Brief synopsis of the readings: In the 2nd Book of Kings we see Elisha speaking with a man who brought with him 20 barley loaves. Elisha then instructed that the food be given to the people to eat. When his servant protested that there is not enough for everyone, Elisha assured him that all will be fed. When they finished feeding everyone, there were still leftovers. In John’s Gospel we see Jesus teaching a large crowd shortly before Passover. Jesus asked Phillip to buy some bread for the crowd but Phillip protested that it would be too expensive. Another disciple, Andrew, found a boy with five barley loaves and two fishes. Jesus instructed that the crowd of five thousand sit down and he blessed the food. The disciples then fed the crowd, and when they were done there were enough leftovers for twelve hampers.
When I was a seminarian we lived in the same building as a convent of nuns. A community of contemplative sisters from Mexico were assigned to cook for and feed us, and also pray for us (and many of us saw that as their most important vocation). One day we hosted a group that ended up being larger than we expected and we feared that there wouldn’t be enough food. When one of the nuns was told, her response was: “Eh, more water in the soup.”
We all got a laugh, and there ended up being enough food for everyone, but this incident points to a larger truth: having enough food is a serious matter.
Speak to any couple planning their wedding and they will sheepishly tell you that they worry more about the caterer than they do about their marriage. They send out invitations and hope they accurately predict how many will actually attend. They spend several days in the weeks before the wedding frantically calling invites who haven’t responded. And in moments of candor they will admit that they don’t worry so much about who will come as much as they worry about having too many guests and too little food.
Food, you see, has always been about more than nutrition. It’s about hospitality, relationship, and ultimately love. When I was a hospice chaplain my team spent most of our days in peoples’ homes and virtually without fail we were offered something to eat or drink. We normally politely refused but there were times when we accept their offer if only to avoid offending them. I used to see a patient first thing in the morning and by about visit three I figured out that if I didn’t accept his offer of coffee he would drink one himself.
And so when we read these passages from 2nd Kings and John we see this clearly. Elisha was a disciple of Elijah and a prophet in his own right. In the passages before today’s reading Elisha performed several miracles to prove himself as a prophet. Given a small amount of food he could prove himself by stretching the food to provide for everyone, but conversely he would have lost popularity had he taken the loaves only for himself and his friends. Likewise with Jesus in John’s Gospel. The miracle of loaves and fishes is the only miracle found in all four Gospels and while we don’t know how many were gathered we can safely assume there were more than can be fed by five loaves and two fishes.
We don’t know the mechanics of how this sharing happened. Perhaps every time a disciple reached into the basked to pull something out it was miraculously replaced. Or perhaps Jesus’ words convinced the wealthy people in the crowed to share with the poor. But on some level it doesn’t matter. Something amazing happened that day, something amazing enough for all four Gospel writers to recount it.
But let’s dig a little deeper. Oftentimes we’ll read passages from Scripture and put ourselves in the place of the crowd or the disciples. But what if we put ourselves in the place of Elisha and Jesus this week? What would that feel like?
Harkening back to the wedding couple, what if we started feeding people and paid attention not to the final result but instead paid attention to those in front of us?
Even the most casual observer of Mother Teresa (who I like to call St. Teresa of Calcutta) knew that she was often bombarded with questions of her long range plan. “Why do you feed the poor when there will always be more poor?” “How can you be a success when there is so much need?” “Every time you take a dying person off the street he is replaced by more dying people. Why do you do this?”
Without fail St. Teresa would answer with some variation of this: “I’m not called to be successful. I’m called to be faithful.” I’m using my own words here but my answer would be this: “I will do the right thing and I won’t be dissuaded by fear that it won’t be enough.”
I joke about this but when I worked in full time ministry I often came across colleagues who, when was asked to perform a service that they didn’t want to do would find a reason to avoid it. I once worked with someone who was asked to meet with someone who was questioning whether or not God loved her. His response was that since she suffered from lifelong depression and he couldn’t fix that, there was no purpose in meeting with her.
Fortunately I was able to meet with her and while she still suffers from depression I was at least able to convince her that her depression didn’t exhaust God’s love and patience. We’re still in touch and while she continues to battle depression she at least knows that God has her back.
We all confront those times when we want to do the right thing but fear getting caught in something we can’t fix. If I buy a hamburger for a homeless person today, do I have to do it again tomorrow? If I listen to a coworker who feels marginalized, does that mean I have to be available to this person forever? If I “loan” money to an irresponsible adult child this time, do I have to keep giving money long beyond when I stopped believing it was ever a loan?
These are hard questions but they are questions nontheless. Easy answers that absolve us don’t feed those in need and ultimately don’t feed us. Only by listening to Elijah’s and Jesus’ promise that answering our call to faithfulness can we achieve what we are called to.