This homily is based on Matthew 14:13-21.
Like many of you, once in a while I would lapse into what I call the “quarantine state of mind.” It happens perhaps twice a week when in the midst of all this working from home, I sense them approaching–those pesky questions I’ve tried so hard not to think about all week.
It begins innocently enough: “How much longer will this last?” And then before I know it, the questions turn darker: “So what’s the point? What’s all this for anyway?”
In a recent recollection he conducted online, Fr. Danny Huang SJ, professor at the Gregorian University in Rome, recounted a tale about a guided tour of hell where the devil shows off his most-prized possession: an ancient–and much-bloodied–fork.
“And here’s my most trusted–and most successful–device for gaining souls,” he boasts to his visitors.
“What is it called?” he is asked.
Grinning triumphantly, he whispers: “Discouragement.”
I had actually expected pride, selfishness, or even despair–one of those major human flaws. But when I heard that last line, I knew it was true. How easy indeed for us to fall for discouragement especially during this pandemic! And how quickly discouragement leads to that now-familiar downward spiral–the quarantine state of mind.
Of course it’s completely understandable!
The problem is so vast you can’t help but feel helpless.
The number of Covid-19 cases continues to rise in many places despite months of lockdown. And to make matters worse, those in positions of leadership in just as many places seem to be more concerned about reopening the economy rather than protecting actual human lives.
You can’t help but feel hopeless.
Which is why today’s Gospel offers us a message we all need to hear.
In the story, our Lord finds himself in the desert with a crowd of over 5,000 hungry people. Now, anyone who’s been to such huge gatherings knows that it’s a problem on so many levels. You have to worry not only about feeding the crowd, but also how to prevent it from turning into a mindless mob, as it so often happens in situations where people go hungry and desperate.
Our Lord shows us what we can do in such a situation. First, don’t dwell too much on the big problem that you can’t really do anything about. You’re just going to end up feeling overwhelmed. And what it does is it creates an opening for the Devil who’ll have a field day using his favorite temptation on you. The moment you let that happen, we’re dead meat.
Rather, our Lord reminds us: Focus instead on what you have and what you can do. Take your five loaves and two fish, say a prayer, and act: Be active and do whatever you can or need to do!
That’s exactly what the disciples proceeded to do: They went about distributing food even if they knew they only had five loaves and two fife! I don’t know about you, but I would have protested: “I’m not going to wade into that hungry crowd with only five loaves and two fish!” It’s not only unproductive to do so, but also dangerous!
Usually the disciples don’t get Jesus, and they probably didn’t as well this time around, but they somehow decided to do exactly as he said. They acted as Jesus had instructed them to do–even if they were sure it wasn’t going to be a productive thing to do.
I heard in a podcast the other day that there’s a difference between being active and being productive. At this time of quarantine, it is dangerous to expect the same level of productivity from people in general–including ourselves! And the reason is that we all simply have a lower level of energy as a result of all that’s going on. It’s important to understand that reality and not to be harsh with ourselves and with others when we find that we’re not as productive as we used to be: The new normal simply does not allow for the same level of productivity in the pre-Covid era.
However, we need to be active. Inactivity is a recipe for mental self-harm. So even if we’d rather stay in bed and hide under the sheets all day because we’re feeling helpless and hopeless, that’s not going to be helpful. We need to do what Jesus asked of his disciples as they were surrounded by that hungry crowd. We need to do what he asks of us today in this broken, bewildered world of ours:
Take the five loaves and two fish we can find, and try our best to do whatever we can given our limited resources. And let God do the rest.