Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA
Here we have the scriptural basis for that great Southern Baptist tradition of Sunday Dinner on the Grounds—well, except there's fish instead of fried chicken. To put it in Catholic terms, we have the first Knights of Columbus Pancake Breakfast. All this eating in a religious setting sets us up to start thinking about the heavenly banquet, that celestial picnic where we will feast and party in the presence of God Himself. Of course, it also draws our attention back to the Eucharist where we eat the Bread of Life and drink from the Chalice of Salvation. The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand with just two fish and five loaves begs us to notice God's loving-care for us and the abundance with which He loves us. But there is something else going on in this story, something a little more subtle. Jesus asks Philip, “'Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?'” John then adds, “He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do.” So, Jesus is testing his student, and like most good test questions, this one isn't asking what it appears to be asking. What does Jesus really want to know?
I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but my namesake, Philip, doesn't answer the question correctly. Rather than pass the test, he opts for the literal answer, “Two hundred days' wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” John doesn't mention it, but I'm sure Jesus rolled his eyes at that answer. Peter's brother, Andrew, at least offers a practical, if inadequate suggestion, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” Better but he still fails the test. What is that Philip and Andrew are missing? They aren't answering the question that Jesus is really asking. Just yesterday, Jesus told the disciples that the Father does not ration the gift of His Spirit. Rationing is our response to scarcity. When food, fuel, or medicine become scarce, we restrict their availability in order to stretch supplies. But God does not ration His Spirit, or His blessings, or His grace. Rationing goes against the Divine Nature b/c there can be no scarcity of His love. He is Love. God cannot be deficient or meager by His very nature. Jesus wants to know if his students have learned this lesson.
And since we too are students of the Lord, let's take the disciples' test: when confronted with an apparently impossible task—say, feeding five thousand people with two fish and five loaves—what do you do? You don't count what you don't have—money, enough food. And you don't whine about what you do have—a few fish and some bread. You do what Jesus did. You take what you have, bless it, give God thanks for His gifts, and wait for the multiplication to begin! Of all the many options open to Jesus in this potentially disastrous situation—run, cry, throw a fit, laugh out laugh, shrug and walk off, beg for donations—he chooses instead to fall back freely and recklessly on the bounty and providence of his Father. This sounds a bit irresponsible to us good, upstanding, middle-class Americans. Where's the planning? How will he finance this project? Is his ministry to feed these people legal? Does he have the necessary permits? All of these questions are designed to sink us in the mire of scarcity; to plunge us into the deepest pit of worry. The answer to just about every question a disciple can be asked is: take what you have; bless it; give God thanks for it; and share with friends, family, neighbors, and strangers alike. Our God does not ration!
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