt 25:35ff.) We can also offer spiritual assistance. The important thing is that we do not turn our backs to them by sending them off and leaving them on their own to deal with their problems, without trying to help them. This was what the disciples of Jesus initially wanted to do – something which the Lord did not allow.
Occasions to help our neighbor is never lacking around us. We live in a world where a poignantly scandalous gap exists between the poor and the rich, people who live in extreme destitution and those who live in exuberant abundance, underdeveloped third world countries and highly industrialized first world countries. Today the majority of world’s population is affected by poverty of different kinds, the most evident of which is material poverty. If Jesus were still physically present in our midst, how would he react to the current world situation? It is unlikely that he would remain indifferent to people’s hunger and lack of basic necessities.
Unfortunately many Christians nowadays demonstrate an attitude of indifference to the plight of their needy brothers and sisters. They do this in many ways, big and small, directly and indirectly, for example by refusing to share their resources or through irresponsible use of the things that they have. How much food, for example, do we waste every day with left-overs on our plates? How much water do we waste at home? How much energy do we waste by not switching off electric appliances when we leave our offices? All wasted resources can very well be used to alleviate poverty and improve the living situation of millions of people in the world today; they can help many people survive.
“Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted” (v.12). Jesus gave this order to his disciples after he performed the miraculous feeding of thousands of men and women who came to him. Today we can interpret these words as an invitation to austerity and responsible management of one’s resources. This is also one way of helping the people around us.
The call to help one another can be realized even in small ways. The feeding of the thousands all started with only five loaves and two fish. Little things can make a big difference when they are put together. The important thing is that each one of us does his or her part, open his or her heart and reach out to people in need. (Fr. Czar Alvarez, OSA)