18th Sunday Reflection
Captured by the Russian army during World War II and accused of being a spy for the Vatican, Walter J. Ciszek, a Jesuit priest, spent twenty-three years in Soviet prisons and the Siberian gulags from 1940 to 1963. With great simplicity, he relates the events he lived through and that led him down a path of great detachment and ever more trusting abandon to Providence, to the interior serenity that preserved him from the “arrogance of evil” that surrounded him. He tells of his distress, his sufferings, but also of the interior progress he made. With faith and the help of divine grace, he realized how all events, even trials, are a gift of Providence and the expression of the holy will of God. “All throughout these years of isolation and suffering, God gave me an understanding of Life and Love that only those who have experienced them can understand”.
Faith without submission masks our desire for control. This arrogance of evil is encountered not only in the Siberian gulags, but also in our own hearts the closer we move to presumption. Spiritual pride lies at the root of presumption and controls its deception.
Each one of us requires that trust that acknowledges the ultimate goodness of God, the source of every good, and the source of Love itself. It is only out of this ground that we can learn to love in a better way with that abundant generosity that is always displayed by God, mirrored for us in the actions of Jesus. It is only when we are rooted in God’s love which is kenotic and eternal, that we come to share in that generosity of supra-abundance. Here there is no scarcity or shortage of resources; all are satisfied; all are fed. It is here that we find the interior serenity in troubled times.
At the time of the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes, Jesus is himself besieged by an avalanche of complex human needs; these are troubled times. The crowds have arrived, some merely curious, some are ill and diseased, most of filled with anger and resentment as an occupied people downtrodden and abused. Jesus own life is in peril and he has glimpsed the horror of his coming murder. Jesus has just heard the news of the brutal killing of his friend and family member, John the Baptist; Jesus is mourning.
Today we would probably be encouraged to take ‘compassionate leave’ from work and perhaps some weeks of counselling to help us cope. Jesus, too, feels the need to withdraw, the call to prayer, and heads by boat to ‘a lonely place’ where he could be alone with his disciples, but the people frustrate his plans. Instead of rest and healing he finds ‘a large crowd’.
Could you imagine reading: Jesus instructed the Twelve to go to the crowd and tell them that the Master had just had some bad news and wasn’t feeling too well; ‘Tell the crowd to come back in a few days so I can have some time out’? Instead we read: So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them and healed their sick.
What would you call that? Generosity? Compassion? Self-forgetfulness? If this had been an exceptional occasion of putting the other first we might be content to call it something like generosity. ‘Oh, remember that day, when he was looking for peace and quiet but the crowd was there instead; wasn’t he generous?’
But from my own experience, I look on Jesus’ actions with some awe. There is something here of mad extravagance of his total ‘being there for me’. Perhaps divine generosity is a better term. Divine generosity is not just something to thank God for; it brings us to worship God. It is a ‘goodness without limits’ perhaps best imaged by the twelve baskets full of scraps left over from the miracle which follows. Our scarcity, our little five loaves and two fish, has become an abundance, feeding all, satisfying all.
Jesus is just like that. More … always more. Impossibly more! More patient, more forgiving, more loving, more understanding, more merciful, more self-giving; an encounter with Jesus is always awesome; awesome, abundant divine generosity.
The crowds have received more than a free meal; it is a free meal pointing them to a fullness of life sustained by a food beyond their capacity to purchase. This was the burden of Jesus’ entire mission – to lead them, and us, beyond the merely material to incorporate the spiritual; true life and to the full!
Isaiah, in the first reading, cries out with the very words of God, imbued with a kind of desperate longing for our response: Oh, come to the water all you who are thirsty; though you have no money, come! Why spend money on what is not bread, your wages on what fails to satisfy?
This impassioned invitation from the Lord himself is searching for ears capable of hearing and valuing it; for men and women, and children, who have somehow learned to pierce the gaudy brightness of this world’s offerings and have glimpsed the eternal beauty and joy of the another way, where all our scarcity is replaced by supra-abundance.
Money … wages … can buy food for this life; for eternal life we must draw close to Lord; encounter Jesus; encounter that awesome, abundant divine generosity.
When the crowds have gone Jesus sends the disciples across to the other side of the lake and himself goes up into the hills to pray. He shows us the source of the strength and the integration of his inner, psychological life. Jesus lets absolutely nothing stand in the way of his prayer; not a busy day, not a tragedy, not the acclaim of a crowd, not even his death on a cross. Jesus, in fact, died praying.
One day while walking, Francis came across a poor man along the road. Seeing the man’s misery, Francis was moved to compassion. He took off the cloak he was wearing and said to his travelling companion, “It is fitting that we should restore this cloak to this poor man, for it is his, and I accepted it only until I should find someone poorer than myself.” When his companion objected, Francis persisted, “I should be counted a thief by the great Almsgiver were I to withhold that which I wear from him who has greater need of it than I.”
The things we have are to be used in the service of the people we encounter. The Lord’s Prayer finds us asking for daily bread. Not tomorrow’s bread or bread for next week. Jesus tells us to ask for what we need and nothing in the excess. How many of us have much more than we need? How many of us store up goods in attics, basements, garages, and storage units?
Prudent saving and good planning we may claim. Yet are we keeping for ourselves what can be put to better more immediate use by someone else? How can we honour the memory of Francis of Assisi by being instruments of God’s expansive-generosity in the world, particularly toward those most in need?
St. Clare of Assisi might have best responded: “We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, but rather, it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God’s compassionate love for others.”
How might you and I, as followers of St Francis of Assisi, be an instrument of God’s expansive generosity in the world.