God Works With All We Offer
by Rev. Joseph M. Rampino
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.
Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee. A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. The Jewish feast of Passover was near. When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, "Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?" He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, "Two hundred days' wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little." One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish'; but what good are these for so many?" Jesus said, "Have the people recline." Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, "Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted." So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat. When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, "This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world." Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.
Why does God ask us to do anything? This might seem like an odd question, but the Gospel passage we contemplate here, the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, certainly raises the issue. When the apostles bring the problem of the hungry crowd to Jesus, the gospel tells us that "he himself knew what he was going to do." He already has everything under control and needs no help to feed the crowds. If he wanted to, Christ could have produced bread out of nothing rather than multiply the little that was at hand and offered. So why does he use the five loaves and two fish? If he doesn't really need the help, what is the point?
We can sometimes ask the same question in our own spiritual lives. If we cannot live a good Christian life without the help of grace, if faith, hope and love come from God rather than from us, then wouldn't it be better for us to become totally passive and have God do all the work? Wouldn't it be more efficient for God transform us in holiness all on his own, without the hindrance of our often inconstant, often ineffective and always imperfect attempts of goodness? There are certainly some Christians, most famously Martin Luther, who believed in this way, teaching that our efforts and works are not capable of producing any good fruit, and that admitting our hopeless state and surrendering to grace alone is the only way forward for believers.
And yet, the Gospel gives witness that Jesus solicits help. He involves the disciples in perceiving the need for a miracle and leads them to ask for it. He includes the offering of all five loaves and both fish, even though he could have used only one of each, or even nothing, to feed his hungry followers. This also is consistent with the way God acts in the rest of the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, he worked signs and wonders against Egypt through Moses. He did not need Moses' help to liberate Israel, but he chose to work through his frail humanity. In the story of Gideon, God does in fact conquer the enemies of Israel without anyone raising a sword at all, and yet, he demands that the army of Gideon be present to act while he himself provides the miracle.
The truth is that God delights in including us in his work, and he seeks not only to save us by defending and providing for us, but also by perfecting us from within. God created us because he wanted us to exist and to exist well. He made us simply so that we could enjoy his company, and he could delight in us. He does not save us out of some bare obligation or obsessive need to purify, but out of joy and love.
Thus, he does not simply cover our sins with grace and do all the work himself, but takes us up into his works, even though it isn't necessary, raising us to be more and more like him. As the best of all parents, he does not simply want to see us obedient for the sake of duty, but wants us to be with him in everything, loving him in well-formed freedom, with an understanding of the beauty of his ways and commandments, having been made strong by his help. By offering him everything we have, our gifts, talents, works, struggles and difficulties, we allow him into our lies where he longs to work together with us in bringing about wonders of abundant divine transformation.