The Loaves & Fishes Story Is Not Just about Food: It’s about Just Food

loavesfish

Readings for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 55: 1-5; PS 145: 8-9, 15-18; ROM 8: 35, 37-39 MT 14: 13-21

I’ve been vacationing in Michigan over the past three months. We’re living in the lovely cottage my wife, Peggy, inherited from her father in the northern part of the state.

The community there is called Canadian Lakes. It’s white, upper middle class, and very pretty. Peggy and I have spent large parts of our summers there ever since we we’ve been married. Our kids feel attached to the place. In a sense, they’ve grown up there.

In a word, life at Canadian Lakes is good. It’s water-centered and comfortable.

That makes today’s liturgy of the word (with its emphasis on the free gift of water) especially poignant for me. So does the fact that our lake home is located in Michigan with Detroit not so far away. Water’s a problem there.

You see, the relationship of Detroit’s poor to water is very different from ours in Canadian Lakes. Unlike our lakeside community, 44% of Detroit residents fall under the poverty line; 83% of the city’s population is African American. Unemployment in the former Motor City is well above 14.5%. Yet, Detroit’s (unelected) City Manager has been cutting off the water of poor people there. Regardless of your circumstances, if you’re an ordinary Detroit resident two months, behind on your bill, you will suddenly find yourself without water for drinking, bathing and flushing toilets.

If you’re rich, however, it’s a different story. Some of the city’s largest corporate water users are also behind on their water bills – even years behind. For instance high-end golf courses, the Detroit Red Wings, the city’s football stadium and more than half the city’s commercial and industrial users owe back water bills totaling over $30 million. No one is cutting off their water.

It’s also worth noting that the price of Detroit’s water system (administered by private contractors) is more than twice the national average and that the water cut-off plan is part of a scheme to move the city towards a completely privatized water system. Some see it as a measure intended to drive Detroit’s poorest from the city for purposes of gentrification.

Detroit’s water policy has gotten world-wide attention. A United Nations Human Rights office designated it a clear violation of fundamental human rights.

In the light of today’s liturgy of the word, we might also designate Detroit’s plan (and in general the commodification of God’s free gifts to all of creation) as a violation of God’s order. In fact, today’s liturgy of the word implies indictment of water privatization schemes and the market system’s practice of treating food itself as a commodity. These are gifts of God the readings say – part of God’s gift economy which is unbelievable in its generosity.

And why should we be surprised? The God celebrated in today’s responsorial is described as “answering all our needs.” According to the psalmist, that God is gracious, just, holy, merciful, slow to anger, hugely kind, and compassionate. S/he gives food to everyone and everything – without cost.

So why pay for water? Isaiah asks. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!” he says. “You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”

The point of contrasting God’s “gift economy” with our exploitive “exchange economy” is driven home in today’s Gospel episode from Matthew the evangelist. The famous “miracle of loaves and fishes” is actually a dramatic parable about God’s Reign and its order. The event may even be factual in the way I’m about to explain.

In any case, the tale is symbolic. It’s about the way the world would work if God were king instead of Caesar. In God’s dispensation, the gifts of creation – food and drink – are given to all without payment. God’s order contradicts our own where food production and even water delivery reap huge profits for the rich.

You know the story. Jesus meets with 5000 men in the desert (“not to mention,” Matthew says, “the women and children”). It’s late in the day. People are hungry and no-doubt getting restless. Jesus’ disciples offer a market solution to the problem of the crowd’s hunger. They say, “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.”

Jesus’ solution is different. He says. “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.”

The disciples almost mock Jesus’ suggestion. They say, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” We can imagine them rolling their eyes and smirking ironically in disbelief at Jesus’ naivety. Did he really think that the loaves and fishes they had would be enough to feed 5000 hungry men and their families?

Nevertheless, Jesus “ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.” Mark adds the detail that he had them break up into small groups of 50 and 100. In those smaller groups, people could see each other’s faces. Inevitably, they must have introduced themselves and shared some personal background, a joke, laughter and human warmth. Friendships blossomed.

Then Jesus “said grace:” That is, with everyone’s eyes on him, the Master Teacher broke the bread, divided the fish and gave it to those around him. No doubt he did so with gestures inviting the crowd to do the same.

As a result, the “miraculous” happened. And it wasn’t a “popcorn miracle” where five loaves suddenly popped into 5000 or where two fish suddenly multiplied by 3000. Instead, the good mothers in the crowd must have followed Jesus’ example. (Can we imagine any good Jewish mamma leaving home for a day in the desert without packing a hearty lunch for her husband and children?) The mothers opened their picnic lunches and shared them with the people they’d just gotten to know.

It was a “miracle of enough.” Everyone shared. So even the improvident were able to eat with plenty left over – 12 baskets Matthew tells us.

No, I’m not saying the miracle of loaves and fishes was just about food. No. As John Dominic Crossan puts it, the “miracle of loaves and fishes” was not just about food; it was about just food – about just distribution where no one is left hungry. Why? Because that’s the way God and his order are. God gives food, drink – the earth itself – to everyone and everything without cost.

That’s the order Jesus’ followers are called to imitate here and now.

And it is Detroiters (as well as many others throughout the world) who doing just that. They’re busy not only sharing water, but gardening and eating free from their plots on vacant lots – taking grateful advantage of God’s free gifts. You might be surprised to know that Detroit has the largest number of urban gardens in the United States.

We would do well to follow the example of people there and expand on it, taking advantage of God’s free gifts by:

• Opposing water privatization schemes
• Supporting local farmers
• Gardening
• Composting
• Installing water catchment systems
• Heating water (and our homes) with solar energy
• Bicycling to work
• Getting to know our poor neighbors
• Sharing food with them
• Even paying their water bills
• Opposing military spending increases while U.S. citizens go without water.

To repeat: today’s readings are not just about food and drink; they’re about just food and drink. They’re about sharing God’s free gifts rather than turning them into commodities to benefit the 1%.