Sunday, August 3, 2014

Multiplications: A Sunday Rumination

No doubt any Christians in the audience will be familiar with this Gospel tale:

Now when Jesus heard this he went away from there privately in a boat to an isolated place. But when the crowd heard about it, they followed him on foot from the towns. As he got out he saw the large crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. When it became evening his disciples came to him saying, “This is an isolated place and the hour is already late. Send the crowds away so that they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But he said to them, “They don’t need to go. You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “We have here only five loaves and two fish.” “Bring them here to me,” he said. Then he instructed the crowds to sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves and two fish, and looking up to heaven he gave thanks and broke the loaves. He gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the broken pieces left over, twelve baskets full. Not counting women and children, there were about five thousand men who ate. [Matthew 14:13-21]

Ah, yes: The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. Consider how this well known tale is usually retold and swiftly dismissed. Looky here: a miracle! That Redeemer was one awesome dude, eh? That’s that, everybody got the bread crumbs? Let’s pass on to something else now, children.

This morning at Mass, Deacon Michael Byrne of Infant Jesus parish in Port Jefferson told it properly. I can’t remember his exact words, but I can reproduce the gist of his explication. I doubt I’ll ever forget it.

First, Jesus elects to leave the populated area for “an isolated place.” But a huge crowd drops everything and follows him thence...out of a pure desire to be with Him, and remain with Him until night has fallen.

Second, His disciples implore Him to send the other followers away, so they can procure food. But He is moved by the crowd’s hunger for Him and instructs His disciples to feed them out of their own store.

Third, they protest – out of selfishness, or out of realism? – that “We have here only five loaves and two fish.” Clearly, the disciples would prefer that the crowd depart, leaving them alone with Jesus.

Fourth, Jesus would have none of that. He takes the disciples’ food into His hands, gives thanks, and returns it to the disciples for distribution to the multitude.

Fifth and finally, all are fed to satiety, yet the leftovers the disciples collect prove copious enough to give a Tupperware® salesman an orgasm.

So what happened? Yes, there was a miracle. Yes, it was Christ at the center thereof. But note: It was His disciples’ charity from their own meager store, however reluctantly they provided it, that was the seed for that miracle, and His disciples that distributed the food to the hungry crowd. Moreover, the throng that had followed Him to that deserted place had asked nothing of Him...except to be in His nearness.

There’s a moral in there, isn’t there?

Sane persons who live in healthy societies don’t perform charity carelessly or thoughtlessly. They seek to know what they’re doing, and for whom, and what consequences it will have. But once such a man has identified a person in need, has decided that that person deserves assistance rather than being a freeloader of some sort, and has satisfied himself that his alms are more likely to conduce to good rather than harm – i.e., that his gifts will bring about a net improvement in the state of the beneficiary – he proceeds to give from his own store, and with his own hands. He doesn’t allow intermediaries between himself and the recipient, for one can never be certain that such persons will serve his agenda and not something wholly distinct from it.

That sort of charity is vanishingly rare in our time. Almost all contemporary “charitable giving” involves monetary gifts rendered to salaried intermediaries who work for corporate entities, on the representation that the funds will go to benefit “the needy.” Those “needy” never acquire faces or names.

As we know, in the usual case a hefty fraction of our monetary gifts won’t get anywhere near “the needy,” going instead to “operating expenses:” the salaries of those who collected the funds. That fraction has, in a number of cases, risen all the way to 100%. What remains to become benefits distributed to “the needy” will do so in an unpredictable fashion: the giver can know neither the form nor time of delivery. Perhaps worst of all, “the needy” are not guaranteed to be persons whose troubles are not of their own making, nor that the benefits will bring about a true and enduring improvement in their existences. Few “charitable institutions” bother to do the checking that might ascertain such things. Worse, they and those who work for them have an innate incentive to perpetuate dependency rather than to dispel it, for dependency is the source of their income and their importance.

Thus, quite a lot of our giving results mainly in paying well-to-do hirelings and perpetuating the dependency of persons who, in the most common case, feel no gratitude whatsoever for their blessings.

So why do we do it?

Of all the glorious things Jesus said while He wore the flesh, none are more important than these:

Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together. And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:34-40]

Clearly, to “love your neighbor” implies that you should help him when appropriate – i.e., when he wants it, needs it, and deserves it. You must not do him harm: “Love does no evil to a neighbor.” But who is this “neighbor” of whom the Redeemer speaks? Is it anyone and everyone who might happen to profess a need?

Not at all. Your neighbor is he who is near you: near enough that you can determine what he needs, the reasons for it, and what might improve his condition for yourself.

Only if you’re confident that you know those things should you proceed to render charity – from your own hands, and never against your neighbor’s wishes or resistance.

Jesus had His disciples distribute the food He had blessed and invested with His power. He intended that they be the ones the throng see as their beneficiaries, perhaps because He knew that the disciples’ time on Earth would greatly exceed His, but perhaps more because He wanted them to know true charity as few, even in those years, knew it. They had performed the preliminaries: taking stock of the hour and the crowd’s lack of food, and providing their own food, however meager, for an offering. The third step – the actual giving of alms from person to person – was what remained. With it, the recipe was completed, and Love could act to multiply their gifts as He intended.

The lesson has largely been lost on us of the Twenty-First Century. It need not be so.

May God bless and keep you all.

1 comment:

Reg T said...

Excellent post (as usual). I heartily subscribe to this process for charitable giving.

Being a heathen, a more secular line of thought was occasioned by this part:
"Worse, they and those who work for them have an innate incentive to perpetuate dependency rather than to dispel it, for dependency is the source of their income and their importance."

This describes the NRA and its deceptive practice of supporting (indeed, helping to craft) most of the gun control legislation on the books since back in the 1930's. If there wasn't gun control legislation threatening us daily, they would be unable to justify their constant push for donations, memberships, etc.

Since this is far off topic for this post, feel free to _not_ post it as a comment. Take care.