“Give them some food yourselves.”—Mark 6:37
At the beginning of today’s Gospel, we get a glimpse into the Sacred Heart of Jesus. “When Jesus saw the vast crowd, His heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.” As He teaches, their hunger grows, in more ways than one. And soon it is “late.”
The disciples see the physical hunger of the crowd as a problem, and want both the problem and the people to go away. “Dismiss them…so they can go and buy themselves something to eat,” they urge Jesus.
Jesus surprises them, instead saying: “Give them some food yourselves.” They are stunned. “Are we to buy 200 days wages worth of food and give them something to eat?”
He asks them, “”How many loaves do you have? Go and see.”
It is important not to rush past this question. Having read the spoilers, we know the answer: five loaves and two fish. And we know what Jesus will do, and how the more than five thousand will be fed that day, and how there will even be twelve baskets of food left over.
But let us ponder for a moment this command and question of Jesus. It is not enough for Jesus that His disciples hear His words as a message to be learned and taught. Rather, He wishes for them to share in His heart, in His mission. Nor can they pray from a safe distance for God to “take care of” the issue. They are to be an integral part of His work.
First, however, they must come face to face with their inadequacy. What do they have to offer? “Go and see.” They are to encounter, concretely, their own inability to provide for the people. On their own, they do not have what it takes. They need God to work. And yet, in the mystery of salvation, God calls them (and us) to cooperate with His work. Our own experience of poverty does not exempt us from mission. Humility rather makes room for God to work, but He nonetheless elevates us, drawing us into His divine mission.
The disciples bring the five loaves and two fish to Jesus. Jesus could have fed the crowd with just one loaf, or with the bread and not the fish. Or, being God, He could have provided His own loaf and fish. Instead, He asked that they give what little they had, and all that they had.
God invites us to experience our poverty, our nothingness—but then asks us to give anyway. He loves us in our poverty, but doesn’t leave us there: He invites us to make a gift of what we have—all of it. Sometimes we object because it seems too much. But just as often, we object because it seems too little.
We prefer grandiose gestures, which make us look or feel good. When God invites us to give lesser things, we balk.
Caryll Houselander writes of the woman who had a great desire to sacrifice her life to God as missionary martyr to cannibals, and was disgruntled that He never took her up on her offer. But she was unwilling to offer God the sufferings of her infirmities and old age.
“I knew once the primmest old invalid lady who could well have offered her helplessness to God, but she had a grievance against Him because He had not permitted her to be eaten by a cannibal for the Faith; she could not accept herself as a sick woman, but she would have achieved heroic virtue as a cutlet!” (Reed of God, p. 50)
We like to think of our saints as superheroes. But Saint Therese of Lisieux was by all accounts so “boring” that her fellow sisters feared there would be nothing to write in her obituary. Hers was not a life of great deeds, but of great love. She offered to God the smallest of things—and all things—with this love, and in so doing became a great saint. She was aware of her poverty and weakness and littleness, and so made room for God to act in her life in very big ways.
Father Walter Ciszek, on the other hand, lived a life of remarkable strength and courage. He became a priest, and then went to Russia as a secret missionary. His daily life there was one of marked suffering, even before he was arrested (accused as a spy) and imprisoned; he was tortured, and later sent the Gulag in Siberia. The details of his sufferings are astounding, and can only be called heroic. Yet for Father Ciszek, the defining moment of his life, his “conversion,” was a moment of abject failure.
While imprisoned he was subject to routine torture in a effort to get him to make a false confession. He was determined to resist; determined to outwit his captors; determined if necessary to die for Christ. Instead he capitulated and signed.
He was devastated; it was a moment of “great darkness” as he confronted his failure, his poverty, the realization that he did not in fact “have what it takes.” Then suddenly grace gave birth to profound freedom, as he realized that it was precisely his weakness that God was asking of Him. He had been relying on His own strength; henceforth he would trust completely in God’s will.
Very few of us will be called in the next twenty-four hours to make heroic offerings to God. Yet each of us is invited into the heart of Christ, to give what we have at His asking. To begin with that first step in trust—to put bread into that first pair of hands, and then another, and then another. To watch with reverent awe as God multiplies our poverty into abundance.
Image credit: Marten van Valckenborch [Public domain] from Wikimedia Commons