SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (B)
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But before Jesus makes this powerful statement, which would cause many of His followers to leave Him, John gives us the miracle of the loaves and fishes. A great crowd has begun following Jesus, about five thousand in number, and they are hungry. The only food available is five barley loaves and two fish.
Five loaves and two fish might be enough to feed five people but to feed five thousand with such a small amount is preposterous. Yet this is precisely what Jesus does. Moreover, Jesus does not only provide enough food for the crowd but He provides an abundance. After the crowd had eaten their fill, we are told that twelve wicker baskets were filled with left overs -- that's more food than there had been to begin with!
Some who desire to whitewash the miracles out of the New Testament attempt to pass this episode off as a "miracle of sharing." They suggest that the crowd was inspired by Jesus' teaching about generosity to bring out secret food they had been selfishly hiding away to share with their neighbors. But the text does not support this. To feed so many with so little is clearly impossible, yet Jesus not only does it but He does it to excess. The crowd is so astonished that they proclaim Him a prophet, perhaps recalling the similar miracle Elisha performed in our first reading today (2 Kings 4:42-44).
But let's imagine this was simply a "miracle of sharing." Let's suppose that people in the crowd had hidden food they were not willing to share, but suddenly had a change of heart and decided to be generous. Imagine yourself there. You give your food to your neighbor, who eats it and is satisfied (for the moment). Then what? What happens when that person gets hungry again and asks for more to eat? You've already given all your food away. You cannot give what you don't have.
Think for a moment if you gathered all the food stored in your home and decided to give it to those in need. How many might that feed? Twenty people? Thirty? What if you owned a grocery store and decided to donate your entire stock to a food pantry. How many hundreds could eat off of your generous gift? Now imagine the next day, when all those people are hungry again, and the food has all run out. You gave all you had the day before. You have nothing left to give.
Our problem is that we are finite beings, and that puts limits on how much we can offer to others. It is not only our food supply that is limited. Our time is limited. Our energy is limited. The best and most selfless thing we can offer to another is our very life, and even our lives are limited. There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for a friend, but you can only do it once.
I'm sure we all know people -- or perhaps have been that person ourselves -- who selflessly give of their love and energy to a friend in need, only to later get burned out, feeling dragged down, weary and spent. We can give all we can and sometimes it is not enough. We can empty ourselves out completely and yet there will always be more need.
But Jesus is different. Jesus, the Divine Son of God, is infinite. Jesus can give and keep giving and never deplete Himself, for He is God. And God is Love. And that's what Love does. Love gives itself fully to the beloved. Jesus does this perfectly, and does it with abundance. Jesus gives from a supply that is never exhausted. This is why later in this same chapter Jesus can say, "whoever comes to me will never hunger, whoever believes in me will never thirst" (Jn 6:35).
We can give and give until we have nothing left. But Jesus is a well that cannot run dry. Jesus is different. That's why we need Jesus.
First of all, this capacity for infinite giving is why Jesus is able to die for our sins. The sacrifice of one man is noble but hardly worthy to atone for the collective sins of all humanity throughout time. But Jesus' sacrifice on the cross is of infinite merit. It is an infinite gift poured out for us, made present to us anew at each celebration of the Eucharist. When Jesus says he who eats of this bread (His flesh) will never hunger, He means it. The leftover loaves are a sign of the abundance with which Christ wants to feed you. He doesn't want to simply satisfy your hunger for the moment. He wants to satisfy you eternally, with abundance, in heaven.
Secondly, when we drink from this well that cannot run dry, we replenish ourselves for the service of others. Jesus calls us to serve one another, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to cloth the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, to preach the kingdom and teach the world about His love. That's exhausting work! If we try to do it all apart from Jesus Christ, we will soon find ourselves spent, used up, and burned out. We will find that we have only given the world our self, and there is only so much of our self to go around.
It may damage your ego to hear it, but the truth is that the world doesn't need you, least of all an exhausted and empty you. Who the world needs is Jesus Christ. You can bring Christ to them.
Renew yourself in Christ. Fill yourself with His Spirit. Eat His flesh and drink His blood. He will come alive in you. Then go love the world. Because then it will not be only your own limited self that you offer, but the infinite Christ who lives within you, Christ who gives without limit. Drink from the well that never runs dry. Let Him overflow in your life to renew those around you, as well. Like the loaves and fishes, Jesus will multiply all you have to give, and do so in abundance.