18th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)
In August, 2013 a news story circulated about a mysterious roadside “angel” who appeared at the scene of a head-on collision where the victim was trapped inside her crushed vehicle. The man, described as wearing priestly garb, prayed with and anointed the 19-year-old woman, provided calming reassurances to the rescue workers that all would be well, and then disappeared from the scene without a trace.
This story took off and gained international attention. The Missouri miracle, as it was called, was intriguing. Who was this man who emerged from the corn fields with anointing oils? How was it possible for anyone to come and go when the road was blocked in both directions? And why did none of the photos taken at the scene include this person? News reports and the internet buzzed with speculation. Even Diane Sawyer wanted to know.
Who doesn’t love the idea of a miracle? Miracles seem to point to a higher power’s participation in worldly events. They cause doubters to pause. Believers want to attribute these baffling life-saving events to divine intervention, and why not? But as well-known Jesuit priest and author, Fr. James Martin, said in a comment to the Huffington Post “Most likely the priest will be identified, and people will be able to thank him.” Spoilsport. Still, Fr. Martin’s point is that human acts of bravery and extreme kindness happen all the time. Oftentimes they point to God’s engagement in human history. But this kind of pragmatic response just pops the balloon of hope held out by many who hunger for a “real” miracle.
The multiplication of the loaves and fishes [John 6:1-15] was a real miracle. It was an opportunity for Jesus to teach the disciples about spiritual abundance, and the crowd enjoyed the miraculous result. The feeding of the 5,000 revealed that God does great things with just the smallest offering; the tiniest spark of faith was more than enough to work with. And after everyone had their fill, the disciples gathered 12 baskets of fragments.
But the next day the crowd was hungry again, and they went in search of Jesus and more bread. The crowd did not see the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as a miraculous sign of God’s care; they saw it as dinner.
Jesus knew this and in one of his most difficult teachings challenged the crowd to understand his identity as one sent to fill their lives, not their bellies.
“Don’t work for food that perishes but for food that endures for eternal life” [John 6:27a]. The double play on the word work referred both to the kind of work that provides enough to eat and the kind of work expressed through obedience to the Law given by Moses. The Jews in the crowd who heard the latter grew uneasy. They asked, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” and Jesus replied, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent” [John 6:28-29].
Oh boy. Understand how outrageous this statement was to the hearers: “We have Moses, are you implying you are greater than Moses? If so, what can you do to prove it? Moses gave us manna to eat!”
Spiritual hunger: that universal human longing for the moreness of life. The myriad religious expression in human history acknowledges there is not a single civilization which has not attempted to satisfy the desire to know the higher power. But, Jesus says “Don’t work for food that perishes but for food that endures for eternal life.” In other words, Jesus is the bread of life whose presence makes God known in the world. A life nourished by and lived in imitation of Jesus is a life lived toward union with God.
And sometimes that union is expressed in miraculous events.
Many people hoped the Missouri miracle man really was an angelic apparition. Turns out Fr. Martin was right and Rev. Patrick Dowling, a priest of the diocese of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City, MO, stepped forward a few days after the accident. In an interview with ABC News, Fr. Dowling said, “he was only doing the basic job of a priest and most of the credit goes to God.” He went on to add, “I have no doubt the Most High answered their prayers and I was part of his answer, but only part.”
Was the Missouri miracle a miracle? Absolutely. As Fr. Dowling stated, “the credit goes to God.”
Still hungry? Gospel texts from John’s “Bread of Life” discourse [John 6] are read from the 17-21st weeks of Ordinary Time (B) [Lectionary for Mass and the Revised Common Lectionary], and will be explored with a view towards discipleship here on The Good Disciple blog..