The news of the gruesome murder of John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus, reaches His ears. He withdraws in a boat, trying to put some space between Himself and the crowds who follow Him everywhere. The crowds are persistent and meet Him on the shore on the other side. Jesus and His disciples notice that they are needy and sick. The disciples’ plan is to abandon them, likely thinking either that the poor are unclean and not worthy of their time and energy or that they didn’t have enough resources to help the large gathering of needy people.
Jesus moves among them, even in the midst of His own grief, and heals the sick. The disciples think that is enough. “You have helped the really needy ones and the rest should take care of themselves,” they seem to say. “This seems a sort of a triage of need. Send them home. Any more would cost us more than we have and then what? It is better that we just go now!”
Jesus begins to fulfill the prophesy of Isaiah that we hear in our collection of Scriptures this weekend. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat. Come without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk.”
When you hear those words of the prophet do they stir in you any questions or doubts? What if we were to act this way? Doesn’t generosity without a cost to the other create dependent and parasitic people? Shouldn’t there be a cost to everything we do for others? Should we be that free with our charity? What if someone takes advantage of the system?
In case the disciples were having some of the same questions and fears, Jesus invites everybody to stay. Can you imagine the disciples’ frustration? Wouldn’t it have been easier to just get rid of them? Are they the responsibility of the disciples? When Jesus has everyone sit, He demands some buy in from His disciples. “Give them something to eat!” Do any of their responses sound anything like your own? What if we don’t have enough to go around? If you start this then everyone is going to come to us and want something. If we start this it will never end!
Jesus has them all sit down, so that the disciples know that the relationship with the poor and those in need of healing is not a one-shot deal. We are meant to have relationships with those we meet along the road, especially those who ask something from us. Those in need have something to teach us. They have a wisdom that those of us who live more comfortable and predictable lives don’t have. We can talk about depending on God but they can actually tell us what it means to depend on others for every bit of food they have and every place of shelter they seek. We are told that true faith is built on absolute dependence on God. Is that truly how we are living or is our dependence on God limited only to those situations we can’t figure out ourselves?
Will famine or nakedness or peril or distress separate us from God? It might, if we are not careful. Practicing being dependent on God in the non-critical times will help make us ready when life gets really hard, and we know that it will. Having relationships with those who live more dependent lives can help us to understand the goodness of choosing that voluntarily. Spend time with the homeless, the hungry, the imprisoned and the sick, not out of pity, but out of knowing that they possess a greater knowledge of dependence on God than almost all the rest of us. It might be why Jesus says that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven!
Father Wester is pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters.