Reflection on the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
I have never known real hunger, hardship or food scarcity and I have never been enslaved like the Israelites in the first reading. But it is not hard for me to imagine that someone would want to go back to slavery when they were afraid and hungry if they had slave masters who fed them. I have witnessed desperate people in desperate situations here and in other countries. The focus is often on the most immediate and life-threatening crisis to the exclusion of all other problems. And that makes perfect sense. If someone has no food or prospect of food in the days to come, life is truly on the brink. Survival today is all that matters. Long-term planning or engagement on other issues makes no sense in the face of immediate threats to life and health.
In the first reading everyone looks to Moses, the leader, to solve the problem, and the people grumble with great impatience when Moses does not solve the problem quickly. It is common to expend energy placing blame rather than seeking solutions. It is also common to look back at the past with some sense of nostalgia instead of focusing on the future and the solution. This is what I imagine is the “old self” that the second reading is calling us to put away. The self that is afraid, insecure, placing blame and recalling the past with fondness to the exclusion of any forward thinking. How often have we heard the words “be not afraid or have no fear” in the Scriptures?
We know that in the context of community it is sometimes easier to focus on working together to seek solutions, face difficulties and maintain a steady eye on the future we want to create for ourselves and others. That is true after we have built the community and created the space for everyone to share in both the hope and the work required.
I think the group described in the Gospel may not be a community; rather it is a group seeking community, security and care. They were a crowd following Jesus for reasons that we can understand, but that Jesus seems to find disappointing. They were amazed that they were all fed and had their fill when they attended his gathering in last week’s Gospel. But even as they became followers of Jesus, Jesus is cautioning them to be intentional and conscious of what they are seeking and where they find their comfort and sense of security. Even though they may have put on their new self as followers of Jesus, they are still susceptible to very human thinking that focuses on what they want or need today or in the short term. Jesus reminds them to focus and work for things that are eternal, not the things that only satisfy for a moment or a day. It was easy then and it is easy now to become preoccupied with whatever is before us today – our real work as well as the distractions that our mind and other people create for us.
And we are all well advised to follow Jesus’ advice today since we live in a time and in a country where satisfying our wants today can come at a very high price to the planet, to others here and across the globe. Distractions also come in the form of wanting people to see things our way, letting us have our way and being very absorbed in our own preferences and interests.
We are called to stay mindful and continue to examine our thoughts, prayers and choices. Do we see God’s hand at work? Can we separate our preferences from what God might be calling for in these days? Are we remaining open and receptive, or have we defined God’s will in some situations to be the same as our will? I don’t think any of us intend to play God, but it is relatively easy to identify our thoughts as God’s thoughts in our mind if we are not attentive and focused. It is often harder to practice active listening when we are busy or distracted. And active, ongoing listening is what we are called to do daily, in things small and large. That is the process that feeds our deepest hunger and nourishes our truest self.