How many of us have been in the sea? We might have, and of course for many, only in cruise ships. But how many have experienced being at sea in a boat during stormy weather? Not many I believe, especially for Goans. So many of us cannot imagine what the disciples were going through in today’s gospel. We read that “the wind was strong, and the sea was getting rough.” If we were right in the middle of the sea or the lake, surely we would be very nervous and panicky because the waves and the wind could capsize the boat and we would all be drowned. Fighting against the wind and stabilizing the boat is not easy.
In truth, many of us are in this situation. We all face bad weather, or even storms in our lives. We are in financial straits. We are sick and not well. We are worried about our medical expenses. We are also worried about the education of our children and their expenses. We are all alone, and worried about getting old and becoming demented. Who will look after us? Indeed, we all have a thousand and one worries about our health, food, accommodation, medical help and care. If we are in such a situation, then the gospel assures us that Jesus is with us. To each one of us, He said, “It is I. Do not be afraid.”
But how is He with us today? He comes to us through the Church, the Word of God and the Eucharist. Hence, right from the start of the early Church, there is a close relationship between the preaching of the Word of God and charity to the poor; the Eucharist and almsgiving. Those who joined the primitive Christian community initially were mostly poor people, since Jesus came for the outcasts, the marginalized, the sick and the poor. Those who were rich and respectable joined them only later when they heard the message of the Good News. Furthermore, initially, they were mostly Jews but later on the Greek-speaking Jews were included.
In the first reading, we read of the dilemma of the apostles. They were preaching the Word of God. As the Word was preached, more and more members were added to the community. But the apostles had no time to attend to the material and emotional needs of the poorer members of the community. Should they preach the Word of God first, or should they feed the poor first? The truth is that both are equally important in the proclamation of the Good News. In the time of Jesus, He never proclaimed the gospel without the signs, seen in His miracles and exorcism; and in reaching out to the suffering and sinners. St James also makes it clear that faith without good works is dead. Until they experience the love of God in person, they will not be ready to hear the Word of God because they would just be nice words.
It was in this context that the deacons were appointed to help the apostles to attend to the poor. So the Twelve called a full meeting of the disciples and addressed them, “You, brothers, must select from among yourselves seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom; we will hand over this duty to them, and continue to devote ourselves to prayer and to the service of the word.” It is important to note that the early Church gave priority to the proclamation of the Word of God before giving out food to the poor. Clearly, there is a question of primacy; not so much of importance. It would be wrong, they said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to give out food.”
On the other hand, Jesus, in the gospel, fed the people first and then proclaimed the Word of God. The episode of today’s gospel is sandwiched between the miracle of the feeding of the Five Thousand and the Discourse on the Eucharist. Earlier we read of the compassion of Jesus when He saw the crowd coming to Him. He said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” (Jn 6:5) This too must be our question as well. How do we find resources to feed the many poor in this world who are deprived even of the basic needs of life? Thus, Jesus showed Himself to be the Bread of Life by multiplying five barley loaves and two fish for the 5000 people. By so doing, He manifested Himself as the Bread of life. It is for this reason that the celebration of the Eucharist today is closely connected with charity to the poor. We cannot speak about celebrating the passion and self-giving of Jesus in the Eucharist without doing likewise after we receive Him. So a true love for the Eucharist must necessarily lead to a real love and concern for the poor and the suffering.
However, this must be seen in perspective. We come back to the same dilemma. Should we feed the poor first or proclaim the Word of God? In the case of Jesus, we read that when “they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (Jn 6:15) They misunderstood Jesus as their political messiah. They wanted Jesus only to satisfy their material and physical needs. Later on, Jesus had to clarify and explain to them the real intent of the miracle of the loaves. The Lord wanted them to go beyond the daily bread to the Heavenly Bread of life that can sustain them now and for eternity. Hence, it was followed by the discourse on Jesus as the Bread of Life, the manna from heaven. The Eucharist would be the theme for the following week day masses.
Consequently, we must balance these two approaches and find the intrinsic link between them. Whether we choose to use the first approach, namely, the proclamation of the Word of God before charity to the poor or vice versa, the end point remains the same. We are called to bring them to Jesus, the Bread of life. Only Jesus can fulfill all their desires and soothe all their fears and anxieties. No matter how much we have in life, we will never have enough because that word does not exist in our vocabulary. Man is always anxious of the future. He wants to be in control. He lacks faith and trust in God’s providence.
But if we give them Jesus, then they learn to trust in the Lord. Indeed, we read that when Jesus was not with them, they were in trouble. “It was getting dark by now and Jesus had still not rejoined them.” Without Jesus, life is darkness. There is no joy but only fear of the future. With Jesus, they can overcome all storms and fears in their lives. Indeed, the gospel noted, “They were for taking him into the boat, but in no time it reached the shore at the place they were making for.” With Jesus, the journey would be smoother and made easier. We will carry our trials and sufferings with cheerfulness and confidence in His divine assistance.
That is why, if we give the poor the gift of Jesus, they learn contentment and will be happy with whatever they have. Happiness is not determined by how much we have, what food we eat and what we wear but it is in the mind. Happiness has more to do with living a purposeful life, caring for others and reaching out to others, so long as we have the basic needs in life,. When we keep thinking of ourselves, we can never be happy. The best way to stop worrying is to think of others and not our own needs.
Besides the food we offer, to give them Jesus is to give them the Eucharist, the Bread of life, the Word of God to guide, inspire and enlighten them, so that they will live in hope and trust in His love. When they walk a righteous and responsible life, they will eventually learn to help themselves and also be of service to others. Sometimes, poverty is caused by irresponsibility and the failure to take charge of our lives and live responsibly according to the gifts the Lord has given to us. Of course at times it is due to circumstances, such as illness and immobility. For such people, we can be sure that the Lord will send kind people to look after them. God will never abandon these people but will inspire people to respond to their needs.
Most of all, we are called to give them Jesus personally in the Eucharist. In receiving the Lord, they will find strength to overcome their anxieties and fear. With the Lord in their hearts, they will live not just for today but for eternity. They can take their sufferings patiently and join them in union with the Lord’s sacrifice on the cross. Through their sufferings, they too can grow in faith and in self-surrender like the early Christians, the apostles and the martyrs who suffered for Christ. Whoever has Jesus in their life will always find fullness of life and love.
So, if we truly want to serve the poor or help the poor to look at life positively, we, as messengers of the Lord, must be like the deacons; be filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom. Even as we serve, we must never forget to devote ourselves to prayer and the Word of God. Only those who cultivate a deep love for the Lord in the Eucharist will find the strength and capacity to see the face of Jesus in the poor. That is why many religious congregations insist that their members spend an hour of adoration each day before the Lord before they go out for their apostolate. Only in this way will they see the face of Jesus’ compassion for them. We can serve the poor but if we do not serve with joy, compassion and respect for them, we bring more harm than good. Above all, give them Jesus, whether through your love for them, your good deeds, or if there is an opportunity, explain the gospel of Jesus Christ to them.