When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.Matthew 14: 13-14
We begin our meditation on this 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time with a very well-known passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew, that begins with an already familiar scene: Our Lord trying to get away for some alone time with his Heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit, after hearing of the beheading of his cousin John the Baptist on orders of King Herod. At the most critical moments of his life, Jesus Christ gives us a consistent example of finding time to pray.
My Lord, always teach us to pray, so that we might not falter in the trials of this life. Never allow us to fall asleep—as Peter, James and John would later do in Gethsemane or the men in the parable of the weeds that we were considering last Sunday—and then make decisions and embark on projects without having sifted them in prayer.
But the crowds got wind of it so they followed him on foot, the word even spreading fast to other towns, such that by the time Our Lord arrived at the erstwhile deserted place where he had wanted to have some privacy to pray, a vast crowd was already waiting for him. Many of the people in that crowd would have come to listen to the Master, but many more would have come for more pressing needs—having heard of the miracles that he had been doing. And “his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.”
Are you not moved watching Our Lord ministering to the bodily needs of the crowd before attending to their spiritual ones? At times people paint a very ethereal picture of Jesus as someone disconnected from the mundane and the practical. Nothing can be farther from the truth: Jesus is the consummate teacher and his timing was unimpeachable: first things first. The crowds had come with their sick and he attended to those immediately. Then he taught them—long and deeply, explaining to them the mysteries of the Kingdom of God through parables that they may understand better. In fact, there must have been quite a bit of questions and answers, that pretty soon it got late in the afternoon.
When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”Matthew 14: 15
Behold the voice of human prudence: It was a crowd of thousands and they were in a deserted place without provisions. What better thing to do than to send them away to fend for themselves? At times, those who are in positions of leadership and responsibility tend to mimic this initial attitude of the disciples, before Our Lord taught them better. At a time that is calling for greater imagination, more thinking out of the box—more faith and more effort really, because these two should go hand in hand—what we have been getting many times is the same kind of facile solution as the disciples originally proposed to Jesus: dismiss the crowds so that they can (fend) for themselves. Impose a quarantine and shut down economic activity indefinitely (or until we get a vaccine). Shut down the churches too; anyway people can substitute the Sacraments and real communal liturgy with online Masses and other online religious services. What a far cry from the heart of Christ:
Jesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”Matthew 14: 16
The buck stops here! Confronted with any human problem—whether spiritual or corporeal, whether natural or supernatural—Our Lord always took it upon himself to solve it. Of course one can always allude to the fact that he is God-made-man, that in him the Divinity dwelt, such that he could really do anything. Precisely here we have the crux of the matter. Later on, during their final Passover in Jerusalem, Jesus would tell those same men—remember the time when they would be astonished at how the fig tree that Jesus had cursed had withered up?—that if they had the faith the size of a mustard seed, they could tell the mountain to be uprooted and cast itself to the sea and it would do so. The crux of the matter is faith: Justus ex fide vivit! “The just man lives by faith!” It is when man truly believes that he dares to take steps that far exceed his natural capacity, knowing that God will provide the rest. His lack of faith necessarily limits man to his own natural capacity and provisions, which many times really are insufficient for what the situation demands. Good thing that the disciples learned this lesson soon enough—confirmed by the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost no doubt—or else Christianity would still be in the catacombs now, if it had gone beyond Palestine at all.
It was not as if they had nothing. They had “five loaves and two fish,” but—as they would add in another Synoptic version—what is that among so many? Is this not the situation we find ourselves in at times? We clearly see what the situation demands and we see our personal resources far below those requirements; that is the measure of anxiety that we would fall into if we had insufficient faith as well. But faith precisely is substantia sperandarum—“the substance of things hoped for”—as St. Paul would later teach. Faith is the virtue that inclines a person to take as given what in fact he is only hoping God would provide, precisely because he is praying to God and God always does what is best. Hence, the man who lives by faith—after ascertaining in prayer the will of God and the right conduct according to it, despite the lack of natural means—proceeds to take the necessary steps beyond what his natural resources warrant, trusting that God will take up the slack.
Because of their faith, Peter walked on the lake towards Jesus who had called him to approach, Paul made no less than three missionary journeys throughout the Mediterranean converting gentiles in the Greco-Roman Empire to Christianity, St. Josemaría Escrivá started Opus Dei with nothing but his 26 years of age and absolute faith in Divine Providence, Mother Teresa of Calcutta did the same with her foundations of charitable work for the untouchables of India and then the whole world. God has always done the humanly impossible with the collaboration of men and women throughout history who knew how to act beyond the humanly possible, trusting that God would do the rest.
What can I do in the midst of this pandemic? There are no parentheses in the task of our sanctification. For every circumstance, God has earmarked the necessary lights and actual graces for us to draw both natural and supernatural fruits from them. Let us not just suffer the pandemic; let us profit from it. Let us not just survive it; let us thrive in it. God does not lose battles, for as long as we do not give up the skirmishes. Definitely he shall win the war.
And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass; and taking the five loves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.Matthew 14: 18-21
Sometimes some homilists interpret this passage in the sense that there was no actual multiplication of loaves and fish, but rather a conversion of the hearts of the people in the crowd to share whatever food they had brought. Those homilists allude to the generosity of the boy who had brought the five loaves and two fish—a packed lunch prepared by his mother probably—who had surrendered them to the disciples for sharing, moving the rest of the crowd to do the same. Such an exegesis, however, faces several difficulties: First is the obvious lack of any Scriptural basis for such an interpretation, because on the contrary the Gospel texts clearly point to an extraordinary multiplication of the meager provisions; later on, our Lord would even refer to that event as an example of how Divine Providence had provided for the disciples’ needs, so that they had no reason to worry. Second is the improbability that the crowd would have had provisions, since they had followed our Lord in a rush, such that even the disciples did not have anything except what the boy had brought, leading to the disciples’ suggestion to send them away to buy food for themselves in the nearby villages. Third, such interpretation goes against a fundamental rule of exegesis, which is to respect the ordinary sense of the spoken or written word: on the two occasions mentioned in the Gospel that Jesus Christ feeds a hungry crowd that had been following him, the text points to a simple (albeit miraculous) multiplication of a few loaves and fish. Finally, the quantity of food left over—12 baskets in this case—precludes a simple sharing of whatever little provisions that some in the crowd might have brought: sharing a little provision for personal consumption, without a miraculous intervention, could not have yielded 12 baskets superavit after a crowd of thousands had eaten their fill.
The baon (Filipino for packed lunch) theory—as somebody calls it—simply betrays a feeble attempt to draw attention away from what should be an obvious example of Divine Providence to a more natural and human intervention of social concern. While it is good to recognize the human contribution in the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, it is more important not to lose sight of the divine component. The whole event definitely points to the need for human generosity: that of the boy’s mother who packed the loaves and fish for her son to bring; that of the boy, who shared his provisions with the disciples; that of the disciples themselves for surrendering what could have been theirs alone to share (i.e., the five loaves and two fish) for our Lord’s disposition. However, it is more important to recognize the Divine prodigy that followed such human generosity. Ultimately, this is the lesson of the two Gospel events of the multiplication of the loaves and fish: God builds on human generosity. We might have little by way of personal qualities and resources, but we have to give it all; then God does everything else in order to complete the job. And what a job he does!
Dei perfecta sunt opera! “The works of God are perfect.” In the wedding feast at Cana, after the generous effort of the servants to fill the jars with water up to the brim, our Lord transforms that water to “the best of wine.” On the two occasions that he multiplies loaves and fish, he does it such that everyone has his fill and there is still something left over—which, Jesus Christ asks his disciples to gather to avoid waste and environmental degradation. Dei perfecta sunt opera. In Filipino, we would say may pabaon pa: the crowds even had something to take home with them.
This is the reason why trials should never cramp our style. We should be magnanimous in our response to whatever challenges life may throw at us: not because we are great, but because God is great. A meager response from us actually cramps God’s Providence. On the other hand, our generous response allows God’s greatness to shine through even our limitations, for as long as we give it all.
The words of St. Josemaría—which we already quoted in the past—come to mind once more: