God's Word on Sunday: God steps in at moments of great need

  • July 18, 2021

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 25 (Year B) 2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15

God was revealed in many ways in the Scriptures. Throughout the Old Testament, God was often portrayed as the sustainer and provider.

The Israelites were provided for throughout their journey through the wilderness. God gave them manna to eat and water from an unlikely source — a rock. They did not die of hunger or thirst, but the tendency to doubt and complain always crept back into their minds and hearts, alienating them from God. This divine care was also evident in the lives of the prophets.

A man brought a gift of food to Elisha, who then ordered his servant to feed the people. The servant was perplexed: How could such a limited quality of food feed so many people? His response was similar to the responses of many when faced by apparent lack. The doubt rapidly becomes fear, which often corrodes one’s faith and commitment to God.

The response of Elisha was brusque and to the point: Just do it! Not only would they have enough to eat, but there would also be plenty of leftovers. And so it was. But in the Old Testament, these sorts of miraculous events are often treated as ordinary occurrences. Elisha was a man of God, so it was assumed that he would be able to be God’s stand-in and provide for the people.

In the long Old Testament journey, God constantly steps in at moments of great need to provide. Even when the people experienced destruction and disaster due to human sin, the prophets always gave people a vision of a divine future of abundance and well-being.

Today many people face lack and diminishment. The COVID crisis, economic downturns and failures, wars and natural disasters have all taken their toll and left many struggling to make ends meet. In some cases, it has meant a struggle for the basic necessities of life.

Negativity, selfishness and fear are dead-end options. Difficult circumstances call for an appropriate response from all of us — trust, hope and generosity in thought, word and deed. Wherever minds and hearts are in harmony with God, there God is able to provide for us and work on our behalf.

That harmony with God is described so well in Ephesians: humility, patience, gentleness, love and unity. These virtues are not optional but are the tell-tale signs of God’s presence. They are also the identifying qualities of individuals or communities that are truly living out divine precepts. Much of this message was summed up in the insistence on the oneness of God, humanity, the Lord and the Spirit. If God is really above all, through all and in all, then anything that divides, excludes or dominates is opposed to God.

Jesus personally revealed the providential care and sustaining nature of God. In John’s Gospel, the revelation of Jesus began with a crowd following Him. They had seen how He healed and cured the sick, and they were drawn to Him. When it was time for the crowd to eat, Jesus decided to test His apostles to see if they really understood what He had been teaching and doing.

Jesus told Philip to feed the crowd and Philip responded in the same way as Elisha’s servant. How are we to feed so many with so little? Jesus took the five loaves and two fish and blessed them while giving thanks. When the food had been distributed, some 5,000 people had eaten their fill — and there were 12 baskets of leftover fragments.

The entire story echoes and resonates with the account of Elisha, for God is omnipresent in our world and in our history. But there are messages in this event. Jesus tested Philip to stress the human role in enabling God’s sustaining mercy.

We do not sign on for a free ride but must respond with the divine virtues listed in the passage from Ephesians. The 12 baskets of fragments have parallels in other documents and symbolize the fragmented and scattered children of God — humanity itself.

The mission of Jesus — and ours — is to gather them together so that none may be lost. In addition to nourishing and sustaining us, God reconciles and makes whole all who share the divine image.