FR. JOHN MITCHELL
Aug. 2, 2020 – 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Isaiah 55:1-3; Psalm 145:8-9, 15-18; Romans 8:35, 37-39; Matthew 14:13-21
“When Jesus heard of the death of [George Floyd], he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.” (Matthew 14:13-14)
What a different scenario this describes from the one that has played out in our nation for the past two months. And what a strange response on Jesus’ part to the brutal murder of his innocent friend.
George Floyd was and is, of course, Jesus’ friend, just as John the Baptist was and is. And so we can assume, that had Jesus been walking the face of the earth on May 25, 2020, his response to George’s murder would have been first to steal away into a deserted place – in today’s world, perhaps some abandoned corner of a derelict building in a blighted urban neighborhood.
It was the sort of place where John the Baptist had devoted himself to intense penance and prayer in preparation for the arrival of the long-awaited salvation of his people and the world. It seems platitudinous to us perhaps, to consider prayer and penance as appropriate first responses to gross injustice and long-awaited deliverance, but only because we do not believe in the power of prayer and fasting, and do not understand the effects it has on society and on the individual.
Notice what happens to the society after Jesus retires to his deserted place. The crowds come out of their homes and follow him there. Again, how different June and July would have been if the revolutionaries of our time (since Jesus was and is to this day the quintessential revolutionary) had led people not onto the streets in violent protest, but into silence, in which stillness they more intently could fast and turn their hearts, lives, and society over to God.
On the personal level, the fruit of Jesus’ prayer was that his heart (in Greek, his splanchna – his deepest interior, his very gut) was moved with pity for the crowd and he began to act: to cure and then to feed them.
In Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis reflects on the inseparability of Jesus’ twofold response, in prayer and action, to the perturbing murder of his friend: “The initial … flight into ‘eremitical’ solitude for intense communion with God, results in a complementary movement of return to human association and firsthand perception of the needs of one’s fellowmen. Prayer, in other words, produces mission and a communion that originates in vision: we come to see others as God sees them. … But such internal events … remain sterile if they do not result in a total response of my being to what has been contemplated outside myself.” (II.357-358)
It is at this point, when people are attuned deeply to the personhood of their fellow human beings, that the movement toward action becomes fruitful. But the disciples prove to be in need of still more conversion. Confronted with the daunting needs of the crowds, they ask Jesus to send the crowds away to find their own food.
Instead, Jesus invites them to feed the crowd themselves. When they complain of having too little on hand to do so, Jesus invites them simply to surrender the little they have to him and allow his grace to supply the rest of the need.
The needs of our society today can feel utterly beyond our capacity to address in any kind of meaningful way. Division and prejudice are the order of the day, so much so that new prejudice is proposed as a remedy for old. But the recipe is wrong. Read Maccabees: this time just before Christ was an endless tit for tat in pursuit of political dominance.
Christ comes to offer real and lasting revolution. It is revolution of the heart, that leads us to the desert to commune deeply with our God, and there learn the brokenness of his heart for our pathetic need – an understanding which drives us to surrender all we have to the Lord, and begin responding to the need of our fellow man in very real and practical ways, not waiting on Herod to issue decrees, but breaking bread with the people right in front of us.
It is healing by groundswell, fueled by God’s grace. It is, quite simply, the Eucharistic mystery.
“They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over – twelve wicker baskets full.” (Matthew 14:20) “Heed me,” our Lord says through the prophet Isaiah, “and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare.” (Isaiah 55:2)