Physical and material needs are the basic concerns of every person. Food, clothing, accommodation and health are critical to living. Without health and the material needs of life, we will not be able to live properly. Without good health, we will suffer inconvenience and pain. Health is something that most of us value, because we cannot work or think or enjoy ourselves, eat what we like or go where we want when we are in poor health. So it is understandable that all of us seek to fulfill these fundamental needs. When we pray, we ask for our “daily bread”.
Those of us in ministry, whether we are involved in social or church ministry, seek to provide these needs. There are many church organizations that care for the poor, the underprivileged, the mentally and physically challenged, the elderly, those suffering from terminal illnesses and infectious diseases. Besides serving those who need physical and material help, those of us in the pastoral ministry are often asked to attend to their emotional and spiritual needs as well. So many are asking for prayers for healing, deliverance and peace of mind. There are others who need counselling and encouragement. So the needs of humanity are endless.
Indeed, the gospel tells us that Jesus too was swarmed with people seeking healing. “When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him.” (Mk 3:8, 10) Jesus not only healed but He fed the people when they were hungry. In the gospel earlier on Jesus fed five thousand with five loaves and two fish. (cf Jn 6:1-13) In the first reading, we also read that “Stephen was filled with grace and power and began to work miracles and great signs among the people.” He was “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 6:5)
But apparently, they failed in their mission. Why? Because even though they saw the miracles, they were unconverted and remained on the level of fulfilling their needs. Jesus saw through them and said, “I tell you most solemnly, you are not looking for me because you have seen the signs but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat.” They were not interested in Jesus but themselves. It was not about God or Jesus, but about what they needed from God. Their focus remained on the material and physical levels.
The truth is no matter how much we have, we will never have enough. Regardless how much we have, we never have enough. We all want to have more and more. There are so many rich people in the world. They do not need so much money even to live a luxurious life until death. But they continue to hoard their resources and build up their financial empire. Truly, we cannot satisfy the greed of every man but only their needs. Beyond fulfilling one’s basic needs, there is no end to satisfying a man’s desires. Even for physical needs, especially for healing, we cannot expect the Lord to heal us forever. Sickness, old age and death is part of the whole process of life.
The other ugly truth is that when we do not get what we want, we change allegiance. This was true in the case of Jesus. We read that after the miracle of the loaves, they wanted to make Him king. “After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” They had selfish intentions for making Jesus king because they thought that Jesus was a revolutionary leader who would rise against the Romans. But Jesus’ idea of kingship was not in terms of territory or power but in human lowliness and humble service. When they realized that Jesus could not help them to achieve their goals, they had Jesus exchanged for Barabbas, a revolutionary and a murderer. (cf Jn 18:39f)
This too was the situation of Stephen as well. Although he performed miracles and healings, the authorities were not interested in what he was doing. They were rich and powerful and they were self-sufficient, unlike the poor people. But his preaching was threatening the institution and their positions in society. Their interests were compromised. They perceived Stephen as a threat because he would take away their security in the offices that they were holding. Hence, they plotted to kill Stephen by framing him. “So they procured some men to say, ‘we heard him using blasphemous language against Moses and against God.’ Having in this way turned the people against him as well as the elders and scribes, they took Stephen by surprise, and arrested him and brought him before the Sanhedrin.”
Indeed, even today, when some of the poor, sick and needy that we serve do not get what they want, not only do they leave us but they will go against us. They will hurl all kinds of insults, defamation and slander against us, knowing that as Church we will not retaliate. They take advantage of the Church’s compassion. They can be demanding, expecting to be attended to immediately and be given what they want. Worse still, when we encroach on their interests, they will react like the Jewish leaders. They will attack us and instigate others to go against us because we proclaim the truth and speak of right living and integrity. When businesses are affected by the gospel teaching on ethics and morality, they are up in arms because our proclamation hurts their pockets.
That is why we must never forget that when serving the poor, the needy and the sick, our ultimate goal is not just to feed them, give them material help or even heal them physically, but to give them faith in Jesus. This is what what it means to work for God, as Jesus says: “Do not work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life, the kind of food the Son of Man is offering you, for on him the Father, God himself, has set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do if we are to do the works that God wants?’ Jesus gave them this answer, ‘This is working for God: you must believe in the one he has sent.’”
Only faith in Jesus can satisfy us, like the Samaritan woman who was seeking love and understanding. Jesus said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (Jn 4:10) She said, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” (Jn 4:15) Only faith in Jesus will help us to overcome all fears, even of death. St Paul said, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (cf Rom 8:37-39) Faith in Jesus enables us to accept all things as God’s providence. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28) Faith in Jesus helps us to walk the way of truth and love to fullness of life. (cf Jn 14:6) Indeed, “they are happy whose life is blameless.”
Such was the disposition of St Stephen. He was a man of faith in the Lord. Even under interrogation before the Sanhedrin, he was perfectly calm and steady. “The members of the Sanhedrin all looked intently at Stephen, and his face appeared to them like the face of an angel.” He had no fear of death because of Jesus’ resurrection. He did not retaliate because he was walking the way of Jesus, remembering how He did not retaliate when He was undergoing His passion. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity to witness to the Lord. And truly, it was because of his courageous faith that Saul’s heart was moved and touched, preparing him for his own conversion experience. (cf Acts 7:57-60)
So whatever we do to help the poor or the sick and suffering, our intention must go beyond healing some illness or providing food and resources. Our goal must be to lead them to a growing faith in Christ. St John wrote, “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” (1Jn 5:5) This is why Jesus demanded faith in Him before He performed any healing. Where faith is lacking, He did not heal, as in the case of His people in Nazareth. “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mk 6:5f) “Or with Herod who wanted to see some entertainment. (cf Lk 23:8f)
Faith in Jesus is paramount. When we have Jesus, we have everything. St Paul wrote, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Phil 4:12-13) With Christ, we will never be crushed or broken. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Cor 4:7-9)