This Sunday’s Mass readings were about sharing and food, a fitting kick-off to the “Social Action Summer Institute” of Catholic social justice diocesan workers, especially since poverty is SASI’s theme this year and Bread for the World’s director is this year’s keynote speaker.
In the first reading, the prophet Elisha feeds a hundred people with twenty loaves of barley bread, which seems to make mathematical sense but also sounds like a rather lousy vegan potluck. The second reading, from Ephesians, stresses unity in the Church and its sharing of all struggles: all must stand together in love. We are called to be “one body and one Spirit.” In the third reading, we encounter the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus’s distribution of the loaves and the fishes, in which Jesus feeds five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fish, which frankly does not seem mathematically possible at all.
In the homily, the bishop pointed out that the Greek word for “Eucharist” (giving thanks) is used in this part of the Gospel: “Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted.” Jesus gives of himself, and he gives in love, seeing the hunger and need of the thousands. There is something sacred about this act.
We can draw hope from this miracle. When we are confronted with a problem as vast and entrenched as global poverty and the widening gap between haves and have-nots, we can become beaten down by what Gabriel Marcel called “calculative reason.” We begin to think only about means to the end, and as this instrumental rationality takes over our minds, we begin to despair. We have so little, we are so powerless, we are poor and unarmed, we are only a helpless child with some bread and fish—how are we to feed the hungry millions? By what means are we to get from here to there? And we can become burdened with pessimism and with cynicism, until at last we no longer remember what we wanted in the first place.
But Jesus does not begin to share the bread and the fish by counting the number of people present, by calculating a day’s wages, by carefully apportioning the resources by means of a bureaucratic checklist. He doesn’t send out the apostles equipped with questionnaires on clipboards, nor does he line up the crowd and offer to give them food after each submits to a drug test. But neither does he avoid material reality, by awaiting a heavenly sign or even by calling down manna from the sky. He just begins, from the potential offered in the context in which he is placed. He takes the fish, he takes the bread, he thanks the Father, and he starts to distribute the bread and the fish. In the end, as we know, all are well fed. Lord, help us to go and do likewise.