by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the men’s branch of the Idente Missionaries.
Madrid, July 25, 2021. | XVII Sunday in Ordinary Time
2nd Book of Kings 4: 42-44; Letter to the Ephesians 4: 1-6; Saint John 6: 1-15.
Some years ago an explorer visited the Arctic region on an expedition ship. She met two Inuit (eskimo) elders. They said it was fine for her to ask them a few questions, and they said they were willing to talk about cultural change.
Can you explain what you mean by cultural change? the visitor asked.
The elder of the two men nodded and answered. In the past, he said, when someone caught a seal it was shared with the community. Now when someone catches a seal they keep it for themselves and their family. It changes everything.
Parents, researchers of the human soul, educators, spiritual guides of all times know well that “something happens” when, in some way, we share what we have with our fellow men. Today’s three Readings talk about what to share, how to share and…what happens when we do.
1. What to share. Of course we spend the day sharing things which are necessary, but of little importance to our intimate lives, such as a greeting in the elevator, the use of public transportation or practical information for our daily tasks.
The need to share is so deep, so ingrained in us, that in many occasions we end up sharing things that are not relevant, we waste energy in trivial comments or sometimes in obsessively imposing our vision of any issue. In addition to harming others with these things, what is really serious is the opportunity I miss to share something essential that, due to shame, fear or carelessness, remains inside me, only for me.
The fact of eating with someone, or simply having a cup of tea or coffee, is a sign of intimacy that Jesus did not neglect. On the contrary, by instituting the Eucharist, he welcomed it as the clearest and most significant proof of sharing with us…his life. When we talk about sharing life, we are referring to something very specific: Our greatest treasure, our deepest concerns and our dreams. It is not just about (although it is important) reporting what just happened to me at work or a spectacular news that reached my ears.
The First Reading tells us, indeed, of a time of terrible famine in Israel, where people desperately sought to eat roots, leaves and herbs of all kinds. Elijah urges the man who brought twenty loaves of bread to share them with the hungry people. At that moment, it was the most valuable thing they could receive, something fundamental for survival, for their existence. It was not the time for fine words or brilliant ideas. It was about sharing the most precious and urgent thing, bread.
The newly arrived man from Baal Shalishah doubted the usefulness of sharing those loaves, given the magnitude of the needs, but the prophet knew that God responds to our faithfulness with a generous hand. St Paul remarked, He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? (Rom 8:32). The Holy Spirit puts in us the aspiration to be apostles because we know, we feel that there is nothing better to offer to our neighbor than to make Christ known to him. Everything else, as history and our own experience teaches us, ends up producing even more hunger, more thirst for power and for the things of the world, as Jesus taught the Samaritan woman.
In any case, if we are not able to share small things, like spending our leisure time together, we will hardly be able to give to others the deepest part of ourselves. That is why the true masters of spiritual life, including Jesus, shared with their disciples time and simple activities, as natural as eating. Let us remember that the banquet is, by its nature, an expression of peace and reconciliation, this is why Jesus has chosen it as the image of his kingdom.
2. How should we share? Jesus shows us this clearly with his example. In today’s Gospel text, he does not command to form a line to distribute the loaves, but forms small groups, seated in a comfortable place, where there was a great deal of grass, and only then does he distribute the loaves with the apostles.
This is the good taste that our Father and Founder spoke so much about. And it is possible even in the desert, that is, when we lack means, time or talents. The important thing is to convey the message that we really care, that we are interested in the life of the person next to us. It is quite another thing to find a “magic solution” to solve their problems.
I remember on one occasion, together with a brother, in the hospital of the mission we had in Chad, accompanying a dying man, who had no family and whose language no one could understand. His condition was pitiful and he died soon, but with a smile that I will never forget, because of the way we stayed with him, looking into his eyes and touching his forehead as a sign of our communion. I believe that the Holy Spirit, in the midst of therapeutic helplessness, showed us a way to unite with him, perhaps to prepare him and put him at peace for his final encounter with God.
When we share our spiritual life, for example in the Examination of Perfection, we have to prepare the table beforehand, looking to Jesus to ask for his help, the best way to express ourselves, to be able to remember all the love we have received and the love we have failed to give. In the same way, when we address souls who are far from Christ, it is to Him that we must turn to know what are the anxieties, dreams and aspirations of that human being. We cannot allow ourselves to be dragged along by proselytizing desires, or by the haste to obtain an answer, but rather by what God Himself has placed in that soul.
Surely, the most important lesson that Jesus gives us on how to share (knowledge, material goods, time…) is humility. Before doing anything, St. John says that he gave thanks, recognizing that all good comes from God the Father and especially the possibility of doing good to others is, more than a generous act, a grace.
Saint Vincent de Paul once gave a very surprising instruction to his religious community: When the demands of life seem unfair to you, when you are exhausted and have to pull yourself out of bed yet another time to do some act of service, do it gladly, without counting the cost and without self-pity, for if you persevere in serving others, in giving yourself to the poor, if you persevere to the point of completely spending yourself, perhaps someday the poor will find it in their hearts to forgive you. For it is more blessed to give than to receive and it is also a lot easier.
We all know there is a certain humiliation in needing to receive, just as there is a certain pride in being able to give.
What is harder than being brought to our knees by the demands of those around us for our time and energy? Being on our knees asking someone else for his or her time and energy. It is more blessed to be able to give than to receive and it is easier.
Yet, the irony is that our very gifts and strengths, if not given over with the proper attitude, can easily make others feel inferior. It is important to understand this so that we are more careful to not serve others in ways that demean them. It is not automatic, nor easy, to give a gift in a way that does not shame the recipient.
But there is more. Evangelical sharing is certainly a joy, but not without a cross. Inwardly, we feel the pressure of the instinct for happiness, which demands immediate and visible results, fruits and changes. Externally, the people with whom we share experiences, time, knowledge or food can be more than demanding, ungrateful and abusive of our patience. This can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion and even to abandoning our mission. The remedy is not simply to “be patient,” but to keep in mind the patience that God has shown and continues to show me.
The first hallmark of the disciple is humility, understood as the choice of the last place, willingness to serve, stooping down to raise the poor. Then come “gentleness, patience and forbearance”. The Christian is not quarrelsome and irritable, does not claim to be always right, knows that people have qualities and limitations, flaws and virtues. Following the example of the Master he renounces to all forms of moral or emotional aggression and violence, and seeks in every way unity, reconciliation and peace.
3. Finally, what happens when we share?
Barley grows also on poor and rough terrain and has less value than wheat (Rev 6:6). The poorer classes were content of barley bread that was cheaper than wheat bread. In the First Reading we see that it is a poor peasant who, with a gesture of touching generosity, deprives himself of valuable food to hand it to Elisha. He feels the need to share with others the gift received from God. And the divine response, as we can see, is not long in coming, because The warmhearted man will be blessed since he shares his bread with the poor (Prov 22:9).
It is also worth remembering that generosity is contagious. Precisely because it is so deeply rooted in our nature. Certainly, there will always be those who “resist” this call to be generous, those who prefer to become blind or ironic in the face of the generosity they see in others, but we can affirm that sharing is learned. So one of the things that happens when we share is that – consciously or not – our generosity is transmitted. We feel this in a very particular way when we contemplate the Sacred Hearts of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. When we begin to share the little that we have, others who are selfish and insecure will be inspired by our act of generosity and do the same.
What does it mean that in the multiplication of the loaves there were abundant leftovers? Does it mean a miscalculation on the part of Providence? Of course it does not. The error is rather ours, because God always grants us something unforeseen, graces that surprise us and that we have to think about how to share with others, as happens with every grace received. The Gospel text does not tell us where the leftovers went, but of course Jesus already warns that they should not be lost. For you and for me it is a challenge, a real challenge to be heirs of the kingdom of heaven, to have known Christ and to have to discover every day, every moment, how to share with our neighbor the truth, the consolation, the light and the strength that we have been given.
When I put aside my selfishness, overcoming the greed to possess, which is the root of every evil (1 Tim 6:10), I am welcoming the logic of the Kingdom. Making available to the brothers, without reservation, all that I have…. the miracle happens.