Famine, abundance, and three levels of trust: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 6:1–15:

Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee. A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. The Jewish feast of Passover was near. When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people recline.”

Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. 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. When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat. When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.” Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.

Do you remember “trust exercises”? Perhaps those are a relic of a certain era, played out by now, or maybe people still engage in them. The most common was an exercise in which one person deliberately fell backwards and trusted that a loved one or colleague would catch them before they hit the ground. Those got played out enough to the point where their value has likely lessened. Or maybe corporations that did this as team-building exercises began to wonder about potential liability if/when someone failed to catch their partner.

In some ways, the Gospel reading from John pose a trust exercise from Jesus aimed not just at the disciples, but us as well. Just how much do we trust in the Lord? Today’s readings challenge us to answer that question, and also challenge us to answer whether our lives reflect the answer we give.

The first reading from 2 Kings gives us the foreshadowing of the Miracle of the Multiplication from the prophet Elisha. A man came to the prophet bringing a sacrifice of bread and grain, and Elisha directed the man to give it to the people. The man scoffed at the idea that his small sacrifice could possibly feed that many, but Elisha told him to follow his order. The Lord transformed that sacrifice into an abundance that outstripped the demand for food.

The gospel reading from John parallels this, only with an even smaller amount of food for many more people. The first lesson from this is clear and given to us in the responsorial psalm: The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs. That is the first level of trust in this exercise — accepting that the Lord has our best interests at heart and will provide if we cooperate with His will.

Cooperation, however, requires more trust. In both readings, note well that the prophets don’t actually handle the food to make their increase occur. Elisha orders the man to distribute the food, and Jesus tells the disciples to do the same thing. In both cases, the men are skeptical and unbelieving. And yet, in both cases, the men put their trust in the Lord and in His prophets. The result of these trust exercises are miracles that feed multitudes.

Does God need us to create miracles? Of course not, but the Lord does not perform miracles for His own sake either. His miracles are for our own benefit, as is His law. Jesus’ miracles demonstrated His dual nature as both divine and man in order to allow skeptics to believe in His ministry, and the best way to deliver that message is through the cooperation of those being ministered. In its way, that builds the trust necessary for the message of love and salvation to pierce our hearts. That cooperation is in fact the whole point — to engage us to open our hearts and trust in Him so that we may enter the Trinitarian life in eternity, holding nothing of ourselves back in loving Him and all His children. And both of these miracles tell us that even a little cooperation can create very large miracles, and even small efforts by us in cooperation with the Lord can have much greater impacts than we can possibly imagine.

This brings us to the deepest level of trust, and our greatest challenge. God loves us for who we are and who we can be as individuals, and so He calls us to become His children rather than as slaves or to be obliterated in death. However, we cling to our own wills, our own hurts, our own desires in ways that obstruct us from fully cooperating in the Lord’s caritas. This predilection for sin and willfulness leads us away from the abundance that the Lord makes. In a way, we choose spiritual famine over abundance by clinging to sin, anger, and hatred — even while the Lord promises us complete joy and fulfillment at His table.

That is the true trust exercise in faith: the choice between spiritual famine and abundance. It is a choice between life and death, but even before that, a choice between misery and joy in this life as well. We do not need to surrender our identities to follow the Lord, but we need to stop identifying ourselves through the grudges and desires that separate us from His self-sacrificing love. We need to rely on His will and cooperate with it, through which we can become His instruments for feeding the multitudes, both literally and spiritually. Only through that trust can we be saved as we truly are, and as the Lord truly calls us.

 

The front-page image is a detail from “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” by Giambattista Pittoni, 1725. Currently on display in the National Gallery of Victoria. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.