17th Sunday in Ordinary Time by Fr. Guerric Heckel

Homily of 29 July 2018

2 Kings 4:42-44; Ps 145, Eph 4:1-6; John 6: 1-15

Jesus fed five thousand men, we are told. We are not told how many women there were, and certainly not how many children running round. How come so many men? To have been free to wander around like that, they must have been unemployed or underemployed – so unpaid, so living, however precariously, right on the breadline or under it. And, likewise, their dependents, the women and children. At least, they probably had homes, that would have been in the family for generations, but were probably getting more and more overcrowded as younger brothers and their families had to move in with brothers already there.

No wonder Jesus asked the question of his disciples, “Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?” The Gospel commented that it was a loaded question, and Philip fell for the bait – giving the economic-rationalist answer, “We can’t afford it. Besides, even if we could, we could not find enough” [or words to that effect]. Philip’s having a meltdown. Andrew’s contribution did not help much either, “There is a small boy here with five bread rolls and a tin of sardines – but that won’t go far even among us”.

What is going on? I wonder was Jesus making the point that economic rationalism never helps much when it comes to addressing real human needs? Economic rationalist answers usually come from comfortable specialists who are not personally facing real human need, never have, and are not likely to in the future.

Was Jesus’ answer any better? He fed them once, says the Gospel – and spectacularly. But what would they do the next day, and the day after that? What would happen with the twelve baskets of scraps, for that matter?

If economic rationalism does not have the answer to human need, what does? What is Jesus’ answer? Jesus worked miracles; but miracles were not his answer to the world’s human needs. Though they were often a compassionate response to people’s here and now needs, they had another long-term and wider-reaching purpose. More significantly, miracles challenged people to take him seriously, to listen to what he taught about relating to each other responsibly and constructively as fellow human beings, and to reflect.

Perhaps it all starts with our facing the question: Do we want to help each other, honestly? Even if it means a fairly radical change of attitude? Even if a change of attitude leads us into the unfamiliar? Until we have answered this question adequately, we hardly qualify as disciples of Jesus.

Take the question of refugees. Do we want to help them, to welcome them? Particularly if their skin is a different colour, if they do not yet speak English well, or at all? Even if some of them, with their post-traumatic stress, do not always behave as we expect? Even if adjusting to their presence costs us something in the short term? Why do we seem more prepared to spend unlimited amounts of money frantically keeping them out and inhumanely detaining those who have entered, than helping them settle here peaceably and constructively? Would our world be better off if nations decided to apply sanctions against those nations that supplied arms and munitions to warring nations?

Good practical answers to all these questions may be more complex than any simple yes or no. There is need to reflect carefully, to search together to find fitting solutions. Then, and only then, might the economic rationalists have something useful to contribute. But the basic issue remains: Do we want to help people?

Perhaps, there is no better question with which to end the Mepkin Abbey Inaugural Monastic Institute. Four weeks ago some arrived pretty much running on empty, or at least feeling a real emptiness inside, wanting a close relationship with Christ, a more robust prayer life, or wondering if this “monastic thing” might in any way help fill this gaping hole at the center of my being.

We have had some incredible people feed us these weeks, we’ve also done an amazing job feeding one another, as well as being fed by this local monastic community. But we are in somewhat the same situation that Jesus is in at the end of today’s Gospel after all that miraculous feeding and being fed with leftovers.

Jesus is tempted to fall under the grip of the empire and to allow them to make him King. But, “he withdrew again to the mountain alone.” He chose to remain counter-culture. Is that not what monastics have been from the very beginning – counter-culture?

Sr. Rebekka reminded us of that beautiful quote from Origin, “What difference does it make if Christ is born in the world but not in you?” Playing with that quote, “What difference has the Mepkin Abbey Inaugural Monastic Institute made unless the Christ within you has made you more counter-culture than when you came?

Jesus is very much concerned about how we face basic issues like this. When we pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” is our sense of “us” limited to our narrow selfish horizons, or does it reach out especially to include the hungry and the oppressed? Does our prayer that “Your will be done on earth…” involve radically widening our hearts, enough to live as brothers and sisters on earth, as Jesus instructed us?