Today’s Readings: 2 Kgs. 4:42-44; Ps. 145: 10-11, 15-18; Eph. 4:1-6; Jn. 6: 1-15
Thirty thousand children die every day of absolutely preventable causes associated with hunger. Mostly they die from diarrhea connected with unsafe drinking water. Forty million people in all die every year from those same easily remediable causes. That’s like the death toll from 300 jumbo jets crashing each day for a year, with no survivors, and with most of the victims children and women.
Can you imagine 300 jumbo jets crashing every day? Of course, you can’t. Just three jumbo jets crashing on a single day would throw the airline industry into complete panic. It would recognize that something was deeply wrong with the system. More regulation would be demanded by everyone.
And yet, with hunger, the equivalent of one hundred times those crashes with the horrendous figures I just mentioned happen each day, throughout each year, and no one in authority will say that the system is defective. In fact we celebrate the system as the best possible. Politicians commonly champion less regulation rather than more. They believe the free market is the solution to all of the world’s problems.
But is unregulated market the answer to world hunger? According to the U.N., the problem of world hunger is not lack of food production, but its faulty distribution. Through no fault of their own, but through the fault of the reigning market system, people in hungry countries just don’t have the money to buy food. According to the same U.N., a mere 4% tax on the world’s richest 250 people would solve that problem.
Each year those 250 people receive as much income as the world’s nearly 3 billion people who live on $2 a day or less. Taxing the 250 by a mere 4% would provide enough to make the hunger I’m referencing disappear – and not just hunger, but unsafe drinking water itself, along with illiteracy, poor housing, and lack of medical care.
That sounds so easy. But such a tax is not even discussed – not even by Christians like us who profess to be “pro-life” and concerned about defenseless human life forms – at least before they’re born. In defense of the unborn, such Christians want to force women to bring all pregnancies to term. However they see forcing the super rich to part with an infinitesimal portion of their great wealth an unfair limitation on their freedom – even if it is to save thousands of already born children each day.
In the face of such intransigence on the part of those who see the free market as the solution to everything, many in hungry countries have turned to the violence of revolution or terrorism in efforts to change the system. So free market or violence against that system – which is the way Jesus approved? Today’s gospel reading indicates that Jesus approved of neither. Instead, he offers a third alternative – a non-violent system of sharing led by his followers with women in the forefront.
Let me explain what I mean.
Today’s Gospel reading comes from St. John. Bread holds an extraordinarily prominent and symbolic place for him. In our gospel reading where Jesus feeds bread to 5000 men, there is no mention of the women and children inevitably in the crowd. Mark’s version of this story does mention their presence.
It is important to note that there is also no mention of a “miracle” in this story. People have followed Jesus “to the other side” of the Lake of Galilee. They are hungry. Testing him, Jesus asks Phillip where to buy bread for so many. Phillip has to confess that the market system cannot even begin to feed them all. There’s nowhere to buy, and even then a year’s wages would be insufficient to give each person even a morsel. To reiterate: in the story the market system proves incapable of meeting the challenge. Jesus and the women in the crowd are about to offer an alternative.
But before we get to that, it’s important to acknowledge the other way of dealing with the desperation of hunger that is present in the story – armed violence – the traditional “manly” way of dealing with almost any problem. John the Evangelist underlines Jesus rejection violence as well as market – even though he evidently gives revolution and insurrection much more consideration than the market alternative he considered briefly with Phillip.
Think about it. In John’s account, the time is near the Passover feast of national liberation – a traditional time of civil unrest in Jesus’ Palestine. Moreover, the episode we’re considering takes place in the desert – the time-honored place of insurrectionary resistance. Revolution is evidently on the minds of the 5000. Jesus knows, John says, that the men want to make him king by means of violence. Perhaps that’s the whole reason they’ve stalked Jesus and cornered him in his desert get-away. In any case, after a day-long meeting, the intention of the 5000 remains unchanged. On the contrary, it is merely reinforced by Jesus’ remarkable solution to the problem of hunger experienced then and there. Unable to dissuade those who would choose the way of violence, Jesus in John’s account simply walks away. He remains unambiguously the non-violent revolutionary.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that he walks away from the problem of hunger. Instead, he enacts a parable of what might be called “The Kingdom Sharing System.” This is the typical female way of dealing with problems – by establishing personal relationships and breaking bread together.
To begin with, Jesus has everyone relax – to sit down on the soft grass that nature has provided. In Mark’s account of this same event, the evangelist notes that Jesus divided the huge crowd into small groups of ten or so each. That gave all present a chance to introduce themselves and exchange pleasantries.
Then a child shows the way. A small boy brings forward five loaves and two fish and places them before Jesus. Jesus calls everyone’s attention to what the child had done. And that starts a “miracle of sharing.” The crowd is touched. People begin to offer one another the plenty collectively present among them, but that everyone was perhaps reluctant to share.
The abundance was surely there, thanks to the way women work. I mean, can you imagine a Jewish mother going on a day-long trip to the desert with packing a lunch for her husband and children? Of course not. In fact, there’s such abundance that even after everyone has eaten, 12 baskets remain to bring back to those not present to witness this “miracle of enough.” The dramatized parable’s point is: that’s the way the Kingdom of God works. (And note how women must have been central to it all.)
What’s the lesson in all of this? First of all (as today’s responsorial psalm says) it’s God’s will that everyone have enough to eat. Bread is God’s gift to everyone, without exception. And whether people eat or not shouldn’t be dependent on their ability to buy. In fact, if someone is hungry, humans and their market system are the sinfully responsible ones. And, we might add, it is anonymous women who actually save the day – those mothers who took the time to lovingly prepare food.
The bottom line here is that the way to satisfy hunger is not by depending on blind market forces or by waging violent revolution. Rather it is exemplified by the child in the story and the women in the crowd. That’s the way that Jesus calls us to deal with the problem of hunger with which our reflections began this morning.
And it’s Jesus’ followers, people like you and me who should be leading the way. How best can we do that in our hungry world? (Discussion follows.)