“Give it to the people to eat.” This instruction of the Prophet Elisha to his servant in the first reading is clear and simple. But with only twenty barley loaves at hand, the servant objects, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” The Gospel involves a similar situation, but with even more mouths to feed and fewer loaves. The disciples of Jesus balk: what good are five barley loaves and two fish for five thousand men? In our own day, sometimes people have this attitude regarding the question of hunger in the world: how can the earth’s limited resources provide for billions of people?
Such questions reveal something about our faith or the lack of it. We have forgotten that we came into the world through no choice of our own, and with nothing on us except our skin. We behave as if everything depends on us. When we recognize a looming shortage, our reaction is often either fear or greed. We justify our selfishness by telling ourselves that since there is simply not enough to provide for everyone’s need, there is no point in giving what we have. We let ourselves be held hostage by our incessant fear.
Today’s readings reassure us that such fears are baseless. God who is the Creator of everything provides for all our needs, and in abundance! At the same time he wants us to be his partners in his generous giving, so he provides us first with something to give. The “twenty barley loaves, and fresh grain in the ear” did not appear out of nowhere; a man from Baal-shalishah brought them to the prophet Elisha. In turn the prophet commanded his servant to distribute them to the people. The servant objected, but Elisha, unruffled, simply repeats his command, with an added assurance from the Lord: “For thus says the LORD, ‘They shall eat and there shall be some left over.’” Indeed, “there was some left over, just as the LORD had said.” All the Lord wanted was their cooperation: the man’s generosity, the prophet’s confident faith, and the servant’s obedience.
The disciples of Jesus, however, when he tested them, completely forgot this Old Testament lesson. He asked them where they could buy enough food to feed the large crowd. Philip’s answer shows how impossible the situation looked to them: “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” Little, to our natural way of thinking, is as good as nothing. Since we have no solution, the easiest way out of the situation is to avoid taking any responsibility for others. In St. Mark’s account, the Apostles are more direct. They tell Jesus, “Send these people away, and let them go to the farms and villages around here, to buy themselves something to eat” (Mk 6:36). It sounds so reasonable, but behind it is a feeling of helplessness, a feeling that can easily make us conclude that others are better left to fend for themselves.
But a little boy responds selflessly to the situation. He calmly and innocently offers his “five barley loaves and two fish.” He does not make a calculation; he simply gives what he has, as if it is the obvious thing to do. It is the wisdom of the childlike, the poor in spirit. Sadly, we are often more like the adult Andrew, complaining, “…what good are these for so many?” Yet the little boy’s plain act of giving was indeed all that was needed, for “Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted.”
The lesson is summed up by today’s Psalm response: “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.” All we have comes from the Lord. It is he who can “satisfy the desire of every living thing.” He does not require spectacular efforts from us in order to act on our behalf. All he wants is our simple but complete trust in his goodness.
We do well to take heed of St. Paul’s exhortation to “live in a manner worthy of the call you have received.” The Lord provides for all our needs and even nourishes us with his Body and Blood. Thus there is no need for us to live in fear and selfishness. Rather the right response is “humility and kindness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace.” It is possible to live selflessly and with love because of him. As Paul says earlier in this same Letter, God “is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by his power at work within us. To him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph 3:20–21).
What are the fears that affect my life choices? How can I become a partner to God in his selfless giving? What do I have to offer the Lord?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 14, no. 6. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.