Loaves & Fish, and a Little Manual Labor
As the school year winds down, students are looking forward to graduation and a few weeks of summer break. Teachers and school administrators are also breathing a sigh of relief. As much as they love their young people, the work load is also extremely time consuming and stressful. And no one is ever in it for the money. The truth is it is a thankless job, and only a teacher convinced of the nobility of their calling will embrace the challenge with hope and a sense of personal fulfillment. Success, they will often say, is found in the knowledge that they are forming the great leaders of tomorrow, the entrepreneurs and builders of society, the great authors, artists, and musicians, and the future parents and teachers who will carry on the work of raising the next generation. It is hard work, and we are always supportive of those who choose a path in education.
My mom was a public high school science teacher. And I spent a few years teaching in a classroom myself, although I had to give that up to do what I do now. But, the similarities are striking. My classroom is bigger now, and my students will return without actually doing their homework, often expecting approval for mediocre effort. And when they grow up, they will promptly forget that debt of gratitude they often talked about when they were making excuses for their mediocre effort. Good times. Still, I am not discouraged. Success is not measured in the number of people who show up in church (we have slackers and drop-outs, too), or how much is in the collection (again, no one is in it for the money). I can say I am content with knowing I have helped people recognize and embrace the wonderful and merciful God who loves them beyond measure, and hopefully they are compelled to express their gratitude in their sincere love for their neighbor, and in sharing their blessings with the less fortunate. It is often difficult to measure success. Immediate results are not always evident. Sometimes all I can do is plant the seed. Someone else will reap the harvest, as I have reaped the harvest someone else planted. And I often find myself having to fix someone else’s mistakes, as I know someone else will have to fix mine. But I am convinced it’s worth all the effort.
A priest friend of mine once said his parishioners often tell him jokingly they had “to fatten him up.” And yes, he is way skinnier than me. To which I added jokingly, “so there will be more of you for them to eat alive!” Funny, if I should say so myself, but disconcertingly accurate and terrifyingly eloquent. In extremely stressful jobs with demanding taskmasters and equally demanding consumers, we can relate to the image of being eaten alive. It requires tremendous skill to always be ahead of the consuming public and have at hand an adequate supply of what they demand, and know where to get more of it when the supply runs low. Most jobs are about connecting the supply with the demand. But what happens when what they demand is you? Your time? Your patience? Your skill? Your energy? Your creativity? Your spiritual strength? Your courage? Your faith? What happens when you have to provide them with your very self and your very life? How do you ever get ahead? There will only be so much of you to go around. So in the end, someone is bound to starve. Unless we find a better way.
When Jesus was teaching the crowd and healing the sick, and it was getting late, it was his own disciples who approached him, and suggested he let them go, to let them find food and lodging for themselves. The disciples knew their limits. They knew they would not be able to feed or house the crowd themselves. And they had no reservations about passing on the task to others who could do the work better and more efficiently.
But Jesus was undeterred. “Give them some food yourselves.” Quickly they examined the situation, and weighed their options. Five loaves, two fish, five thousand hungry mouths—not happening. Go and buy food themselves, five thousand hungry mouths—not likely happening either. There was probably a more heated and involved conversation than the gospel recounts. And when Jesus eventually took matters in his own hands, he still needed his disciples’ help to get the job done.
Clearly, Jesus was showing them by his own example what they must do. As he taught the crowds and healed their sick, so his disciples were to carry on his work, by teaching those who came to hear good news, and healing their physical infirmities. But there was another dimension to his work that we see unfolding in today’s gospel. Jesus also took it upon himself to address the hunger of those who came to him. He may have asked his disciples at first how they thought it best to accomplish the task, and he took from them the five loaves and two fish they never imagined would be of much use. As well, he got them to distribute the food, and gather the leftovers. But it was entirely Jesus’ doing that five thousand hungry mouths were fed that day.
Jesus provided for the hungry crowd. All he asked of his disciples was what little they could afford, five loaves and two fish, and some moderately strenuous manual labor. It is a symbol of what Jesus accomplished when he offered himself in obedience to the Father’s plan, when he was rejected, made to suffer and die, and rose to life on the third day. He took upon himself our human nature and reconciled all people to God and to one another, nourishing the deepest hungers of the human spirit. So today he asks of us his disciples our meager talents and skills of mind and body, our courage, our faith, our patience, our creativity, and some moderately strenuous manual labor to extend kindness and compassion to those in need, to speak of God’s mighty acts in our lives, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, to comfort the dying. It is still Jesus himself who nourishes the deepest hungers of our spirit with food we provide, bread and wine that are fruits of the earth and work of our hands, but which he transforms into his own flesh and blood.
It is tempting to simplify our celebration of the Eucharist to getting our share of the bread and wine upon the table. And despite every effort to invite us to be nourished by God’s Word in hearing the scriptures proclaimed and preached, there will still be some who leave from here hungry, still failing to hear God’s voice, still disconnected from God’s life, still resistant to God’s offer of mercy and healing. Despite every effort to involve us in the church’s life and mission, inviting us to use our meager gifts and talents for the Kingdom of God, there will still be some who choose to hold on to their five loaves and two fish, convinced there will not be enough for everyone. When we can trust Jesus to feed the hungry, we might let go of our five loaves and two fish, and even lend some muscle to hand out food and pick up leftovers. But if we choose to just sit in the crowd, we can still completely miss the great miracle unfolding right before our eyes.
Rolo B Castillo © 2016