Sunday, July 31, 2011

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Isaiah 55:1-3 / Romans 8:35, 37-39 / Matthew 14:13-21 

Faduma Sakow Abdullahi and her five children tried to escape starvation in Somalia by journeying to a Kenyan refugee camp. Only one day before they reached their destination, her 4-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son died of exhaustion and hunger. At first the 29-year-old widow thought the two were merely sleeping when they wouldn’t get up after a brief rest. She had to leave their bodies under a tree, unburied, so she could push on with her baby, 2-year-old and 3-year-old. … On her way to Dadaab, Abdullahi said she walked with friends for three days before she and her children lagged behind. She saw around 20 children dead or unconscious abandoned on the roadside. “I saw two elderly people on the road,” she said. “They cried out, ‘Ma’am, give us a helping hand.’ They wanted to sweet-talk me, but I said to them ‘I can’t help’ and moved on. You will feel kind only when you have something, … I wanted to give the little water I had to my children.” 
This account was written a few weeks ago for the Associated Press in coverage of the drought and famine in East Africa, where the worst drought that region has endured in 60 years has brought over 12 million people at risk of malnutrition and starvation. Dadaab, the refugee camp in Kenya to which this mother made her tragic, 37-day-long trek for assistance, is now the largest refugee camp in the world, designed for 90,000 persons, and now housing over 440,000 refugees, with more arriving every day, most from the over 800,000 who have fled from Somalia. Food prices in the region have soared, from up nearly 60% in Kenya to up 250% in Somalia.  You will feel kind, she said, only when you have something. While the scale was different, Jesus in today’s Gospel also confronts crowds, those who followed him on foot from their towns to the deserted place to which he had withdrawn to be by himself. Jesus, no doubt troubled by the death of his cousin John the Baptist, not merely losing someone he loved, but also reminding him of the pain, suffering, and death it was his mission to endure, might easily have been only all the more burdened at the sight of the crowds, afflicted with illness of countless kinds. However, our Lord did not flinch or feel sorry for himself.  When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, the Gospel tells us, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick. In the face of such need, we can easily become overwhelmed. Whether the global scale of the famine in the Horn of Africa, the regional scale of the several towns who brought their sick to Jesus, or the personal scale of a panhandler on the streets or an appeal sent to us through the mail, we do not know what we can do. We do not know how our few resources, so little in the face of such hunger and thirst, will ever do anything other than impoverish ourselves, and add no more than a drop into an impossibly large bucket. Better to send such requests away, we say to ourselves, and hope for the best. This is a deserted place and it is already late, said the disciples. Dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.  I wanted to give the little water I had to my children, said the Somali widow. Opposed to this bleak vision stand the bright promises of the Lord, promises of drink for the thirsty, of grain to eat, wine and milk to drink, without paying and without cost. Where we see a mounting and insoluble humanitarian crisis, God Almighty speaks through the prophet Isaiah of eating well and not merely surviving, but of delighting in rich fare. Through his apostle Paul he assures us that no earthly calamity nor demonic force, no anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword … will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, the same Lord Jesus who, seeking time to be alone by himself, nonetheless found his heart was moved with pity for them. This same Lord Jesus who did not merely show pity, but fed the crowds — they all ate and were satisfied — with an abundance still remaining. There is no need for them to go away, Jesus said to his disciples, give them some food yourselves. The Gospel today challenges us to show to ourselves, to one another, and to the world, where we truly have placed our hope. When we hear the promises from Isaiah of abundant and rich food and drink without cost, when we hear St Paul assure us that the worldly and spiritual powers arrayed against us cannot and will not prevail, when we hear of Jesus’ merciful heart and the miraculous feeding of the crowds, and when we receive him today in the Blessed Sacrament, do we believe that God can and will make good on all he has promised? Can we cease to spend our money for what is not bread; our wages for what fails to satisfy — whether political programs, frivolous or seductive pasttimes, or strange philosophies promising enlightenment? Are we ready to give the little that we have, our five loaves and two fish into the hands of the Lord Jesus, confident that he will make good on whatever we present to him, and abundantly so? Brothers and sisters, Jesus did not expect the disciples to feed the crowds by their own resources. St Paul did not promise that our victory in Christ means the end here and now of distress from physical or spiritual evil through our own efforts. God’s promise of abundance in food and drink through his prophet Isaiah did not suggest that our ingenuity would solve and meet every human need. It is God, and God alone, who is the food that satisfies, and therefore it is God, and God alone, who can provide what we so desperately need. What then are we to do? How do we respond to the world’s craving, its hunger and thirst? We are meant to do precisely what Jesus asked of his disciples: Give them some food yourselves. While we must do our best to give wisely, to be prudent in our charity, human limitation and our own inability to satisfy the world’s hungers is no excuse not to feed others as we are able. We are to give, and give generously, of our money, yes, but also of our time, our kindness, the pity in our hearts, and most of all our prayers to God. We need not worry that it will not be enough. That is for God to do. Instead, we are to cultivate the same love in our hearts as Jesus showed the crowds and not to be stingy with our five loaves and two fish. It may be all we have here, but in Jesus Christ, our little is more than enough to satisfy the desires of a hungry world.

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