A Greater Gift Than We Think to Ask

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Have you ever loved someone so much you wanted better for them than they would even want for themselves? Most parents can probably make such a claim. You love your child so intensely you want nothing but the best of everything for them, the best family, the best home, the best food, the best clothing, the best education, the best entertainment, the best childhood friends, the best neighbors, pets, toys, experiences, opportunities, memories! Just the best and finest the world can offer and everything in great abundance. And if it didn’t cost so much, you would do whatever it takes to make it happen. A deep and genuine love will always strive to give what the beloved needs to achieve their greatest happiness and fulfillment and success. And in all your wisdom and experience, you have a much broader understanding of what your child needs even before they get a clue. You know things they don’t. You’ve been around the block, and you’re better prepared for what awaits them. You can anticipate challenges they don’t expect. You’re more patient now than you were the first go-around. You know well the sacrifice it would take, and you’re prepared to see them through to the glorious end.

God has always desired the greatest good for Abraham and Sarah. When God called them away from the land of their ancestors, God offered to settle them in a land flowing with milk and honey, a lasting heritage to pass on to their own children and grandchildren, and from them would come a great nation too numerous to count. God offered Abraham and Sarah and their descendants an everlasting covenant, that God would be their God and they would be his people, forever bound in loving and faithful partnership. But the people of Israel that Moses led out of slavery in Egypt often lost sight of God’s gracious and abundant mercy, setting their hearts rather on short-term fixes and fleeting delights. And despite their constant grumbling and complaining against Moses and Aaron, despite their hardness of heart even after witnessing such powerful signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea, despite God’s immense patience and deep compassion, they failed to grasp God’s grand design, the fulfilment of the promises God made to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants those many generations ago, that God and Israel would be forever bound in loving and faithful partnership.

We pick up the story today with Israel wandering in the desert, exhausted, cranky, famished. They cried out to Moses for bread to eat. In their intense pain and suffering they began craving the simple pleasures they enjoyed even as slaves in Egypt. They went so far as to declare a preference for that miserable existence against their new-found freedom. They said they would much rather die in slavery sitting by their fleshpots and eating their fill of bread than be free but weary and hungry in the desert. We are appalled by their ingratitude, but we don’t truly know their misery and hunger. And God ever patient and compassionate comes to the aid of his people ever obstinate and ungrateful. He gave them manna to fill their hunger, yet another powerful sign of his gracious favor because God will not set aside the everlasting bond of loving and faithful partnership he had made with this exhausted, cranky, and famished people.

In the gospel from last weekend Jesus multiplied five loaves and two fish and fed a crowd of 5000, give or take. After crossing the sea of Galilee with his disciples he meets many of the same crowd on a different shore in Capernaum. Perhaps they hoped to get another bite to eat. Perhaps they just hoped to witness another powerful or spectacular sign. Whatever their reason, they came looking for Jesus. They liked what they saw or heard or experienced with him, and they were eager for more.

When we feel an attraction to someone or something, it is perhaps because they have in them a spark, an appeal, or some treasure we desire. Easily we feel an attraction to people or experiences that give us life or nurture the life within us. We are not likely to be drawn to that which might cause us pain or distress or alienation. We might not be able to explain the attraction itself, but we are inclined to seek goodness because God has placed such a desire within us. At first glance, it might look like nothing more than a hunger seeking to be nourished. We are drawn to people who are alive with joy and confidence, who are warm and welcoming, who radiate enthusiasm, compassion, love, and courage. And when the crowd traveled across the sea in search of Jesus, they were hoping to be nourished yet again. They had eaten bread to satisfy the hunger of their bodies. And Jesus saw an opening. He would take the opportunity to introduce them to bread that would feed the hunger of their spirit.

Sometimes we can love people so intensely that we want for them so much more and better than they might want for themselves. But we can’t force them against their will to take anything just because we are convinced it’s good for them. We can offer. We can entice. We can plead. The fact that they even show up is a blessing, an opportunity to share our joy and confidence, our warm welcome, our enthusiasm, compassion, love, and courage, and the bread that fills our hunger. But it is Jesus alone who feeds. It is Jesus alone who nourishes. We are no more than the disciples in the gospel story sent to distribute the bread that Jesus provides. I am aware there’s more to the story. But you’ll just have to come back next week to hear more.

Jesus acknowledged the initial bodily hunger or curiosity or attraction that drew the crowd to come looking for him. But he also saw a unique opportunity to invite them deeper into the mystery of God’s gift of Bread from heaven. We are sometimes tempted to read stories in the bible literally, as though this whole discourse all transpired in one afternoon. But the gospel of John written long after the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, also recounts the long, painful internal struggle within the Christian community trying to grasp the wealth of Jesus’ teaching about the Eucharist. Since then, theologians and spiritual writers have spent many years and gallons of ink arguing and discussing the finer points. But we cannot dismiss Jesus’ efforts to invite and reveal to his listeners the deeper mysteries of God’s life.

Some will come willingly. Some will hesitate. Some will walk away. Spoiler alert. St. Paul even attempts to articulate Jesus’ end game, which by the way is no secret, that we who follow him “will put away the old self of our former way of life … and be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.” For some of us that’s quite a mouthful. But for as long as we hang around, there’s opportunity, and Jesus wants to offer us more inviting us deeper into mystery. Jesus truly desires for us a greater gift than we even think to ask.

Rolo B Castillo © 2021

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