A servant presented Elisha with 20 loaves of barley and ears of grain to feed 100 people. Elisha ordered the servant to feed it to the people. Fr. Scott Lewis explains why there was more than enough left over. Photo/Public domain

God’s generosity is what we celebrate

  • July 16, 2015

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) July 26 (2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15)

There is not enough for everyone, so some will have to go without. This “me first” attitude took concrete form years ago in something called “lifeboat ethics.” The image of the lifeboat says it all: resources are limited, so they must be distributed only among the select few. The weak and marginalized, and anyone deemed burdensome, are to be left to themselves.

This is an ethic fueled by human fear, especially the fear of helplessness or fear of lack. Elisha confronted this fear of scarcity in his servant. Someone had brought 20 loaves of barley and some fresh ears of grain and Elisha had ordered him to feed it to the people.

The servant was taken aback — how can so little feed 100 people? There is not enough for everyone. But Elisha would not back down — this was God’s show, not theirs. God had promised that they would eat and have some left and that settled it.

This is a crucial question — is the source of supply merely human or is God involved? So often we see everything in strictly human terms, with God left out of the practical part of the equation. When the servant set the food before them, sure enough, they all ate their fill with some left over. The principle at work in this story is something that we all need to understand. There is more than enough in this world for everyone — no one needs to lack the basics of life. The divine power that provides for us works best where there is generosity, sharing and a compassionate attitude towards others. This is not just pious theory but a principle that can be put into practice and tested. Selfishness, greed and fear all conspire to block or thwart God’s power. Humanity will not survive if we persist in selfish and grasping attitudes or turn away from those in need.

The perfect condition for the hand of God to operate is expressed in Ephesians. An atmosphere of patience, humility, gentleness, love and unity ensures abundance and blessings for all. This is summed up in the realization that there is one God, one Spirit, one Lord and one faith. God is not divided, neither should humans be.

On the Sea of Galilee, the story of Elisha and the loaves was played out again, but this time with some significant variations. Once again, there was a hungry crowd. Jesus ordered the disciples to feed the crowds, and once again there was consternation and doubt.

This was a test that Jesus was springing on them, and so far they were not doing very well. They had given in to the same focus on scarcity and negative thinking that plagues us all. Where are we going to get the food? When the meagre haul of five barley loaves and two fish was rounded up, Jesus proceeded without the slightest doubt about the outcome. The apparent scarcity of food was of absolutely no concern to Him. It is telling that His first act was to give thanks — eucharistein, from which our Eucharist derives — and then He began to distribute the food. Gratitude is essential for God’s abundance to be realized. Not only did the 5,000 have enough to eat, but there were 12 baskets of leftovers.

Jesus’ instructions to gather up the fragments so that nothing may be lost symbolized the scattered children of God whom Jesus had come into the world to gather and save. This account of the miraculous feeding was intended to replicate God’s care for the Israelites in the desert as well as the miracle at the hands of Elisha. As Jesus will go on to explain later in the narrative, the food that He brings does not perish like the manna in the desert but lasts forever. God’s compassionate care and generosity is always at work — there is no reason for fear or grasping. It was a call to radical trust and faith and the opening of hearts to God’s compassionate care. But the point was lost on the crowd. Dazzled by the miracle, they tried to seize Jesus and make Him king. Wisely, and perhaps with a sense of disappointment, Jesus disappeared into the mountains.

The generosity and compassion of God, rather than the miracle itself, should be the focus of our attention.

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