by Fr. Jack McArdle
There is absolutely no order of priority involved in the titles for these reflections. When it comes to reflecting on the person and the teachings of Jesus, it matters little where we start. I myself find that all I need do is begin a reflection, and just see where it leads, or to what it may lead. The word provider is defined as a person dealing with all or many kinds of goods. To understand just how extraordinary a provider Jesus was, and continues to be, we need to have deep convictions about the reality of our own finiteness and limitations. No point in speaking of bread to someone moving away from the table after a sumptuous meal! Before I can have any hope of appreciating just how bounteous and generous Jesus is, I need to grow in awareness and acceptance of the details of my human condition.
I own nothing. Everything I have is on loan. One heart attack and it's all over! I was carried into a church one time, and I was not consulted, or too involved, as they baptised me. Sometime in the future, I'll be carried into a church again, and I won't be consulted or too involved this time either. To try to run the show in the meantime is nothing short of insane and irresponsible behaviour. Human nature, human life, and human existence is something extremely delicate and complicated. Life is so much bigger than any of us. It is said that the wise man is he who knows how much he doesn't know. Because of the way God has tied himself in with us, and with our destiny, we end up with the paradox that the less we have the more is available to us. If my fists are clenched, clinging to what I have, I am not free to accept whatever else is offered. John the Baptist said that he had to decrease if Jesus were to increase. Paul speaks of rejoicing in his weakness, because 'when I am weak, then I am strong, because the power of God works best in weak people'. This is an extraordinary truth, and certainly flesh and blood could never accept, let alone reveal this. It is part of the wonderful mystery of God that we call the Divine Providence. Jesus spoke of the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field, and how his heavenly Father cared for them. I'm not suggesting it as a truth, but when I was a child growing up in the country, we were always sure if a severe winter was up ahead. The extra heavy crop of fruits and berries was accepted by the people as an example of God's provision for the birds in the months ahead.
Jesus came to provide. The greatest hunger on earth is the need to be loved, the need to belong. The invitation of Jesus was to nothing less than full membership within the family of God. In his first letter, John wrote, 'The Life made himself known, we have seen him, we are his witnesses, and we are telling you of Eternal Life. He was with the Father, and he appeared to us. We make known to you him whom we have seen and heard, that you may be in fellowship with us, with the Father, and with his Son, Jesus Christ.' Paul says that 'having given us Christ Jesus, will the Father not surely give us everything else?' There is no way that human intellect can possibly grasp the width and the depth of the Providence of God. As with the wine at Cana, or the loaves and fishes, there is always much to spare when everybody has had their fill.
Cana was the scene of a most unusual miracle. The basic conditions for a miracle, mentioned in the last chapter, seem to be absent. There is no great hardship or deprivation referred to in the account, nor is there is anyone, except Mary, who has any idea that Jesus might be able to do anything about the situation. While not pretending to have any profound revelation about this, or any other part of the gospel, for that matter, I dare to offer an explanation. Jesus was now thirty years of age, and Mary had been close to him for most, if not all of that time. In a very undramatic, down-to-earth way, she had become the witness to an ongoing daily miracle. In her own eyes she was nothing, and in her own eyes she did nothing. She had long come to believe that if we let God have what we've got, miracles will follow, 'because nothing is impossible with God'. At Cana, the only thing they had in abundance was water. All that was needed was to make available what they had, and then 'do whatever he tells you to'. God becomes God in my life the very instant I get out of the way, and stop playing God.
Something similar happened with the loaves and fishes. We can understand the apostles' sense of hopelessness and futility when they present such a meagre meal, and ask 'What is this among so many?' That was all they had, and that was all that Jesus needed. Let him have them, get out of the way, and let him take over. It is often difficult in life to accept the fact that 'Whatever I have is enough, if I am willing to make that available to God.' Two of the Ten Commandments speak of 'coveting' something that is not mine, but belongs to another. To covet is to be avaricious, greedy, and to want what belongs to another. Just as there is never enough alcohol for the alcoholic, so there is never enough of the anything for the greedy and the selfish. 'Why be like the pagans?' Jesus asks. 'They worry and concern themselves about such things. Your heavenly Father knows your needs, and he will supply everything you need, if you seek his kingdom, and the life-style that goes with it.' Living in God's kingdom is about an attitude, not a geographical entity. If the world is my kingdom, then I will totally depend on worldly goods for my survival, my satisfaction, my gratification. The world provides its own false gods of money, power, wealth, pleasure, etc. To live in the world is to give myself totally to the pursuit and to the service of such false deities. The gods, of course, are false, and so what they offer and promise is also false, and can never deliver on their promises. There is an empty space within the heart of all God's creatures, and nothing short of God himself can fill it. 'You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts can never be at rest until they rest in you', is a well-known quote from Augustine.
To live in the kingdom of God, and according to the norms of that kingdom, is something entirely different. There is only one God here, and that God provides everything needed for living and dying in that kingdom. The kingdom now is called 'heaven' later on, so, in a real sense, heaven begins now, and the road to heaven is heaven. The atmosphere of God's kingdom, the very air I breathe for life, is called the Holy Spirit, the breath and power of God. That is the breath that was breathed into the clay at the time of creation, before the pollutants of sin, sickness, and death entered into the mix. 'Learn to live and to walk in the Spirit' is the advice of Paul. God's providence is seen at its highest when we are open to the possibility of living and walking in the power of God. In the eyes of Jesus, changing water into wine, or multiplying the loaves and fishes must have been quite insignificant in themselves. They did have a profound significance, of course, even if the recipients were unable to grasp that fact.
It is intriguing to watch Jesus effect some of his healings. I don't think it would have been essential to use mud and water to restore the sight of the blind man. I can only surmise that it had something to do with using the ordinary to move people to the extraordinary; like a teacher bringing a class from the known to the unknown. Again and again, we see Jesus make full use of what was available. Peter filled the boat with fish, but he had to use his nets. Jesus may not have been hungry, but by going to eat in the house of Zaccheus, he was using the meal as a symbol of acceptance, friendship, and salvation. Bartimeus could have held onto his old cloak, but, by throwing it aside as he ran to Jesus, he was letting go of the past, and coming into the healing of the present moment. He used bread at Emmaus as a very down-to-earth reminder of who he was, and, in that way 'their eyes were opened.' In speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, he opened her heart to his teaching, and he based that teaching on the very water she had come to draw. When he was confronted with the Pharisees, and the woman taken in adultery, his actions are intriguing. He stooped down and wrote with his finger in the sand. Did he write something specific about any of his onlookers? Did he imply that our sins are written in sand, and are blown away by the breath of God's love? Was his action something deliberately trivial to bring the Pharisees down a peg? We don't know, but it still intrigues. In every sense of the word, Jesus was very down-to-earth.
When we consider Jesus as a provider, it would be wrong to limit ourselves to wine, to loaves, to fish. There are several examples of him providing loving and positive support. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary were friends of his. No doubt, over the years, they had provided him with many of the necessities of life. Jesus loved Lazarus, and his sisters. It is reasonable to expect that he spent leisurely hours with them over the years. I have no doubt whatever that, wherever Jesus was, whoever he was with, whatever he was doing, he was giving to those around him. Of all the claims to recognition that little house in Bethany may have had, and still has, the greatest, of course, is that Jesus made it a place of rest, a retreat house. The householders could never have asked for anything more than that. And then Lazarus died. There are several strange aspects of this story. Jesus was told several days earlier that Lazarus was sick, and he was asked to come. Initially, it appeared he was headed straight for Bethany, and then, for whatever reason, he remained where he was for the following two days. It would appear that going to Bethany was to bring him very near to Jerusalem, and his disciples reminded him 'Master, the Jews wanted to stone you. Are you going there again?' From a human point of view, Jesus was in a bind. His friend was seriously ill, and he wanted to be with him; but by going anywhere near Jerusalem, he was putting his life on the line. There were times when the Jews had attempted to kill him, but 'his time had not yet come.' 'Nobody takes my life from me', Jesus announced. 'I will lay it down, and I will take it up again'. He would, of course, go up to Jerusalem, but not until he was ready, and the hour had come. Throughout all of this time he carried his friend Lazarus in his heart. He referred to him several times during those days. 'This illness will not end in death; rather it is for God's glory, and the Son of God will be glorified through it.' As he moved towards Bethany he announced that 'Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going to waken him.' The apostles took his words literally, though Jesus meant that Lazarus had died. There were so many things happening around Jesus at that moment, that he must have experienced much inner anguish. His friend was dead, his friends, Martha and Mary were bereaved, and he himself was coming very close to the completion of his mission. He met Martha and Mary, shared their grief with them, wept with them, accepted them as they were, and then he turned to the Father from whom all life comes, and he asked that the gift of life be restored to Lazarus. He even involved those around in the process. When Lazarus woke from the sleep of death, he was wrapped from head to toe in bandages, and might well have smothered. Jesus turned to those around him with the words 'Unbind him, and let him go.' It is ironic that the excitement generated by the story of Lazarus galvanised the Jewish leaders into making one final push against Jesus. Lazarus still had to die again, of course, at a later date, but, for the present, Jesus provided the support, the hope and the life that was needed at that time.
We cannot speak of Jesus as a provider, of course, without reflecting on his greatest provision of all, i.e., giving us himself as food and drink for the journey of life. Life is a journey. The journey of the Hebrews, out of bondage in Egypt, through the desert, into the Promised Land - that is the model for all of our journeys. Moses for them, is Jesus for us. The journey through the desert is a saga of how God cared for them, protected them, provided for them. They were invited to undertake a walk of faith, a pilgrimage towards the place where God dwelt. This journey, with very significant changes, is a very accurate replica of our own journey. Jesus is our Moses, leading us out of the bondage of sin, sickness, and death, through the struggles of life, and into the Father's Home, which, for us, is the Promised Land. Jesus himself is the manna. 'They who eat my Body, and drink my Blood have everlasting life, and I will raise them up on the last day, for my flesh is food indeed, and my Blood is drink indeed. Your fathers ate manna in the desert, and they died. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever...' Moses had many problems with the people he led. They were always complaining. God gave them bread, so they complained they had no water. God instructed Moses to strike a rock with his stick, and water flowed from the rock. (Incidentally, Moses didn't fully trust God, so he made doubly sure by striking the rock a few times! He was punished for this by not being allowed to actually enter the Promised Land, even if it was within sight.) Jesus pointed to himself, and announced, "Anyone who is thirsty, let that person come to me." He spoke to the woman at the well about the water he could provide that would take away thirst altogether, becoming a perpetual spring within them, giving them eternal life. This is very powerful figurative language. He had already turned water into wine, and now he offered an even greater miracle. Beneath the driest desert there is plenty of water, but it just cannot make it to the surface. Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit being a fountain of living water rising up within a person.
In all of this Jesus was saying, yet again, something that was central to his message: I am the Way, and no one comes to the Father in any other way. There is no way back from bondage and slavery, through the desert of life, into the Promised Land, except through Jesus. He is the food, the drink, the life, the redeemer, the saviour, the Lord. His provision is total. The Father had entrusted everything to him, and even when the Spirit comes '...he will not be presenting his own ideas; he will be telling you what he has heard.... He will bring me glory by revealing to you whatever he receives from me. All that the Father has is mine; this is what I mean when I say that the Spirit will reveal to you whatever he receives from me.' This is what Paul means when he says that 'having given us Christ Jesus, will the Father not surely give us everything else?' In Jesus we have everything. Jesus is the provider no matter what the need; he is the answer, no matter what the question.
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'Jesus: The Man and the Message' copyright © 2004 Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.