The key message of Sunday's Gospel is not what you think.
We have today the very familiar miracle of the loaves and fishes. One is tempted to say, “Oh that one … and tune out.” But, if we allow it, the Gospel today contains a very personal appeal from the Lord’s lips to your (my) ears: “There is no need to dismiss the crowds, give them some food yourself.”
Immediately all the objections swim through our minds, but be still, and let us allow the Lord to instruct us and apply this Gospel in five stages.
I. THE IMAGE THAT IS EXTOLLED– The text says, "When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.”
The text begins with a very sad note of the death of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. We should not simply dismiss the kind of human grief he must have experienced, and the text says he wants to go apart for a while, presumably to pray and grieve. It would seem, at the pinnacle of his public ministry, he could only get apart by going out on a boat, and so he does. The text is unclear how long he was out on the water, but it implies a short time.
Approaching the opposite shore Jesus sees a large crowd, and is moved with pity. He teaches them at great length and heals the sick. And here is the image that is extolled. If Jesus has allowed himself this moment of grief, he also shows that the way out of it is love and concern for others. For it is too easy for us, in our own grief, anger, sorrow, or anxiety to retreat, to hide away. As an immediate reaction this is understandable. But it is not a disposition we ought to maintain for long. For others have need, and even in our grief and our limits, we are still called to reach out. And that very reaching out, often contains our own healing too.
That we have needs, does not mean others stop having them. Jesus shows the courage and the love to still recognize the needs of others, even in his own grief. So he goes ashore and shares love with others.
II. THE ISSUE THAT IS EVADED– The text says, “When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, ‘This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.’ “
There is a human tendency, that when people are needy, we want them to go away, to disappear. Hence, the apostles, noticing the needy crowd, a crowd about to have a hunger problem, they want the crowd to go away before they become a problem.
We too, both individually and collectively, often desire the needy and poor to just disappear. If we see a beggar, we may cross the street, or refuse to look at him. If our caller ID indicates a troubled family member who may ask for money or want to talk a long time, we let the call go to voicemail. In society we tend to segregate the poor and needy. The “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) syndrome seeks to segregate the poor, the mentally handicapped and others to certain marginal sections of the city largely out of sight, and out of mind. The sick and the dying too are often relegated to nursing homes. Perhaps this is necessary for proper care, but the thought of an elderly relative living and dying in our homes is too much for many, even when it is possible. So, generally people go away to die.
Notice the threefold basis of the disciples evasion:
- They are DESPAIRING – for they say, this is a deserted place and it is already late.
- They are DISMISSIVE – for they want Jesus to dismiss the crowd, to send them away.
- They are DETACHED – for instead of wanting to help, they want the crowd to go away and get food for themselves.