Homily for the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Eating is a very strange activity, when you think about it. Absorbing another thing into your body. That’s probably why so many horror movies have to do with something eating something else. The idea that you would consume another thing that was alive – that you would chew the life out of some vegetable.
I remember some bumper sticker that asked if carrots screamed when you pulled them out of the ground.
It is strange, if you step back for a moment and think about it, that in order to live we have to feed on other living things. Why didn’t God just make it so that we absorbed energy from the sun? Or why not that we could just chew on rocks or dirt? Or why not just make us water or air powered? I’m sure that’s what we would do, if we were in charge of putting together little human creatures – try to make them self-sufficient. Instead, look how we ended up: needing to eat, needing to be fed. Why?
Our Responsorial Psalm today speaks to our dependence upon God: The eyes of all look hopefully to you and you give them their food in due season.
The psalmist’s reflection teaches us something important: our hunger, our needing to be fed, is not a sign of weakness, is not a punishment given to us by God. No, because we know of God’s goodness, we can see that our dependence upon him is actually a blessed gateway that God has built into our world so that he can demonstrate his love for us. Hunger opens us to receive his gifts, it makes us raise our eyes for a moment and look to the one who is the source of our nourishment. Our need to be fed is a blessing that opens us to God’s providential love.
And so hunger is not the worst of evils – instead, it is a lack of hunger that is in fact revealed as the greatest threat to us. Think of one of the most common symptoms of depression: lack of hunger. Think of one of the great signs of illness: no appetite. It was not a group of 100 full and contented people that Elisha fed. It was not a crowd of 5,000 sated and happy people that Jesus fed. They were hungry. And it was their hunger that caused their eyes to look upon him, waiting for him to give them the food that they needed.
But we have a hard time thinking that way, don’t we? Because it is sometimes painful, we see hunger as a curse, a state to be avoided at all costs – we work hard to make sure that our families are never hungry, that we are as close as we can be to full all the time. And we avoid not just hunger, but any dependency, any longing or unfulfilled need. Our culture teaches us that the successful person is a self-sufficient person, one who is not in desperate need of God, though maybe does glance up from time to time to thank him. That God is not so much our provider and source of life as he is our enabler, our collaborator. That he helps us with the things we’re working to achieve, but that we don’t need him to survive, strictly speaking. To kneel and beg? Isn’t that for the sinful and desperate? An action beneath our dignity?
No, no it’s not. Kneeling and begging is just fine with Jesus, and in fact it is only to kneelers and beggars – people who are directly dependent upon him – that God can offer his gifts.
And so the readings challenge us today to ask: do we acknowledge and live our dependence upon God? And I don’t mean just in some vague, abstract sense. As we hear in today’s Psalm: are our eyes hopefully upon him, waiting for him to give us what we need in due season?
Do we place our trust in him and cultivate in our prayer and in our lifestyle a dependence upon him at each hour of the day? Do we recognize our need to be nourished and forgiven by life of Christ poured out for us in the sacraments?
If the crowd of 5,000 had, as it sat before our Lord, decided that there was no way that Jesus could take care of them and that they should figure out amongst themselves what was best to eat – if they had voted and all chipped in and pulled something together – maybe they got the local kebab vendor to come over. Would they have eaten that evening? Well yes, I imagine, they would have, and maybe they wouldn’t have had to wait so long.
But would their eyes have been as closely fixed upon Jesus as he broke the bread and said the blessing? Would Jesus have been able to show them, in their dependency and hunger, such a great sign and miracle of the Eucharist and of God’s providential care for them, or would they have gone away believing that they had to take care of themselves? Would Jesus have had the opportunity to give them more than they needed – rich and poor alike – so much that there were 12 wicker baskets left over, or would many that day have left hungry after the kebab guy ran out of food?
Listen to the words of the great St. Augustine as he commented on the psalm we hear today:
Focus your minds, brothers and sisters, on this great God.
What was God meaning to do when he made heaven and earth, the sea, and all the creatures in them? Perhaps someone may say “I see all these great things, to be sure: But does God regard me as one of the things he made? Does he really care about me among all these? Is God even aware of me now? Does he know whether I am alive?” What are you saying? Do not let such wicked ideas creep into your heart, be not lukewarm doubters who despair and stop believing that God takes account of them. If God took the trouble to create you, will he not take the trouble to re-create you? Is not he who made heaven and earth and sea your God?