If not all eyes are fixed on the Tokyo Olympics, at least several hundred million are at any given time. Other eyes are fixed on the growing number of COVID-19 infections increasing among the un-vaccinated in particular, the ghastly flash floods in Germany and Belgium, and the starving kids in Yemen and Ethiopia, hapless victims of the US-supported struggle against Middle Eastern insurgents. Watching the evening news can be hazardous to your mental health as such accounts are interspersed among ads for toothpaste, pain medication, pet food, and allergies. It is at least mind-numbing.
Two of today’s readings focus on feeding the hungry, and the middle one tells us how and why. We are taking leave from the
gospel of Mark for a while, turning to John’s account of the Feeding of the Multitude, prefaced by a snippet from the Book of Kings describing how the prophet Elisha managed to feed a hundred people with twenty barley loaves and what was probably roasted barley still “in the ear” – unshucked. It was an amazing feat, but only a prelude to an event on a hillside in Galilee 800 years later.
The gospel account, or accounts, of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude provided the point of attack for the rationalist German scholars of the late eighteenth century and their followers, whose rejection of anything miraculous required another explanation. It was difficult to deny that the event had occurred, because it is found in all four gospels—possibly twice-told in Mark and Matthew, all of which argues that it was deeply entrenched in early Christian memory – the three synoptic gospels, the so-called Q-document, and the Johannine tradition. The differences in detail from the number of loaves and fish to the number of those who were filled and the baskets of leftovers are themselves supportive of different lines of transmission.
The early hermeneuts of the Enlightenment did not deny that four or five thousand (or ten thousand, counting women and children, as Megan McKenna reminds us) had enough to eat. But for them the “miracle” was nothing supernatural (of course) but an adroit act of persuasion by which Jesus induced the vast crowd to share the chunks of barley bread and dried fish they had cleverly tucked into their tunics before setting off spontaneously in pursuit of the young preacher on a hillside somewhere near the town of Bethsaida.
Conversely, the evangelists insisted that in their fervent pursuit of the young preacher no one other than an enterprising young lad with a few loaves and fish had thought of bringing anything to eat. But the accounts also point out that everyone was short of cash anyway. And the crowd was understandably getting very hungry. But let that pass, as the Enlightenment scholars were quick to do. In the end, the only item in their account that they rejected was the miracle itself. It did not seem to occur to them that accepting the account of the event without the main point was literally pointless. Why accept any of it? And why, not to put too fine a point on that, too, did no one at the time, including Jesus’ opponents, insist that the multiplication (actually the division) of the loaves and fishes had a simple, psychological explanation? Why swallow the camel to avoid the gnat?
In the end, we are left with a good lesson in selective interpretation guided by prejudice. And the bottom line? Perhaps the Enlightenment critics were right about one thing – Jesus is still exhorting us to share the food we are hoarding with those who hunger and thirst not only for the gospel, but for real food and potable water. That miracle is only awaiting our compliance. Here the Letter to the Christians of Ephesus is perhaps especially meant for us today:
“There is one body and one Spirit,
just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,
one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” [Eph 4:5-6].
Watching the cottonwood seed tufts floating lazily by on a golden afternoon in rural Ireland, seeing the blossoms on the philadelphus opening and filling the cool evening air with their intoxicating perfume, hearing the faint hum of bees in the background, it is difficult to bear in mind that the planet is in peril – all of it, the trees, flowers, animals, and overhead the brilliant blue sky, and the calm Irish Sea in the distance. That, however, is the fact, however much we wish it were not the case.
This past week, thanks to the amazing if sometimes pesky magic of Zoom, I was able to attend the second Catholic Climate Covenant Conference co-sponsored by Creighton University. In a world that often seems too disinclined to take the increasingly necessary steps to preserve the global environment, the Conference was a truly a beacon of hope.
On this Sunday which focuses our attention on the task of the true shepherd, I would be remiss not to single out the superb opening address by
Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago, who situated the conference theologically and pastorally in the great encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Sí. (His address has been printed in its entirely by the National Catholic Reporter on-line. It was well worth reading – more than once: https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/cardinal-cupich-laudato-si-calls-us-economic-and-spiritual-conversion )
The many sessions with youth leaders in the Catholic environmental movement was especially reassuring. It has been evident from surveys conducted from just before the publication of Laudato Sí until this year that distressingly few priests and deacons tend to address environmental issues in their preaching. Although Pope Francis’ popularity has held steady across denominal lines, if less so among very conservative Catholics, his environmental appeal has taken years to motivate a general positive response even among the clergy. That, however, is changing, as the urgency of the situation becomes ever more manifest. A growing number of dioceses have instituted agencies to promote environmental awareness and action. Grass-roots organizations have grown exponentially, especially among the young people so well represented at the Conference.
If there are grounds for hope in the future, it lies here – in the “next generation.”
The world is blest with a number of leaders like Pope Francis and Cardinal Cupich who are leading the way to a hopeful future, which brings me back to the theme of today’s readings. Both Jeremiah and Jesus lament the poor leadership of the official shepherds of the people, specifically the religious hierarchy. Jesus may have known something about sheep and shepherds, although it is unlikely that he would have encountered many in his experience as a village construction worker and then an iterant preacher and healer. None of his immediate followers were taken from the folds. But even less than Jeremiah here, Jesus is not so much concerned with shepherds, but with their sheep, their followers.
As he will relate in another parable, wayward shepherds not only mislead the sheep, but endanger them. The hills of Palestine were a perilous place to get lost. Wild animals still prowled, and human thieves and thugs were plentiful. Careful and effective leadership requires courage and resourcefulness, a point Jesus will drive home in his parable of the Good Shepherd, the True Leader.
As I become aware at a distance of the disastrous fires in the Pacific Northwest, and the deadly and almost unprecedented rainfall and floods in Germany and Belgium, and other increasing consequences of global climate change, I am convinced that the need for concerted and effective action has never been greater. It is refreshing to be able to bear some good news in that regard.
Much of Europe and even North America has little on its collective mind (for a change) other than the World Cup finale, pitting underdog England against the formidable Italians. Football (or soccer as it is called in North America) is arguably the world’s favorite sport. One way or another, it provides relief today from the cares and concerns of these troubled times.
Today’s readings have little to do with sport except in regard to the matter of choice. Of call-and-response. And when the tumult of victory and the
heartbreak of defeat have faded, the message of scripture will remain. And should remain.
The first reading is from the Book of Amos, the first of the twelve “minor prophets,” so-called not because their message was slight or their impact negligible, but because their books are brief in comparison to the much longer works of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel.
Amos lived in the southern Kingdom of Judah in the eighth century before the common era. But his ministry took him from the fields of Judah to the northern Kingdom of Israel where the warning he delivered was dire. Focusing on what he saw as sins of injustice, Amos predicted coming disaster, realized thirty years later when the powerful Assyrian armies of Tiglath-Pileser III and Shalmaneser V invaded and conquered the northern Kingdom and deported a large section of the population. Israel would never recover.
The reading recounts an episode in the conflict between Amos and the religious and civil leaders in which we learn what little we know about him – that he had been a shepherd and a “tender of sycomores,” not the sycamore tree we are so familiar with but the “sycamore fig,” which produces an edible fruit. He is called from this simple agrarian life by God to preach repentance to the northern Kingdom. He even denies that he came from a line or school or family of prophets – he has been chosen by God for this perilous task and has chosen to fulfil his call as the bearer of what turns out to be very bad news when his call for repentance is ignored or, worse, resisted.
In the second reading, choice enters again, and provides the heart of the passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He mentions choice three times, the fact of being chosen in Christ – even predestined – “before the world began,” by our hope in Jesus, and to hear and believe the words of the Gospel. God chooses, we respond.
Finally, in the gospel reading, Jesus sends his chosen disciples out on a mission mirroring that of Amos himself, “to preach the need of repentance.” It’s important to recall that when the original term “metanoia” is translated as “repentance,” it’s too easy to confuse what is called for with doing acts of “self-mortification,” as we used to say. Repentance means to change our way of thinking, to have a change of heart, to reform how we live. This is what Amos found so lacking in the northern Kingdom of Israel, a failure that pointed to the coming catastrophe.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to find the same message in Jesus’ preaching itself. Like Amos, he was deeply disturbed by injustice in particular — defrauding workers of their wages, denying widows and orphans the assistance they require, and treating one another with heartlessness and disdain. It is a strong message, but we can choose to do better, and that’s what the prophetic message is always about. For we can do better. Much, much better. By responding in faith to God’s call, we will.
Freedom is like the air we breathe – we hardly notice it until it is challenged, threatened, or polluted. And like the physical contaminants that foul the air, the enemies of freedom are often slow-moving, insidious, and persistent. When we become aware of them much of the damage is already done and must be undone, often at great cost.
For two and a half centuries, since its very foundation, the death knell of American democracy reverberated throughout the world. But it survived the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Third Reich, the Japanese Empire, the Soviet Union, four French Republics, and dozens of repressive, autocratic regimes that spring up periodically like weeds in the fields of global history. The greatest threat to the nation was its own Civil War, the catastrophic “War between the States” from 1861-65, but from which it emerged in greater solidarity and freer than it had been before.
That is not to claim that conflict, rifts, and chasms have not opened in the ethos and politics of the American Republic. It is still a work in progress. But it is plainly durable. “E pluribus unum” is not an empty phrase. There has been a lot of talk recently in the aftermath of the insurrection of January 6th, which lasted an afternoon, that democracy is fragile. History indicates otherwise. At least the American experiment has survived its premature death knell for these 245 years. But it remains true that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
The greatest danger to the spirit of American democracy and the unity of the nation comes not from external animosity or economic competition, but from within, from inattention to the moral rot that is the inevitable price of the quest for power. Lord Acton was more than correct, he was prophetic when he wrote 134 years ago, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The pursuit of power for its own sake, like that of money, must end in disaster, at least moral disaster. This is as true of political power as any other.
St. Paul adds a telling note to such an appraisal, as we heard in the second reading appointed for this Sunday: “in weakness power reaches perfection… when I am powerless, it is then I am strong.”
Turning to the charter of American independence, it is worth meditating on the critical sentence that follows that phrase dear to the heart of every freedom-loving person, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Immediately there follows this caveat: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Political power exists to preserve and enhance the life of citizens, to protect liberty, and to promote happiness – -the common goods of all people. In the view of the Founders of American independence and democracy, anything short of this leads to suffering, tyranny, and misery.
If history has anything to say about all this, I suggest that it is the confident expectation that the American experiment in democracy, which now stands as the oldest federal government in the world, will endure and no matter how dim its radiance may wan at times, will survive as a light to peoples still struggling to be free.
Note: The earliest use of the exact phrase, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” dates to an 1809 book called The Life of Major General James Jackson, by Thomas U.P. Charlton. James Jackson was a member of first Continental Congress and was in the US Senate in early 1790s.
CONVERSABLE ECONOMIST: Notes on “Eternal Vigilance is …
Accessed 5 Jul 2017