Homilies,  Sunday,  Year B

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 25 July 2021 – First World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly

I’m sure all of us have at some time enjoyed the English television comedy, “The Vicar of Dibley.”  You will recall at the end of each episode, the vicar tells Alice, the church warden, a joke.  The joke is often quite funny but Alice never quite gets it.  She applies a literal logic to the joke, and she tries to reason the joke out, all of course to the frustration of the vicar.  I often think that before many of the stories of the gospel and before the parables of Jesus we are a bit like Alice in the “Vicar of Dibley.”  We apply to what we have heard a logic that is quite foreign to that which belongs to the story or to the parable.

The logic of scripture stories requires us in particular to surrender our ordinary way of thinking and reacting and to attend to the element in the story or parable that doesn’t quite make sense.  Often this aspect is not in what we first think but in a part in the story that we can tend to gloss over. Today’s gospel story (John 6: 1-15) is a case in point. The apparent point is the miraculous multiplication of a few items into a banquet that feeds many. And, indeed, this is quite extraordinary.  However, we are being invited by this account to see more than something curious according to nature.  In John’s gospel the imagery of bread and the experience of the words of Jesus go hand in hand.  John is seeking to relate to us that the effect of Jesus’ teaching is beyond our expectation, that in his teaching we have wisdom in abundance.  

The story also illustrates how what might appear as ordinary and without much significance can have an effect well out of proportion to an initial investment.  We offer a small gesture of kindness and the effect in the other person is beyond what we could have imagined.  We put a few things in place in our life and realise that our life has been given a new sense of purpose and direction beyond what our initiatives initially promised.  We stand up for something we know to be true, even in the face of opposition and criticism, and realise that our small stance as had a lasting effect for the good beyond what we even intended.  In all these instances we are left with a sense of fulsomeness, a wholeness, a quiet energy that opens new possibilities for ourselves and for others together.

However, the even more astounding element in the story ‑ the one that we most often overlook but that one in which the extraordinary dimension of the story is most fully underscored – is in a couple of sentences towards the end of the story: “Pick up the pieces left over, so that nothing gets wasted.”  So they picked them up, and filled twelve hampers with scraps left over from the meal of five barley loaves.”  The story speaks of a great abundance, so much so that there was so much left over.  We are used to leftovers, but the people of first century Palestine were not.  In first century Palestine there were no left overs.  There was barely enough for a square meal let alone scraps to gather up.  The first hearers of the story would have been not only surprised by how little went so far, but that such little resulted in such extravagant abundance.

Thus, in the teaching of Jesus, our true bread, we have more than we ourselves can possibly imbibe.  There is not only enough for us, but with there being even more than we can digest, more than enough for others as well.  With the teaching of Jesus we can, therefore, be extravagant, gracious, full of hospitality.  We do not need to be mean spirited, cautious, protective, and possessive.  The way of living given to us by Jesus spreads out.  It represents abundance of life for all, a fullness of life for many.  It is inherently gracious, hospitable, inclusive.  Eating this bread means that we can act with freedom, with generosity and with a certain largesse.  We don’t have to ration things out, weighing up every morsal of our energy, fearful that there is not enough to go around, as would have been the ordinary experience of dealing with bread in first century Palestine.  With this bread, the nourishment given to us in the bread of life, Jesus, there is enough to go around, and even more!

How important this is in this time of fear given the uncertainty of the pandemic and its implications for our city. Fear always closes us in, closes us off. We set up defences, barriers. We narrow our horizons and our world. Yes, it is true that many of us now must live within a very circumscribed area. This is important for everyone’s protection. Yet, the paradox of our limitation is that this time of solitude can be one in which we broaden our sensitivities, widen our concerns, take a deeper interest in the problems our world faces. The narrower the space in which we can move, the wider may our concerns become. Let us use this time to become more aware of our world, not less. Then, we can emerge from this lockdown whenever that may occur with hearts widened not constricted, spirits enlivened not deadened.

On this Sunday, on the invitation of Pope Francis, we celebrate the first World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly. It is a wonderful time for us to give thanks for our grandparents in our families, whether they be still with us or whether they have gone before us. Often, our grandparents, though, can teach us this largesse of vision. Reaping the harvest of memories, they can teach us what is important and what can be surrendered. They can teach us to let go of the anxious concern in our planning and accept that there may be something else at work through all our plans. They give us perspective; they gift us with what is truly important. The late English writer Daniel O’Leary once wrote, “Ideally our final decades . . . have a purity about them, a pared-down core that shines with recovered innocence.” Once we reach a certain age, according to O’Leary, there should only be one phrase left in our vocabulary – “thank you.”  With every birthday, gratitude should deepen until it colours every aspect of our life.  Then, in O’Leary’s words, 

“Our souls are always young. They have preserved, in a safe place, the fields of dreams that once lay beautifully across the landscapes of our childhood.  It is in these fields, and in no other, where the seeds of our God-like beauty were first nurtured. . . We do not outgrow our childhood. We grow into it more fully as we grow older.” [1]

This is what we learn from our grandparents. It is what we learn from today’s gospel which speaks of grace and abundance. And so let us eat; let us be nourished by the word of Jesus knowing that there is more than enough for us all and always will be.  And then, unlike Alice in the “Vicar of Dibley” we will get the true point to the story.

[1] See Daniel O’Leary, “Home before Dark,” in The Tablet (28 June 2008), 11.

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