Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflections

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

July 26, 2009

Food definitely brings temporary oneness to people in need. Five thousand men (not counting the women and children), saw common cause for a while, united by the common need to be assuaged in their hunger and thirst. In clusters and in groups, they sat down in the cool grass. Soon enough, they sat witness to the unfolding miracle of Jesus’ provident solicitude for the needy crowd.

The scene is not an unfamiliar one in the history of God’s people. Like the much talked about, though little understood, feeling of déjà vu, we see today in the account of St. John almost like a repeat of several instances in the Old Testament where God is presented as one who Himself takes charge of feeding his hungry people. “The hand of the Lord feeds us …” as the first part of today’s response after the first reading goes. Indeed, the Old Testament is never wanting of stories and vignettes about God showing His provident care for His people, about a loving and compassionate God who keeps the needs of His people ever in mind. Today’s first reading is a case in point. Through the prophet Elisha, twenty barley loaves became food for a hundred people, with left-overs to boot.

Elisha “prefigures” Jesus Christ, who also multiplies and offers food to thousands of people. The miracle wrought by Elisha “foreshadows” (as Biblical commentators say) the multiplication of the loaves wrought by Christ. Indeed, as St. Augustine says so succinctly, “the new (testament) lies hidden in the old; the old lies open in the new.” Salvation history is one single loop, beginning with God who loved enough to create and who revealed himself through the creation of life. This same God sustains his creation in life and love. The hand of the Lord, to use the words of the psalmist, continues to feed us. What happened in the Old Testament, what we read in the New Testament, continues to happen in our times, in and through the Church, which is essentially Christ’s abiding and saving presence in the world.

There is more to salvation, however, that just having our needs met. There is more to salvation that just being secure, safe and well-provided for. Indeed, for the vast majority of people in the world, the need for salvation may need to be, at least initially, identified with having their basic needs met. In a world where almost three-fourths of the world’s population make do with one-fourth of the world’s resources, (while one fourth of the world’s population – the inhabitants of the first world – enjoy three fourths of the world’s resources), salvation has to begin concretely where most people are at – in a dire situation of poverty! Evangelization thus cannot and should never be truncated, separated and distinguished from human advancement and promotion. Offering a purely “other-worldly” type of salvation does not attract hungry stomachs. Salvation of this type is nothing more, nothing less than the proverbial “opium” that Marx was talking about. At the same time, merely offering bread to eat does not guarantee faithful disciples. Those who partook of the bread that Jesus multiplied eventually left him when “the going got a bit rough.” They could not withstand the hard teachings of the Lord. Ephemeral, too earthly salvation does not sustain healthy attachment and fidelity to a cause that goes beyond mere sharing of bread and victuals.

The hand of the Lord not only feeds us … the hand of the Lord not only satisfies our temporary – if, physical – needs. No! … He also answers all our needs!

Our needs go beyond bread. Our needs go beyond fellowship. Our needs definitely go far, far beyond mere earthly satisfaction. Paul, by any standard, was not one who enjoyed earthly satisfaction and freedom, at least, during the time when he wrote the passage of the second reading. He was in prison. He was confined to a dark and dank cell. But Paul was inwardly free. Paul was a saved man. Fettered physically, he really soared freely in spirit, and reached out to people who, though unfettered, needed immediate salvation in their concrete lives. He told them: “I urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one spirit …”

Our society needs salvation. It needs material, earthly salvation. As things go now, with 24 billion pesos annually going down the drain of corruption, with more than 50% per cent suffering from poverty in various degrees and forms, with so wide a gap between the rich and the poor, with the pronounced difference between the educated and those who can never even hope to be educated within their short life times, the Filipino society stands in deep need of salvation-justice. We still hanker for the day when education, for example, would gradually become the powerful leveller of a society deeply steeped in various forms of class distinctions. It is to be wondered at when this could reasonably be expected to happen, given the rapid commercialization of education, run as most schools are now along the lines of a business, corporate model!

The Lord answers all our needs! We need unity. We need the strength and the power of togetherness. The Lord fills up this need. He does so by our membership in a community of one faith, one baptism, armed with one hope due to our common call. We belong to a community which shows allegiance to one and the same Lord. We love the one and the same “God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

The Lord does answer all our needs. But He answers those needs through us who now make salvation happen. He answers all those needs through people who, having appropriated subjectively that objective act of redemption wrought by Christ, now are ready to lift up our hands to cooperate with Him and make that same salvation a concrete reality. Salvation takes place through people who, having been redeemed by Christ, now cooperates with the same Lord to make salvation happen to the world, to others, to society and to individuals.

The hand of the Lord feeds us, it is true. But those who have been nourished by the food he offers ought then to nourish others in turn. “Manus manum lavat,” the Latins used to say. This refers to the need for cooperation. One hand washes the other, literally understood. Salvation is as much God’s work as ours now. An old Russian proverb alludes to this rather pointedly: “If you are caught in a storm in the middle of the lake, keep on praying, but also keep on rowing to the shore!” In the call to salvation that is unfolding, happening even now, there is no simply no substitute to being truly united with the author of salvation. We who have shared in his food, we who have shared in the riches of his love, shared in the outpouring of his grace of redemption in and through Christ, are called to be fully and truly one in God, our provident Father. His hand truly feeds us, and he answers all our needs.