Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle B
2 Kings 4:42-44, Ephesians 4:1-6, John 6:1-15
In his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, author Tom Wolfe paints a picture of greed and arrogance that he observed as a reporter in the big stock market boom of Wall Street in the 1980s. The main character, Sherman McCoy, calls himself the “Master of the Universe” because he believes that he has figured it all out, and knows how to get whatever he wants – wealth, respect, happiness. Of course in the end he ends up with none of this. But even before it all comes down on him, there is a statement he makes that proves that he never had any of that to begin with. When detailing how much everything in his life costs, and how he cannot possibly live without any of these expensive items – all necessities, not luxuries – he makes the statement, “I'm already going broke on a million dollars a year!” [Tom Wolfe, The Bonfires of the Vanities, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1987, p. 137]. Being a money man, he can detail with great precision all of the costs of everything that he needs to have – that he must have, down to the $650 shoes he's wearing – but it brings him no real pleasure, only ceaseless worry. Then again, no one around him is happy. Tom Wolfe paints a very bleak picture of the rich and famous that many who don't know better are inclined to admire, thinking that they have it all.
Jesus and his disciples in today's Gospel, on the other hand, don't have it all, at least as the world understands the term. They have very little money, and what they have would not begin to feed the crowd. But Christ has something better, and this is what He is trying to teach his disciples as well as us. It is the trust that Elijah had in the first reading, when he too satisfied the hungry crowds. It is the trust of the psalmist, praising God who can “satisfy the desire of every living thing” [Ps 145:16 NABRE].
Yet many people still chase the foolish belief that happiness can be found with money or those things that money can buy. We all know deep down that this is wrong. I'm not talking about the truly poor, since those whose basic human needs are not met are in a different category. I'm talking about those that God has endowed with abilities and health so that they are able to thrive and prosper. We've all experienced really wanting something which proved difficult to attain, then when we finally attained it, it proved to be disappointing, or at least brought only temporary happiness. Humans being humans, we tell ourselves that this doesn't have to happen and then start chasing the next big thing, only to be disappointed again. Still, even after experiencing this multiple times most never figure it out and get right back up on the treadmill to nowhere.
God wants us to figure it out. The Father sent the Son to us to teach us what is truly important. The Son in today's Gospel wants to feed us, He wants us to follow Him and learn the true way. Love of God and love of neighbor are the summation of His rule. Those that are close to death, looking back on their lives, have shared what was what they truly valued. Guess what? It was the love they had for God and the love they shared with their family and friends that they most remember, and if they have regrets it is not about what they didn't buy but who they could have developed a closer relation to.
Try an experiment. After Mass, go back and look at an old photograph you have from a vacation in which you and the other people you were with are standing in a place that you visited. When you look at it, how much time does your eye spend looking at the place, and how much time do you spend looking at the people in the photo, remembering what they were like and what you did together. If you are like me, you spend most of your time remembering the people you love in the photo, sometimes completely ignoring the Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, the beach, or whatever it is behind you.
We can look to the saints to model the behavior that we as Christians should follow. All saints demonstrate a trust that God will provide, and this week we celebrate the feast day of a saint who was rich, not by the world's standards, but in what truly matters, and whom God fed better than any banquet had ever done. On Saturday, we will celebrate the feast of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Born into a family of the Spanish minor nobility, Ignatius knew the pleasures of court life in the kingdom of Castile. When as a soldier a cannonball broke his leg, he used the time of imposed bed-rest not to rue his fate or to covet all the things that he didn't have, but instead, he read the lives of the saints, especially Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena, and learned to do spiritual exercises which allowed him to understand that God was trying to work through him. He gave away his worldly possessions and become first a pilgrim, then a priest, and finally a leader of the order which he helped found, the Jesuits. A summary of what Saint Ignatius believed was his calling can be found in his Suscipe Prayer: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.” Saint Ignatius became a great reformer of our church during the Counter Reformation, helping guide the Church which had become mired in worldly concerns of raising money by selling indulgences and clergy involved in political affairs. Like his role model Saint Francis, he taught that the Church must return to its simple origins. Though his spiritual exercises, his lived out his motto which centered around the objective of emptying oneself completely of one's ego, doing the will of God. This is the direct opposite of what Tom Wolfe described through Sherman McCoy, and why he probably titled the book The Bonfire of the Vanities. A society of egotistical amoral people thinking that they will get what they want through grabbing everything that they set their sights on ends up being a bonfire all right, a hell on earth to those anywhere near it. Christ promises us, if we take what He offers, that we will be satisfied with plenty to spare.
As we continue with the Mass, the Eucharist represents the same bread that Christ offered His disciples sitting on the hill, and is the same bread that He offered at the Last Supper. Let us pray that we can empty ourselves of our egos, our covetousness, and our cares, and let this divine food fill us with the love of God, and provide nourishment that will provide true joy in our lives as we carry out His will, becoming what we promised in our baptismal commitments, to be joyful disciples.