There is no doubt that as a human race we are quite a mixture. On the one hand we are capable of sending a space probe like New Horizons to Pluto and receive back stunning pictures, the like of which the world has never seen before. Meanwhile back on earth we struggle to get on with each other and the ills of our planet seem to gather speed with each passing day. Global warming, ebola, HIV AIDS and ISIS are all recent names before which we all feel quite powerless to control.
Perhaps where most helplessness is felt is in the face of world hunger. Last Christmas Bob Geldof and Band Aid resurrected themselves to remind us yet again that world hunger is still with us and is not going away anytime soon. ‘Do they know it’s Christmas’ was their theme song. ‘Feed the world’ is the closing line and it serves to drive home that sense of helplessness that drains us of any energy we might have left to tackle the problem.
As far as the apostles are concerned today’s gospel starts with that same feeling of powerlessness. They are faced with a very large crowd of hungry people in a deserted place. They need to be fed and the resources to feed them don’t appear to be there. I don’t fancy being in Philip’s shoes when Jesus asked him where can they buy enough food to feed the crowd. I would have come up with the same answer surely, that two hundred denarii or six months wages would hardly whet their appetite. In a desperate move Andrew finds a little boy with five barley loaves and two fish and asks rather despairingly, ‘What is that between so many?’ The situation is hopeless.
Jesus was just as aware as his disciples of the enormity of the task but he did not share their sense of defeatism. Instead he focussed in on the small boy with the five barley loaves and two fish. The important bit was the boy’s willingness to part with his little treasure and hand it over to Jesus. Herein lies the heart of the story as told by John. Jesus “gave thanks.” That implies that he acknowledged that the food he held came from God and belonged to God. It was therefore God’s goodness that he was going to share with the crowd.
What enabled the little boy to share? I put it down to a deep trust in Jesus? The little boy instinctively felt good and free in Jesus’ space. What enables us to share? If I don’t believe in God I probably would feel that it’s all up to me and my selfish gene would come to the fore. However a faith deep enough to know that God always provides would help considerably to loosen my grip on ‘my’ possessions because I now live in God’s world where all is and shall be well.
No evangelist describes how the bread multiplied. Whether the sharing of the poorest participant moved the others to open their secret stores or whether it was like the manna in the desert that appeared at just the right moment is a mystery. The how of it is not the point John wants to make. The point is that God met the hunger of the people, beginning with the unstinting generosity of one of the least among them. This was the opening that Jesus needed. In and through this small boy’s simple gift, Jesus worked powerfully.
The miracle of the loaves and fishes is one of the very few stories found in all four gospels. Obviously it clearly spoke very powerfully to the early church. Perhaps in and through this story the early believers came to appreciate that the Lord can use our tiniest efforts to perform his greatest works. As Paul declared in his letter to the church in Corinth that God’s power is often made perfect in our weakness. The Lord can work powerfully in and through the very little that we possess, if we are generous with that little. Perhaps this miracle spoke powerfully to the apostles also when Jesus commanded them to go out to the whole world and preach the good news. Again that seemed an impossible task for a few, uneducated men. And yet, as soon as they started preaching Jesus their efforts were multiplied beyond their wildest expectations.
All four evangelists saw a connection between what happened in the wilderness on that day and what happened at the Last Supper and what happens at every Eucharist. Just as Jesus transformed the small boy’s simple gifts of five barley loaves and two fish into a feast for thousands, so he transforms our simple gifts of bread and wine into a spiritual feast for all, the bread of life and the cup of salvation. The way the Lord works in the Eucharist is how he works in the rest of our lives. He takes the little we offer to him and by means of it, in the words of Saint Paul, he is ‘able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.’
‘Feed the world! It might be more pleasant to marvel at the exploits of our scientists and New Horizons but admitting our weakness and offering the little we have could be the real opening for Jesus to feed the world. It’s the small things that matter because, in the eyes of Jesus, small is beautiful.
Sunday, 26th July 2015