Two deacons had taken a week’s vacation to a cottage in a remote area on a small lake to spend some time away, to go fishing and enjoy nature. They had been to the same place for years and knew the area very well. A new pastor had recently been assigned to their parish, so to be hospitable and welcoming, they decided to invite him to come along. Early on the first morning, they went out in a small boat to fish, near the cottage. The two deacons fished out one side of the boat and kept catching fish. The pastor fished out the other side and caught nothing. It seemed his line wasn’t going to the depth of the deacons. As the sun began to rise in the sky, one deacon said he was thirsty and asked if anyone else wanted something to drink; both the other deacon and the pastor said, ‘yes’ so the deacon put down his fishing rod, stood up, stepped out the back of the boat, walked across the water to the shore, went into the cottage, came back out with three bottles in his hands, walked across the water and got back into the boat. He handed out bottles of cold lemonade. The pastor was astounded, but said nothing.
A few minutes later, the other deacon said, ‘I’m hungry. Anyone else?’ The pastor and other deacon nodded, so the second deacon stood up, stepped out the back of the boat, walked across the water to the cottage, came back out with some bread and cheese, walked back across the water, got into the boat and handed out the food. The other deacon seemed to take this all in stride, but again the pastor was amazed and shocked. He thought to himself, ‘if these deacons have this much faith that they can walk on water and catch all these fish, surely I as a pastor should be able to do the same.’ The pastor said to the deacons, ‘I think I will go get a cookie. Anyone else want one?’ The deacons nodded. So the pastor stood up, stepped off the side of the boat, and immediately disappeared into the water. The two deacons reached in to pull him out of the water and back into the boat; one turned to the other and said, ‘Instead of letting him figure it out, maybe we should show him where the rocks are?’
Today’s gospel from St. John recounts Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes with five loaves and two fish. A huge crowd has gathered because they have witnessed his miraculous healing of the sick; the signs he has performed, the work he has done, has drawn them to follow him, setting aside everything in the moment – even their personal needs. When Jesus is prepared to sit and teach his disciples, his closest followers, he sees this huge crowd which is following them. And although John tells us, Jesus knew what he was going to do, he tests his followers by asking where they will buy bread for these people. His disciples push back, saying it would cost too much to feed this crowd, and although a boy is there with five loaves of bread a two small fish, their reading of the situation tells them that’s not enough. Other gospel accounts indicate the disciples tell Jesus to ‘send them away’ so they can find their own food.
In other words, this multitude, hungry not just for food, but to see and hear and be near to Jesus has become somewhat of a burden to them. ‘Send them away Lord. We can’t care for them all. We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the ability.’
Now a disciple is more than just a follower. A disciple is more than a student. A disciple is one who desires deeply to become just like their Master. Jesus has repeatedly taught his disciples up to this point, that to be like Him, they must follow what God has revealed to them throughout salvation history; that they are to love God with their whole being, and love their neighbour as themselves; that they are to observe the Law -but that the heart of the law is mercy and compassion – that justice for some is not justice at all – and that God’s grace is overflowing in its abundance for those who trust in Him.
So rather than simply telling them this again, Jesus works a sign, revealing once again his power and his divine nature. He feeds the crowd, and allows the disciples to participate in this particular miracle by having them distribute this seemingly endless supply of food; and has them gather up the fragments after so nothing is lost or wasted. He doesn’t simply let the crowd ‘figure out for themselves’ how to be fed or to satisfy their needs. He tells his disciples to participate, he gives them direction, and in that, shows them how they are to serve their brothers and sisters – those in their own communities and those who are complete strangers to them.
In much the same way, as His disciples, we are called no only to follow our faith and our teachings; we are to have a ‘hands on’ approach to the actual working amongst the poor, and through a living witness to bring them to an understanding that Christ is in their midst as surely today as He was physically in Galilee two millennia ago. We may not feel we have the gifts, the resources, the abilities to serve the poor in our midst – whether it be a material, a social or a spiritual poverty; but like his disciples, we can’t simply say a few prayers and by our inaction say ‘Lord send them away’ to look after or fend for themselves. We don’t leave them to ‘figure it out on their own’, or simply say, ‘Lord fix this’ without becoming part of the solution.
We are to help them, to feed and support them, to assist them in finding their way to Christ – and if we truly desire to be His disciples and are open to His grace, then we will be given the gifts necessary to fulfill that mission; certainly not on our own, but as a family, as a church, as disciples of Jesus.
We can show them where those ‘stepping stones’ are to lead them to Christ; in doing so, we will also be walking more closely in the steps of our Lord and Master.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!