17th Sunday of Ordinary Time / Trinity 8.
Most radio or TV stations in June 2021 put forward the message that “the vaccine will save us and life can return to normal after Covid 19”. Certainly we can only hope that people will not suffer from such a terrible infection and that our hospitals will not be overwhelmed unable to assist other critical needs. But being saved has overtones that we should use sparingly. This is a message that salvation and well being takes place only in material and physical terms, because this is the age God has no relevance. For some, this all seems a very shallow and unfulfilling goal and there must be more to human fulfilment than travel, sunbathing, socialising at the pub and whatever else take your fancy. These things have their place but as Jesus said “do not labour for the food that perishes but for the food that endures eternally”. [John 6,27] Christians call Jesus Christ “Our Saviour” because he offers a treasure beyond the temporal struggles of personal satisfaction. This is the deeper teaching behind the feeding of the multitude, drawn out by St. John in an episode many feel they have heard many times and know only too well.
Meeting people whose potential never materialises or who have settled for the lowest level of happiness and fulfilment and whose expectation of life declines as they increasingly become locked into themselves is a very sad experience. If only they could know that Christians call Jesus “Saviour” because he said of himself “I am the way, the truth and the life”. [John 14,6] Indeed he said so many things that direct us to this deeper life to be had by feeding the human soul as well as the mind and body.
The message at the heart of the feeding of the five thousand was so important in mind of the early church that it is recorded in all four Gospels, because it contains important truths about the relationship between Christ and the figures and festivals of the Old Testament. Although it is an event teaching at many different levels, in St. John’s gospel it is even more than a miraculous satisfying of a crowd, it is a “Sign” for all who are seeking nourishment of more than hunger of the body but are aware also of a starvation of the soul. This deeper feeding is drawn out by St. John in the remaining part of Chapter 6 in a discourse that follows the feeding of the crowds. Jesus describes himself to his disciples as the bread of life that nourishes and does not fail us because it comes directly from God, “a treasure from heaven” not gained through our own human effort. It is a direct relationship with the divine itself.
One of the great challenges facing Christianity today is to convey the idea that when humanity neglects the soul, it is on a course of self destruction. We hear the appeals of Sir David Attenborough that the environment is in crisis and the earth is losing more of its species, and to be sure he and his fellow advocates may be correct, but they do not go on to mention the equally chilling prospect of the extinction of the human soul with its ability to discern transcendence. For living only in a material existence hoping for permanent happiness, when God is dethroned, may result in a hell, a “dark night of the soul in which there is nothing beneath the surface of life and even the agnosticism of science and politics is itself an illusion.
But the true Saviour, whose name is blasphemed, ridiculed and whose wisdom rejected still warns, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. or where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. [Matthew 6,19]
Fr. Geoffrey Neal