17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
2006


The Power Behind Christ's Miracles
(Readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15)
Introduction to Mass
Today's gospel passage is the well-known incident of the feeding of the five thousand. Christ uses his miraculous powers, which are drawn from his close union with God, not for any selfish or spectacular purpose, but to illustrate a particular aspect of God's Reign: he becomes the host who feeds those who come to him, fostering the spirit of communion among them and forming them into a single body.
As we come together this Sunday to take part in the Eucharistic meal, we begin by considering the ways we haven't lived up to the standards of God's Kingdom, and we ask God for his pardon and strength.
Homily
Until recently - recently, I mean, in the long history of the Church - nobody, really, had difficulty believing in Jesus' ability to perform miracles like the one St. John records in the sixth chapter of his gospel. It's only when we came to the modern era, the era of scientific knowledge and scientific solutions to problems, that people began to find these incidents in the gospel difficult to believe.
The new idea was that nature, the physical world around us, obeys certain laws - predictable laws which nobody can direct or manipulate just by the power of their will. People started to re-interpret the stories about Jesus' miracles to fit in with this new way of thinking.
There tended to be a patronising assumption that the gospel writers were rather ignorant, primitive-minded, credulous people who saw all sorts of supernatural influences at work when in reality there was always a perfectly simple natural explanation. Jesus' miracles were assigned a new, purely figurative or symbolic, meaning.
For example: if Jesus conducted an exorcism, it was seen as healing some form of mental illness or something like epilepsy - not as a casting out of evil spirits. When he calmed a storm, it was seen as a metaphor for the peace or spiritual calm that Christ brings into our lives.
The meaning of the feeding of the five thousand, then, was that everybody learned to share their food, and that was the "real" miracle: the transformation of attitudes. In modern times, this is often how the gospel accounts of Jesus' miracles have been re-written or re-interpreted.
My own opinion is that it's a mistake to reduce Jesus' miracles to the level of metaphors or legendary embellishments, and the reason I think it's a mistake is this.
Like all the other major religions, the Christian faith starts with a different assumption about nature and the world around us from the assumptions of a purely scientific outlook. All the great religions start from the intuition and the experience that the material world isn't the only world. There's also the world of the spiritual.
We human beings - belong to both worlds, of course. And I think I'm also right in saying that all the religions agree that if we only concentrate on the material aspects of life, we'll not develop very far spiritually. We won't make much progress in our relationship with God, because real acquaintance with God only starts to grow at the point where our attachment to worldly things ends.
Now when it comes to Jesus' ministry, and his miracles in particular, we have to ask ourselves: what was Jesus like in this regard?
And the answer is that far from being someone who was held back, like we all are to some extent or other, by an excessive attachment to the material side of life, Christ was someone who was unique in the extent to which his contact with spiritual realities determined his whole life and his whole being. He was someone who was unique in his knowledge of God and his level of closeness to God.
It doesn't seem to me to be at all out of the question to suggest that someone who was in touch with God to that extent was also able to draw on the power of God, in order to carry out God's work and to reveal different aspects of God's Kingdom.
Let's also remember that Jesus never performed a miracle for any self-serving purpose, or to impress people with a sensational display of supernatural power. He always performed a miracle to impart healing or wholeness in some sense, to bring about liberation from evil, or to create bonds of love and solidarity. His miracles were always a matter of revealing some aspect of God's nature and bringing about some dimension of God's Kingdom.
If we bear all this in mind we shouldn't really be overcome with doubt at the idea that Jesus was able - most of the time, it seems, effortlessly - to heal people of physical diseases, to drive away the influence of the devil in people's lives, or even to control and direct physical reality - as in the calming of the storm on the lake or multiplying a quantity of food in order to feed people.
If it were possible, anyone whose spiritual side or whose closeness to God was as highly developed as Christ's was would have the same kind of ability to influence the physical world around them in the way that he did.
In actual fact the lives of many of the saints show that they often had similar gifts or performed similar miracles on occasions, even if on a much lesser scale. The first reading shows the great prophet Elisha performing a similar if less stupendous miracle. (Jesus was divine, after all, which people like Elisha and the saints aren't, no matter how closely they come to know God.)
So in many ways it seems to me to boil down to two basic attitudes to the world, and how we interpret our experience of living in the world.
If someone is a complete, convinced atheist, who believes that this world is the only world there is, then of course, from that point of view, the miracles in the gospel stories are unbelievable, or ridiculous, or just deliberate lies by the gospel-writers. But then from that point of view the whole religious search of mankind is a complete illusion and waste of time.
But if we accept the intuitions of so many saints and mystics and holy men and women - not to mention our own maybe more humble experiences of God's presence - then it shouldn't be difficult to believe that Jesus was able to bend the supposed laws of nature in the way that the gospel writers claimed he did - always, as I was saying, to bring about some aspect of God's Reign.
Doubtless there's a lot more that could be said about the whole area of the access Jesus had to the power of God, but these would be my brief suggestions about how we should read these kinds of miracle story in the gospel.
We should read them with a bit more confidence in our own legacy of spiritual wisdom, and a bit more confidence in the sources of our faith, which don't actually need to be re-written with a secular slant to make them more credible.
When we read the gospels the way they're meant to be read, from the perspective of faith in God, then they make perfect sense and they communicate the message they're supposed to communicate, exactly as they are.