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The secret of multiplication

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THERE IS so much that we can learn from Jesus on how to respond to a crisis situation such as the pandemic that we are going through. Let me point out what I call the essential elements needed if we want to multiply our meager resources:

First of all, take note, Jesus does not agree with the solution of his disciples: “dismiss the crowds; there is nothing we can do for them. Let them look after themselves.” It sounds a bit like what a senator said recently when she dismissed the appeal of the medical frontliners who are appealing for a little “time out” because they are feeling exhausted and many of their companions are also down with Covid19: “Just do your job well.” In a roundabout way, she explained that a lockdown may have to mean having to feed the poor again; let them look after themselves, so they don’t go hungry. Here is how Jesus replies, “No. Let us respond to the need. It is not right to just dismiss them. There is something we can do for them.”

The disciples react again to Jesus. “Yeah, do something for them? Like buy two hundred days’ wages worth of food for them?” They are being sarcastic, of course. It is their way of dismissing the seeming impracticality of his suggestion. In the version of Saint Mark, their sarcasm is more obvious; they go immediately into calculating the cost. A bit like asking—how many billions of pesos will we spend on SAP (social amelioration program) again?

It is when you begin by calculating the cost of “ayuda” that you tend to dismiss the problem rather than do something about it. Like the disciples, you will focus, not on what we have or what we can do, but on what we do not have or what we cannot do. “We have NOTHING but five loaves and two fish.”

You see, Jesus does not begin a miracle from nothing. He begins by identifying the resources available rather than surrendering immediately to helplessness over what we cannot do or provide. As far as he was concerned, the five loaves and two fish were not NOTHING. They were already SOMETHING. (In the Gospel of John, they are volunteered by a poor boy. They are the resources of the poor.) His attitude is different; he says, “Bring them over here to me.” It is his way of teaching his disciples never to regard as NOTHING what they have just because it does not seem enough. A dismissive attitude that cannot start with the limited resources available will never experience the miracle of multiplication.

And then what does he do about it? He does not say, “Let them line up under the heat of the sun,” like they make people do when they give ayuda or distribute relief goods. You will have an idea in his next moves how Jesus values good organization. He instructs the disciples instead to make the people sit down on the grass. In the Gospel of Mark, he would even do a group clustering for more efficient distribution. He makes them feel important. He does not do what some benefactors do when they give candies to poor children: they throw them in the air and make the kids scramble with each other, pull and grab like hungry animals. You can also help the poor without having to strip them of their dignity.

Banquet

What Jesus does next is what I call transforming a situation of scarcity into an experience of abundance. It is not a relief distribution. It is rather a banquet experience of the kingdom of God. The key words are familiar, you hear them each time you attend Mass: “He TOOK the bread, AND GIVING THANKS, he BROKE IT, and he GAVE it” to his disciples in order to be distributed. We call this “Eucharist”.

This is how Jesus mentors his disciples about themiracle of multiplication of our little resources. We can never experience the miracle of multiplication if we do not know how to take whatever little we have received, to recognize it as a blessing and to be thankful for it. People who demand things like they are entitled to them will not be able to recognize grace. It is only the disposition of gratitude that prepares us for the breaking and the sharing. It is not grace if we keep it only to ourselves. You want to multiply it? Learn to break it, and partake of it to those who have none.

The story does not end there yet. He asks his disciples to gather the fragments and they are able to gather twelve wicker baskets. Twelve is symbolic of the covenant people, and now of the community of his disciples, the new Israel. He wants them to see in the scraps of left-over, what it means to be Church, what it means to be God’s people. He invites us to see in the fragments the story of our lives and our mission: to be like John the Baptist who had generously shared his life in martyrdom. And later on, to be like him who offered himself as the broken bread of life on the cross, as a body broken for broken people.

We cannot call ourselves Christians if we do not allow Christ to mentor us in the secret of multiplication. Faith begins with a discovery of how generous our God is to us, and how he teaches us also to live our lives generously. Let me end this reflection with a prayer written by Saint Ignatius, the PRAYER FOR GENEROSITY:

Dearest Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as I should. To give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds. To toil and not to seek for rest. To labor and ask not for reward, save that of knowing that I do your most holy will.

(Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2 August 2020, Matthew 14:13-21)

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