• Rev. Lawrence E. Polansky

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

"They all ate and were satisfied ..."

Entrance Antiphon: Ps 70(69):2, 6 — “O Lord, come to my assistance! O Lord, make haste to help me! You are my rescuer, my help; O Lord, do not delay.”

First Reading: Is 55:1-3 — “Hasten and eat.”

Responsorial Psalm: Ps 145:8-9, 15-16, 17-18 — “The hand of the Lord feeds us; He answers all our needs.”

Second Reading: Rom 8:35, 37-39 — “No creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.”

Alleluia: Mt 4:4b — “Alleluia, alleluia. One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God. Alleluia, alleluia.”

Gospel: Mt 14:13-21 — “They all ate and were satisfied.”

Communion Antiphon: Wis 16:20 — “You have given us, O Lord, bread from heaven, endowed with all delights and sweetness in every taste.”

As a medical technologist in the hospital blood bank, there were times when an emergency would require me to prepare products for an individual literally bleeding to death in the Emergency Room or in the Operating Room. It was during those times that things in our department got really intense. Each of us got incredibly focused on our duties and our tasks. Each of us knew what we had to do and stayed out of each other’s way. We worked as an efficient unit in the face of crisis. When the crisis had passed, more often than not, each one of us would be mentally, physically, and sometimes spiritually exhausted. Even though it’s been almost nineteen years, one time that I can still vividly remember are the events during and immediately following 9/11. Shortly after the disaster as things began to unfold, we got a call from the Red Cross to prepare most of our inventory for shipment … either to Washington, DC or to New York City. On top of that, we had to maintain our level of responsiveness to the critical areas within our own hospital. Everyone contributed and got the job done while efficiently maintaining the seamless service that our department was known for. In the face of the stress of the day, it was an exhausting experience. The fact that there were so few survivors only served to magnify the letdown after the heightened level of intense stress during that time.

I think there are other groups of individuals that encounter similar situations and face similar levels of stress. Those that come to mind pretty easily are police officers, military personnel, and emergency responders, as well as those working in intense fields in the hospital such as trauma and emergency, obstetrics, and oncology that have similar experiences. I think clergy, social workers, and hospice nurses could fit the bill as well. Individuals in each can all be prone to “compassion fatigue.”

Americans hate feeling helpless and many jump into crisis arenas often unprepared for the experience. They find themselves in compassion overdose as they confront human suffering. Several neighbors in the apartment complex where I lived in Maryland jumped into their cars the weekend after 9/11 and drove to New York City to help in whatever capacity they could. They were unprepared for what they found when they got there. My one neighbor recounted how he thought he was helping unload rain ponchos from a truck and about half-way through the task he realized that they weren’t rain ponchos … they were body bags. After he was done and getting ready to come back to Maryland, he took a look at the stuff covering his shoes and realized that there were bone fragments along with other debris. He carefully collected the stuff from his shoes into a jar. Afterward, he related how he wasn’t prepared for the wide range of emotions the experience of New York City in the days following 9/11 gave him.

Every evening, most of us sit down to watch the news, always tolerating the same old commercials, but always interested in what took place throughout the day in the world all of us share. The news breaks similarly each night: the world disasters, the political scene, the struggles in the Middle East or Korea … the senseless violence in our cities. Most of us supplement our world knowledge with news magazines and local papers. One thing is certain: from the comfort of our home, followed by a hot meal and sometimes conversation, we watch illness, poverty, famine, violence and fear, perhaps wondering what we can possibly do to contribute to the well-being of our brothers and sisters suffering across the world.

Looking into the eyes of Christ, who embraces His people with pity and sees them like the sheep without a shepherd, we catch a glimpse of the evening news through divine eyes. “Who will feed them?” is a question asked when people from our diocese return from mission trips to Guatemala or Haiti or communities ravaged by hurricanes or earthquakes or wildfires. “Who will feed them?” is a question asked as thousands of refugee children stream across our nation’s southern borders to escape violence in their own countries.

If you think about our readings this weekend, who wouldn’t want to hear the words of Isaiah: “You who have no money, come receive grain and eat; Come drink wine and milk!” Or who wouldn’t want to believe the miracle of Saint Matthew’s Gospel where under the eyes of the shepherding Jesus, in a deserted place of scarcity, the abundance of God is manifested? What commodity do we have today that can be multiplied as surely as those five loaves and two fish within our starving world?

Perhaps it could be compassion and understanding … two human qualities we must tap deeply and resurrect from burnout. We must multiply those emotions which literally helps us to “feel with” the other, where literally we birth some love with God, out of the womb of God.

Jesus’ response to the ignorant, the hungry, the blind, the lepers, the widows, and all of those who came to Him with their suffering, flowed from the divine compassion and understanding which led God to become one of us. We need to pay close attention to Jesus’ words and actions if we are to gain insight into the mystery of this divine compassion. We would misunderstand the many miraculous stories in the Gospels if we were to be impressed simply by the fact that sick people were suddenly liberated from their pains. What is important to consider here is not the cure of the sick, but the deep compassion and the tremendous understanding that moved Jesus to these cures.

How do we multiply compassion and understanding and move them from the human heart to the byways of human suffering? Unfortunately, we are fighting against what Pope Saint John Paul II called the “structures of sin.” These structures are rooted in a nation’s or an individual’s selfish desire for profit and power and the failure to look beyond oneself. We face forms of idolatry that include money, ideology, class, and technology. How do we take the energy of compassion and understanding and move it toward change? The answer lies within the understanding of solidarity and togetherness … where communities of change work to bring help to those who suffer. We saw it almost 20 years ago after 9/11. We saw it in the midst of hurricanes and wildfires when scores of volunteers left homes and jobs to help rebuild fallen neighborhoods. We see it when the Red Cross and the United Nations come together to offer relief to victims of natural disasters. We see it in those who volunteer for the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, taking time and talent to other nations, offering education, medical support and empowerment.

It is sometimes tempting to become cynical. “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.” How can so little serve so many? What can one person do? Thankfully, we know that one person who feels the momentum of love can create infinite change. Mother Theresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day are legends of compassion. They are the loaves and fishes of our day.

Compassion and understanding require attentiveness to the outer world and the inner world. Compassion and understanding demand uniting with communities that push the agenda of mercy forward. Compassion and understanding sometimes necessitates becoming displaced from our comfort zones. They require patience and prayer. The starting point in our own lives is to respond to the other with kindness, forgiveness, generosity, and love … even if that person is the teenager we live with, the grumpy neighbor who always complains, or the guy in the store oblivious to those around him because he is texting on his smart phone. Compassion starts with being understanding. Compassion starts with being awake, attentive, and aware.

The news is often criticized or ignored; however, it is also more than a place to learn what’s going on in the world. It can be the trip we all take into the deserted place with Jesus, where we face the crowds with Christ who, out of compassion, heals them. Perhaps compassion and understanding are the new bread meant to be multiplied in our hungry world.

Jesus asks us to remember what the disciples did not grasp: We don’t have to do it alone. Jesus can work wonders with whatever we can give. A bit of cash we might have spent more selfishly, an hour or two of time spent with someone who is grieving, a bit of energy helping some service organization, or a bit of love extended to someone who is lonely. Just look at what He does with the bit of bread and wine that we offer here. And He is with us in all we do to feed the hungry, for now He has many hands. They are the hands of all who are formed into His Body around this very table or at any table like it in the world.

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