Friday, July 29, 2011

18th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today's gospel reading opens with Jesus in distress. He has just learned of the death of John the Baptist, a man Jesus admired deeply. He was the prophet who came to prepare Israel for their Savior. In fact, Jesus admired him so much that he chose John to baptize him in the Jordan river. And so, Jesus is saddened by his death. Not only that, but Jesus must have been saddened that John's message of repentance was rejected. He had to know that the same fate - rejection and a violent death - awaited him as well.

And so, Jesus leaves to spend some time alone grieving his friend. But, when Jesus gets off the boat, he finds a vast crowd awaiting him. The needy crowd presses Jesus to stay with them, to speak God's word to them and to heal their sick. Though they've interrupted his plans to have some time to himself, Jesus does not resent the crowd. Rather, he takes pity on them. He realizes how deeply they hunger for God's word. And, he understands that only he can meet the deep burning need within them for friendship with God and salvation. So, Jesus doesn't rebuke the crowds for bothering him. Instead, he puts his own needs aside to meet the need of the crowd pressing in on him.

After spending a full day with them, it would be reasonable for Jesus to leave the crowd to get something to eat for himself and to allow them to find food for themselves in the surrounding villages. But, once again, Jesus does not put his own needs first. Neither does he consider his own lack of resources to be a good excuse for not tending to the crowd's hunger. Instead, he instructs the disciples to take the little food they had - five loaves and two fish -and to share it with the sizable crowd which would have numbered well over five thousand. The fact that it was barely enough food for Jesus and the apostles did not deter him. Jesus' love for the crowd would not allow him to abandon them in their hunger. Jesus would not dismiss them until all their needs had been met. Jesus would not tend to his own needs until he had satisfied the crowd's hunger.

Jesus' whole life was consumed with bringing God's love and God's life to the world. For that reason, Jesus had no place to lay his head, no home and no possessions. He wanted nothing else but to preach about God's love and relieve people of their suffering. Jesus gave of himself fully, even to the point of offering his life on the cross. Out of love for sinful humanity, Jesus held nothing back for himself.

It can be tempting for us to put our own needs before the needs of others. It is natural to fear that our needs won't be met unless we take care of ourselves first. Sometimes, however, we can be so focused on our needs that we get locked into a cycle of despair. Because we see our needs for love and friendship so often frustrated or delayed, we can become embittered and think that no one cares for us. Focusing on our needs exclusively can create loneliness within us. The very need we long to have met - the need for companionship and intimacy - can ultimately be what distances us from the ones we love.

If we are to live like Jesus, then we must put the needs of others first. Following the example of Jesus means forgetting ourselves and our needs to serve others.

We live in a world that is hungry. Not only are there vast numbers of people suffering from physical hunger, but from spiritual hunger. In America alone, people spend billions of dollars on lottery tickets, alcohol, drugs, self-help books and palm readers all in hopes of finding something that will fill the emptiness within them. The prophet Isaiah sums it up well in the first reading when he asks, "Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy?" We have the bread that will satisfy them. We have the antidote to the deep, aching emptiness within them. We have Jesus.

If we look out at that vast crowd and react with anything less than love and concern for them, they we do not have the heart of Jesus within us. Not only does Jesus demand that we not turn our backs on those in need, he demands that we feed them ourselves. Jesus will not accept the excuse that we have too little to give. We must start by giving what we have - no matter how meager it may appear - and trust that Jesus will multiply it.

And, when we take the risk in faith of setting our own needs aside to give of ourselves, not only will we witness the miracle of Jesus multiplying our efforts, but we will find that we are also being fed. In the course of trying to meet the needs of others, our needs are being met.

Anyone who has ever volunteered at a soup kitchen, homeless shelter or hospital can attest to this. The volunteers often begin to feel as if they are the ones being helped rather than the other way around. Despite the sad plight of the homeless and the needy, soup kitchens and homeless shelters are often places filled with joy. They are filled with joy because Christ is there. Christ's presence among the poor is unmistakable to anyone with faith enough to put their own needs aside and to give what little they have to serve them.

Saint Paul assures us in the second reading that nothing can separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus. Nothing we do and nothing that can be done to us can ever pry us away from the God who loved us enough to die for us. When Jesus walked among us, not even his own needs nor his lack of resources would keep him from serving others out of love. Neither may we fail to serve others in love no matter how small we feel our contribution may be. Now that we know Jesus' power to multiply our contributions, we can never underestimate how much good the dollar we give to a homeless person or the minutes we spend with a lonely person may do. And, we will be sure to find that, once we have set our needs aside, we have found an indescribable joy and a deep satisfaction because we have discovered in another human being the presence and the joy of Jesus himself.

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