Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
In the Gospel reading for today, we heard about a great and startling miracle… Our Lord had retreated into the wilderness and the crowds had followed Him there. In His loving compassion, He attended to them – teaching them and nourishing their hungry souls with the living Word of God.
As the evening approached, the disciples looked out upon the multitudes and became concerned and upset about the logistics of caring for and feeding so many. The disciples wanted to send the people away to the villages so they could get something to eat.
Our Lord instead commanded His disciples to gather up the food available there and to feed the people. But the disciples assessed what was available and said it couldn’t be done… all they had were two fishes and five loaves of bread… they could not possibly fulfill the task that the Lord has asked of them.
There was no way that they could feed these thousands of people with such a meager collection of food. But the Lord tells them to bring their meager resources to Him. He blesses and fills with His grace the small and insufficient resources brought before Him and He then sends the disciples out to do the job He had asked of them, to feed the multitudes. The overflowing grace of God is apparent, and the disciples end up with twelve baskets of leftovers after the crowd has had their fill.
This is an astonishing miracle! Christ’s multiplication of the loaves and the fishes illustrates for us a number of things…
It certainly shows us His majesty and command over the laws of nature, of which He is, of course, the Author.
It clearly demonstrates the compassion which our Lord has for His people… first attending to their spiritual nourishment and then granting that their bodies may be nourished in this desert place as well.
It illustrates for us the universal principle that we must not judge things from our limited, worldly perspective. When situations seem impossible to us, when our resources are meager and limited, if we will have the humility and the faith to bring them before the Lord, He can fulfill all that is necessary.
And there is an additional aspect to today’s Holy Gospel which I would like to reflect on for a moment.
The miracle set before us today of Christ multiplying the bread and fishes to feed the assembled multitudes was a practical response and an act of compassion for the given moment. Now, one might say… if Christ could feed the assembled thousands, then wouldn’t it be better if He would feed the whole world? Christ could feed us all and then there would be no more hunger in the world.
One of the three temptations which the Evil One put before Christ was to ‘turn stones into bread’. This temptation symbolizes the universal craving for the satisfaction of our earthly desires here on this earth. It is the cry of all utopian dreams.
Mankind fools himself with his self-congratulating dreams of evolution and progress. While it is true that we have more gadgets today, the level of intelligent discourse and morality and piety are declining at a rapid rate. And when men’s awareness of the Kingdom of Heaven grows dim, he has nowhere to turn but to vainly striving for some kind of utopia here on this earth.
No-one describes this conflict better than Fyodor Dostoevsky and nowhere in his writings does he illustrate these points more clearly than in his great work, The Brothers Karamazov. In that book, which should be required reading for all Orthodox Christians, he sets forth the following dialog of accusation against Christ…
‘…Do you see these stones in this bare, scorching desert? Turn them into bread and mankind will run after you like sheep, grateful and obedient, though eternally trembling lest you withdraw your hand and your loaves cease for them. But you did not want to deprive man of freedom and rejected the offer, for what sort of freedom is it, you reasoned, if obedience is bought with loaves of bread? You objected, stating that man does not live by bread alone, but do you know that in the name of this very earthly bread, the spirit of the earth will rise against you and fight with you and defeat you, and everyone will follow him exclaiming: “Who can compare to this beast, for he has given us fire from heaven!” Do you know that centuries will pass and mankind will proclaim with the mouth of its wisdom and science that there is no crime, and therefore no sin, but only hungry men? “Feed them first, then ask virtue of them!”—that is what they will write on the banner they raise against you, and by which your temple will be destroyed.’
These are powerful and terrifying words… they say to God: ‘Forget Your Kingdom of Heaven, we don’t want it! We demand justice and bread and satisfaction right here and now in the Kingdom of this Earth.’
Isn’t this the voice we hear echoing in the streets today? There is no sense of personal responsibility, there is no sense of self-sacrifice, there is no sense of the need for there to be a foundation and a cornerstone upon which to build a better world. We have forsaken God and His commandments for our well-being and we have placed our hope in fallen man and our total lack of proper direction. This is the recipe for disaster… and it always has been. Utopian dreams which turn their back upon God quickly become nightmares.
Our Lord Jesus Christ responds to the cry: ‘Feed men first, and then ask of them virtue.’ The food He offers to us is the only Food which is that cornerstone upon which virtue can be built. He offers us Bread and Drink in His precious Body and Blood. This is the Food of Immortality. This is the fount of Living Water which is the only thing that can truly satisfy our thirst and deepest longing.
The problems of this world are manifestations of our disconnection from God. We must never lose sight of that basic fact. If that connection is not restored, there is no hope for any worldly solutions or plans. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn so perceptively said: ‘The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.’
Let us continue to raise our voices as the Church and pray for peaceful times, for abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for all good things for each and every one – and yet, let us never forget that such goodness begins in the healing of the individual human heart and in its reconciliation with God. Truth and righteousness must never be abstract ideals… if they are to be real, they must always be personal. As an old folk song from the 1950’s proclaimed: ‘Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.’