Fr. Roger J. Landry
Our Lady of Grace Chapel, Alma, MI
Retreat for the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 3, 2014
Is 55:1-3, Ps 145, Rom 8:35.37-39, Mt 14:13-21
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guide the homily:
As we continue our retreat focusing on the Missionary Transformation of the Church, three things in the Gospel particularly stand out to guide us.
Going into the Desert with Jesus to be Nourished in Prayerful Union
The first is that Jesus “withdrew … to a deserted place by himself.” He wanted to pray and he knew he needed to get away from the hustle, bustle, push and muscle of the multitudes. This type of prayerful withdrawal was a very common action for Jesus. The evangelists tell us that he would regularly rise early before dawn to go off to a deserted place to pray (see Mk 1:35 and Lk 4:42). When the crowds were looking for him so insistently that he wouldn’t have much time to pray some time over the course of the day while among them, he would withdraw to deserted places in order to do so (see Lk 5:16; Mk 1:45). We know that before he commenced his public ministry, he went out into the desert for a month and a half to pray and fast. As we’ll celebrate on Wednesday, the Feast of the Transfiguration, Jesus took Peter, James and John up an exceedingly high mountain in order to pray. Jesus was, in short, constantly withdrawing from the crowds in order to do what was most important, which was to enter into undistracted communion with his Father in prayer. He did this not merely out of desire and need, but also as an example, to form in us a similar need and desire.
This withdrawing from the crowds is what we do on a retreat. The basic Scriptural theme of every retreat comes from Jesus’ words to the disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest for a while” (Mk 6:31). Jesus knows that for his first apostles and for us in our priestly or religious life, people can sometimes be coming and going in such great numbers that we don’t even have time for the most important things not to mention “eve to eat.” And so Jesus calls us apart from everyone else not merely so that we can physically rest and eat, but so that he can give us spiritual rest — through yoking ourselves to him anew — and spiritual food. In the words of the Prophet Isaiah from the first reading, Jesus on this retreat tells us, “Come, receive grain and eat.… Come, drink wine and milk!” He beckons, “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!” He desires to give us this nourishment “without paying and without cost.” In today’s Responsorial Psalm we turned to God and sang, “The eyes of all look hopefully to you and you give them their food in due season; you open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” That’s what we do here. We look to God to give us the food we need this season of our life. We open our hands to receive what he opens his hands to give us, as he seeks to satiate our deepest desires. Paradoxically we go into the desert to have our thirst quenched. God draws us into a place where no animals graze and no vegetation grows in order to feed us. And with faith, we go out to meet him there in prayer.
Prayer is one of the crucial parts of the Missionary Transformation of the Church, of the New Evangelization. The people need God and we can only give God if we come to receive the nourishment God gives. God tells us through Isaiah today, “Heed me and you shall eat well.” Prayer is where we come to heed him, to be nourished, so that we can breastfeed others on the nutrition God gives us in prayer. But prayer is also crucial for drawing disciples, because no one can come to the Father except if the Father draws him. Just as Jesus spent a whole night in prayer before he called the first apostles, so we need to pray for those to whom God will send us that they might respond to the summons to join us in communion with God and with each other. That’s the first thing we discover in making these words of God actual today for us on retreat.
Jesus’s Five-Fold Compassion
The second thing we encounter in this Gospel is Jesus’ compassion for the multitudes. When he saw the throng awaiting him when he was trying to pray, it would have been easy for him to have gotten a little frustrated or irritated, but that wasn’t his reaction. He was filled with mercy. St. Matthew tells us, “His heart was moved with pity for them.” That expression is a softening of the original Greek verb “esplangchnisthe,” which is a compound of the word splanchna, which means “viscera” or “guts” or “womb.” A more literal translation would be he was “sick to his stomach” with compassion as he saw the crowds. An even more accurate one — that I can get away with saying to a whole bunch of sisters with experience in health care — is that his “bowels exploded” with pity. Jesus’ compassion was like a volcanic eruption in his innards.
In the Gospels, this expression is used several times of Jesus and it describes five things that Jesus, in response to these intense stomach cramps of mercy, did.
- On one occasion the Gospel tells us, “When he saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity or them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mk 6:34).
- In today’s Gospel, it tells us that his heart was moved with pity for them “and he cured their sick.”
- In the feeding of the 4,000, Jesus says in the first person what St. Matthew described about him today in the third: “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, for they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat” and in response he fed them.
- On many occasions, his heart was moved with pity, like with the paralyzed man on the stretcher, and he forgave their sins.
- And when Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for the crowds because they were “mangled and abandoned like sheep without a shepherd,” he told his disciples, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few, so pray the Master of the Harvest to send out laborers for his harvest,” a prayer that would be answered immediately when Jesus would from among those praying disciples call 12.
Jesus’ visceral compassion led him to teach, to heal, to feed, to forgive, and to pray for, call and send out laborers with the same compassion on the crowds. Together with him, he wants us to see how many wander without direction in life and teach them the truth and instruct them how to live by following Jesus the Way. He wants us to see how many are suffering physically, psychologically and spiritually and seek to become nurses of the Divine Physician. He wants us to notice the multitudes starving physically or spiritually and to give them the nourishment they need. He wants us to see how many are carrying around the wounds of expiated guilt or severed revelations and to bring them God’s mercy and to God’s mercy. In all of this, he wants us to become hard workers, not just bodies, in his fields and to pray insistently for other diligent laborers to join us in becoming the compassionate upset stomach of the Mystical Body. As we’ll be talking about in the retreat conference later this morning, the new evangelization involves all of these activities flowing from our union in Christ’s compassion.
Jesus’ incorporation of us into his compassion
Third, having been fed by the Lord in prayer in such a way that we become one with his compassion, the Lord Jesus wants to incorporate us into his ordinary and miraculous exercise of compassion for the crowds. In today’s Gospel, the apostles try to dismiss the crowd “so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus says, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” Jesus wanted them, he wanted us, to feel responsible. Very often, we try to pass the buck on others’ difficulties, saying “that’s their problem,” not mine.
Pope Francis said in his Angelus meditation this morning, “It is helpful to compare the reaction of the disciples, in front of people who were tired and hungry, with that of Jesus. They are different. The disciples think that it is better to dismiss them, so that they can go get food. Jesus says instead: ‘Give them some food yourselves.’ Two different reactions, that reflect two opposing logics: the disciples reason according to the world, through which everyone must think of themselves. They react as if to say: ‘Fend for yourselves!’ Jesus thinks instead according to the logic of God, which is that of sharing. How many times, we turn the other side so as not to see the brothers in need. And this, looking the other way, is a polite way of say with white gloves on: ‘Fend for yourselves.’ And this is not of Jesus. This is selfishness!” Such such a response is not worthy of a disciple of Jesus.
St. Paul said in today’s second reading that nothing — not hunger or nakedness, distress or hardship, peril or persecution or the sword — can separate us from God’s love. Therefore, if we are to love others as Christ has loved us, whenever others are experiencing hunger or homelessness, struggles and difficulties, loneliness or persecution, we cannot be separated from them, but must draw close to them so that the love of God that is meant to flow within the heart of every disciple may reach them. Jesus wants this collaboration from us.
We should note that when Jesus saw the infamished crowds, he could have easily worked a miracle from scatch. He who created the heavens and the earth ex nihilo, who fed the Israelites in the desert with miraculous manna and quails from heaven (Ex 16:13,31), could easily have satiated the hungry multitude all by himself. He didn’t need human assistance. But that isn’t the way he wanted to act. He wanted to start with his disciples’ generosity. He wanted to involve them in his miracle. He wanted to start with the best and the most that people had, and bring their generosity to completion. They had meager resources, just five loaves and two fish that they seemed to have obtained from a little boy. But Jesus started there. We see that he had the same method of acting in the Wedding Feast of Cana. He who had created all of the bodies of water in the universe could have easily filled up the six 30 gallon water jars by himself, but he allowed the servants to go repeatedly to the well in the town center to fill up stone jars. If they had two gallon buckets and there were five of them, it would have taken the 18 trips, but they enthusiastically filled them to the brim. And only then did Jesus work the miracle.
The Shepherd and Lord whom Psalm 23 had prophesied would lead his sheep to “green pastures” and “set a table before them” had them sit down on the lush green grass as he took the gifts, looked up to heaven, said the blessing, broke the loves and gave them to the disciples to give to the crowds. The gifts multiplied not at the beginning — because they didn’t keep coming back to Jesus — but in the distribution. And Jesus “overworked the miracle” created more than was needed such that each of the twelve apostles was left with a wicker basket full of leftovers as a reminder of what God can do when we unite our resources to his, our compassion to his, our prayer to his.
The greatest example of this type of compassionate collaboration that Jesus wants to work his miracles happened not on the grassy mountainside or in Cana of Galilee. It happens right here in the celebration of the Eucharist. The raw material for this sacred synaxis is not grain and grapes but bread and wine, which is a combination of God’s fruit of the earth and vine and the “work of human hands.” God incorporates our own work and sacrifice into this great miracle to which the multiplication of the loaves and fish points. In the offertory, the priest says, “Pray, brothers and sisters, that this sacrifice, mine and yours may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father.” The Eucharist is the union between Christ’s sacrifice of his whole life culminating on Calvary is united to our sacrifice, our logike latreia, the oblation of our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, our spiritual worship (Rom 12:1-12). This is where Jesus draws us with his eyes, heart and guts full of loving compassion, to teach us, heal us, shower us with mercy, feed us and strengthen us in our vocation as the laborers in his vineyard. This is where we go each day into the desert to meet Jesus, where without paying or cost he feeds and refreshes us, satisfies our desires and quenches our thirst. This is where he seeks to unite us to his compassion and send us forth to carry his mercy to the world. This is where we bring ourselves and all our efforts, even if it seems a few bread crumbs and half an anchovy, placing them into his hands so that he can unite them to his looking up to heaven, blessing and breaking them, and then giving those gifts back transformed so that they can be multiplied in caring for the immense crowds. Jesus never stops looking at us and at the world with compassion. Nothing can separate us from that loving glance. And we ask Jesus so to transform us in this time with him in the desert that we may return to the world with wicker baskets full to feed the deepest hungers people have.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, receive grain and eat;
Come, without paying and without cost,
drink wine and milk!
Why spend your money for what is not bread;
your wages for what fails to satisfy?
Heed me, and you shall eat well,
you shall delight in rich fare.
Come to me heedfully,
listen, that you may have life.
I will renew with you the everlasting covenant,
the benefits assured to David.
PS 145:8-9, 15-16, 17-18
The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and of great kindness.
The LORD is good to all
and compassionate toward all his works.
R/ The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.
The eyes of all look hopefully to you,
and you give them their food in due season;
you open your hand
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.
R/ The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.
The LORD is just in all his ways
and holy in all his works.
The LORD is near to all who call upon him,
to all who call upon him in truth.
R/ The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.
ROM 8:35, 37-39
What will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine,
or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?
No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly
through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor principalities,
nor present things, nor future things,
nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
nor any other creature will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist,
he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns.
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd,
his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.
When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said,
“This is a deserted place and it is already late;
dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages
and buy food for themselves.”
Jesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away;
give them some food yourselves.”
But they said to him,
“Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”
Then he said, “Bring them here to me, ”
and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven,
he said the blessing, broke the loaves,
and gave them to the disciples,
who in turn gave them to the crowds.
They all ate and were satisfied,
and they picked up the fragments left over—
twelve wicker baskets full.
Those who ate were about five thousand men,
not counting women and children.