In past weeks the readings have challenged us with threats that if we don’t step up as Christians, that if we don’t plant firm roots and do the kinds of things Jesus asks, we risk being thrown into the fiery furnace, where there will be “wailing and grinding of teeth.” We tend to prefer to fast forward past these parts of the Gospel so that we can focus more on readings like those for today’s mass, which promise that nothing can separate us from God’s love and God will give us all that we need. This is the future we’d rather imagine for ourselves—God accomplishing miracles to heal us and to feed us, not the pain of being separated from God because of our actions. Or, because of our inaction.
Despite the sunnier tone of today’s readings, Jesus’ response to the Apostles in today’s Gospel, “Give them some food yourselves,” challenges them, and us, not just to act, but also not to fail to act when others are in need.
We begin every mass with the penitential prayer, “Lord, have mercy.” But in the longer version of that prayer we are more explicit, confessing and asking forgiveness for, “What I have done, and what I have failed to do.” While we mustn’t live our lives consumed with regret, much good can come from asking the forgiveness of others for ways in which we’ve failed. Most of us who show up to Mass each week probably aren’t spending a lot of time deliberately hurting others by our actions. Our failures tend to be a bit more subtle, but just as real, and potentially just as problematic.
My point, however, is not to dwell on this but instead to propose that today’s readings might help us to understand why we often fail to act as we should, and how we might do better.
Today’s readings are hopeful and reassuring. God says, “Come to the water,” I will provide everything for you!
But think a little more abut what is being said here. God is saying you don’t need to worry about yourself: I am everything that you need. And Christ is showing us, through all that he does for us, that nothing can separate us from God’s love! Just think about that for a bit longer. Now, ask yourself: Do I really believe this? Do I really live it?
I must confess that as much as I’d like to answer with an enthusiastic and unqualified “yes!” to these questions, I have to hesitate a bit. See, I often find myself in situations in which I feel that if I really believed that God was going to take care of everything, I would be doing things differently. Why? Because I tend to play it safe, rather than to give extravagantly like God says he will in the first reading. I think: If I really believed this, I would be giving more money to the poor, putting more in the collection basket, and be living more poorly myself, not always putting that little bit aside “just in case.” I’d be feeding more hungry people. I’d be responding more quickly to those I encounter who are in need, rather than worrying about the risks involved, the consequences, or how it might inconvenience me. If I really believed all this, simply put, I would take more risks and live more radically, in a way more like what I spoke about in last week’s homily. In a way more like Jesus did. Maybe you have had a similar feeling.
But this precisely where the hope in today’s readings lies. Because, like me, you probably have a deep desire to believe these things wholeheartedly. I know that despite my frequent failures, because of that desire, each day I find myself believing it more and more. Growing in this desire has convinced me that the more our belief in God’s generosity, protection and love guides those things that we choose to do, especially those things that we could easily and without significant consequence walk away from, the more we will find ourselves doing amazing, even miraculous things for God and for others. We will love others in ways that seem foolish, but that we know are holy and right. So that when we find ourselves in impossible situations like the Apostles do in today’s Gospel—thousands of people and almost nothing to feed them with—we won’t try to send them home, we won’t even need Jesus to tell us “give them something to eat yourselves,” because, with Jesus’ help, and perhaps risking everything, we will already have found a way to do it. And we will stand back in awe when we see how much we have left over.