Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Just our daily bread
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Aug. 18, 2011 edition of the Inland Register)
Does not every full-blooded American know the experience of attending a potluck dinner? These events are as much a part of our culture as baseball and apple pie. Whether it be the company picnic, a family reunion, or a church function, we all know the delight of watching the spread of various dishes grow on the long tables set up for the event. Those in charge of the meal also know those early anxious moments when the invited guests tarry in their arrival and the barren spots on the table plead for attention. Yet, in what almost seems like an ever-repeated miracle, by the time everyone has arrived and eaten, in fact there has been plenty of food for all. Even leftovers! Can you remember the last time you went to a potluck and did not find enough to eat from the plenty provided by a shared spirit of generosity? The lesson seems to be that when everyone shares the little they have, there is more than enough for all.
Is it any wonder, then, that when we hear about the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes in the Gospel, we immediately want to compare the scene with that of a potluck? We have heard the story since childhood: The people follow Jesus out into deserted places where their longing for his Word leads them to neglect even the basic human need for food and shelter. The disciples, practical souls that they are, want to send the people back home to fend for themselves. Jesus has other ideas and multiplies the little they have to offer – a handful of fish and a few loaves of bread. Even after feeding 5,000 men (not counting women and children) there are 12 baskets of leftovers. Sounds like a potluck scene, right? Everyone shares the little they bring to the table of life, as it were, and there is plenty left over. The story seems to have an easy moral.
Our cultural prejudice, however, reduces the power of the miracle. Simply a few peasant folk struck by a spirit of generosity inspired by the Master, which produces an on-the-spot potluck desert picnic? There are indeed some who seek to reduce this miracle story to such an event whose retelling over time merely has exaggerated its details. But the Gospel writers certainly were more sensitive to the dangers of exaggeration. Clearly there is more here than a splendid generosity evoked by the good nature of Jesus – or even the display of divine power which suspends (or multiplies, in this case) the laws of nature. The clues to the significance of this miracle story for our spiritual life are found in the juxtaposition of hungry people and leftovers.
Hunger is an integral part of our religious history. We started out as a hungry people. Remember the time when God used Moses to lead us out into a desert? God met us in our hunger and thirst, providing us each day with what we needed to survive and to follow. Those were not times of plenty or abundance. We were radically dependent upon God for the food in our bellies and the direction of our lives. How much did God provide? An abundance? Or just enough for the day? The answer is well known. God takes care of his own, but his saving presence is not manifest in a lavish excess that dulls the heart and numbs the spirit. On the other hand, God does not use food as a means of control, keeping the hands of the needy outstretched for a daily ration.
The experience in the desert reflects a caring and loving relationship. It is a lasting image of that kind of dependency which is nourished by covenant love and leads to life. God meets us in our need and stays with us day by day. In that light we may note the significance in the Gospel story of the 12 baskets of leftovers. This quantity sounds like a lot, but given the number of people fed (men, women and children) it would be the equivalent of observing that a bowl of potato salad remained after a huge family potluck. The point is not the abundance which is left over, but the sufficiency of the meal. There was just enough. And so it is with God. There is just enough for the day. Why should we ask for more? What life-giving purpose would it serve?
Were we satisfied during our sojourn in the desert? Of course not. In the Sinai desert experience – and so many, many times since – when we, the people of God, get self-sufficient, we need God the less. From plenty and abundance is born the spiritually destructive attitude that we can go it alone. Rather than the loving God who provides and saves, God becomes a divine power held in reserve for moments of emergency. The less we are hungry or in need, the less we require the presence of the Great Provider in our lives. We can fend for ourselves.
One of the lines in the Lord’s Prayer reminds us poignantly of this desert scene and its essential element of instruction for our spirituality: “Give us this day our daily bread.” The phrase has become rather poetic for us who need so little but who want so much. Because we are so used to living in a society of affluence and abundance, we tend to measure signs of God’s blessing and presence in terms of material blessings and abundance. Our prayer becomes “give me” instead of “thank you.” The multiplication of the loaves and fishes is the only miracle story to be narrated in all four Gospels. Perhaps the not-so-subtle wisdom in this is that the need to recognize our radical dependence on God for daily sustenance is critical to our spiritual journey. When we lose our sense of dependency on God for a relationship of saving love, we become fat and saucy. The spiritually and materially rich do not need God.
It’s a special grace to follow Jesus into the desert and live day by day from a conscientious dependency on the saving presence of God. We only fool ourselves by living in a false sense of self-sufficiency. It’s good for us to stand at God’s table with the simple prayer on our lips: Give us this day our daily bread.
(Father Savelesky is Moderator of the Curia and Director of Deacon Formation for the Diocese of Spokane, and pastor of Assumption Parish, Spokane.)
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