The Feeding of the 5,000, a Reflection on Social Justice
by Omar F. A. Gutierrez
Today marks the one year anniversary of my having started this blog. I take it as a personal sign of providence that today’s Sunday reading should be what it is, for if ever there were a list of Gospel passages that are abused by contemporary social justice movements, this one would make the top three.
The reading is familiar to you. It is the Feeding of the 5,000 where Jesus multiplies loaves and fish to feed a multitude, who are fed well and leave 12 baskets of bread and fish over. I always wondered what they did with those baskets.
Anyway, the contemporary explanation of this story is this. They say, you see, that when this crowd of people came to Jesus after the death of John the Baptist, they must have come with some food. One just didn’t travel without food back then, even if it was a live goat or a chicken or something. And more likely than not there were poor people and rich people who followed John and who now followed Jesus. It was an economically diverse crowd.
The miracle, so continues this contemporary exegesis, is not that Jesus multiplied thousands upon thousands of loaves of bread and fish. Rather, the miracle is that when the crowd saw that the apostles and Jesus were willing to share their limited goods with those around them, everyone else was moved enough to do the same. In this way, through a spontaneous redistribution of wealth, the rich gave up their excess, the poor asked only for what they needed and all were fed. This is the Jesus-as-social-revolutionary explanation. You might actually hear it from a pulpit this Sunday…in which case I’m very very sorry.
I’m sorry because this contemporary explanation has all the bits of bad social doctrine. It’s not that the spectacle of people sharing with each other is horrific. It’s not that redistributing one’s own wealth for the sake of the common good is evil. It’s just that in the process of trying to squeeze some social justice lesson, the inventors of this interpretation have squeezed out all that is important. It’s the equivalent of being satisfied with beef-flavored Raman noodles when you could be having Beef Stroganoff… and believe you me, my wife makes a mean Beef Stroganoff.
The contemporary explanation like contemporary social justice is less interested with the divine Jesus as it is with the divine society that can meet all our needs. So attached are they to the notion that Christ must have had socio-political reasons for every action, that this miracle of feeding 5,000 turns into an argument for a Marxist credo rather than an indication to the identity of Christ.
Why the insistence away from the miraculous, away from any implication that Jesus may have been… you know… God? Many in the social justice community are convinced that if we focus on this divine Jesus we will miss the very human suffering happening in our own back yard. They claim that by being concerned with eternal life, we might forget the very real and very fleeting life of the poor here and now. But this concern is based on prejudice and it is one that leads to great error.
Contemporary social justice assumes that the person devoted to Christ and the personal pursuit to sanctity must be less concerned for their neighbor. This is a prejudice of the Enlightenment which viewed the Church as disengaged from the needs of the modern man. This fails to see that it is precisely through personal relationship with Christ and our desire to be with Him in eternity that we can be motivated to love our neighbor in a manner that is truly transformative for him and for me. The effects of this prejudice can be devastating.
I was in conversation the other day with someone who has been involved with teaching and promoting social justice for nigh on ten years or more. They are very passionate about it, but when I spoke to them about conversion, they took me to mean conversion to the idea that we need a better world, a more just world, a world that respects its own environment, where racism is no more, and economic equality abounds. I had to remind them that when I spoke about conversion I meant conversion to a personal relationship with Christ Jesus. I got something of a blank stare but then nods. They seemed to agree, though not know exactly what I was talking about.
This person only reflected, though, the trend in social justice formation. I was in a back-and-forth with a prominent Catholic social justice program team over a year ago. This program included materials openly denying Christ’s divinity. When I pointed it out to them, they simply responded that they were not about catechesis but about transformation. Get it? The particularities of Christ’s divinity is only a nuisance to the process of transformation, where we all come to know that we must bring about a better world. This is folly indeed.
Of course, this personal relationship is one of the most amazing things about today’s reading. Jesus, who is no doubt suffering from the loss of his beloved cousin, tries to slip away to pray but is put upon by thousands. St. Matthew tells us, though, that “his heart was moved with pity for them.” This God who became man is not just playing at parlor tricks or attempting to inspire awe. He is motivated by genuine care and compassion. What’s more this pity is not just for a crowd it is for individuals.
Notice that Jesus goes on to heal the ill who are brought to him. Healing is an intimate business. Christ is there to touch and heal their wounds, and can you just image what other unseen wounds were healed by those watching, by coming to understand that this man cares; God cares; God is with us?
But the best thing is that when it comes time for the multiplication and the food is distributed, St. Matthew writes that “they all ate and were satisfied.” The leftovers filled exactly 12 baskets. What does this mean? Well it means that Christ saw not just a crowd of humanity that needed food. No He saw the individual needs and wants of every person. He knew what they needed well enough so that not only would each be “satisfied” but there would be enough to fill those baskets that represent the new Israel and God’s overabundant love for us.
This is another way that this Gospel reading shows us the proper approach to the social teaching. Oftentimes, social justice efforts are too caught up with populations, races, statistical realities of this group or that. In the process, unfortunately, the individual is lost in the whirlwind of well-meaning activities for demographic constructs. No more is it the simple calculus of Mother Teresa who loved each one according to their capacity.
Our Lord did not see a crowd though. He saw persons, and met their needs… each one.
Today’s reading is a reminder that when it comes to social justice, which has been the focus for this blog in this last year, the efforts on behalf of the poor have to revolve around people and not populations, around personal needs and not issues, around an encounter with the living Christ and not around a hope for a utopian future where Jesus is reduced to the radical next door. That would be an impoverished faith. This would be an anemic reading. And none of it would be true social justice.
Long live Christ the King.