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JULY 31, 2011: EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Isaiah 55:1-3
Romans 8:35, 37-39
Matthew 14:13-21

I've always struggled with "Mass stipends." Paying for a sacred action runs counter to all I've learned about my faith. The Eucharist is a "holy" action; far beyond anything we humans can control with money.

The "official" answer laid on me when I complain about the practice goes something like this: "We don't pay for a Mass. We just pay on the 'occasion' of a Mass." I'm reminded that the graces which come from any one Mass are infinite. They're applied equally to every person who ever lived. The individual who "pays" for the Mass receives no more benefits than a pagan out in a jungle somewhere who's never even heard of Jesus of Nazareth. We Catholics give stipends simply because we're a generous folk. There's absolutely no connection between the money we give and the graces we (or the Mass-intentioned individuals) receive.

This answer reminds me of the free newspaper in our area which sends out yearly subscription requests. The publisher reportedly receives thousands of dollars in subscriptions for a paper which is thrown on peoples' front lawns (wanted or unwanted) every Wednesday morning.

Today's readings cut through such ecclesiastical doubletalk. "All you who are thirsty," Deutero-Isaiah proclaims, "come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk! Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy?"

As we know from Elisha's healing of Naaman in II Kings, to be paid for performing an act of God is to claim the paid human agent is responsible for the act, not God. Deutero-Isaiah couldn't be clearer: the good Yahweh is about to shower on the exiled Israelites won't cost them one red shekel.

This same mind-set about God's generosity is behind Paul's oft-repeated question, "What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? No, in all these things, we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us." Nothing, not even money, can stop God from loving us through Jesus.

At first glance it might appear Matthew's Jesus alone gives a practical demonstration of that divine love and care in our miraculous feeding pericope. But listen carefully to the passage. Jesus tells his followers, "Give them some food yourselves!" They, not he, do the actual feeding. Jesus does only three things: he first overcomes his disciples' logical objections to his plan, next, he blesses the paltry amount of food they produce; finally, "he (gives) the loaves and fish to the disciples who in turn give them to the crowds." Jesus takes responsibility for the instigation and the blessing. His followers are responsible for the actual feeding of the crowd. They are the ones who freely distribute God's love.

The most significant aspect of this passage comes from recognizing that, like all gospel bread references, it has something to do with the Eucharist. (If there's any doubt, John has Jesus institute the Eucharist not during the Last Supper, but during his chapter 6 miraculous feeding.) Though we, like Jesus' disciples, might protest our inability to take care of others' needs, Matthew tells us it's during the celebration of the Lord's Supper that we, with Jesus' blessing can best offer that care, and there that people can expect to receive it.

Early Christian Eucharists were celebrated in the context of an entire community meal, making it far easier to care for peoples' needs. But through the centuries we've structured our Eucharists in such a way that they've become just a "one man show." (No wonder only the priest receives the stipend.)

If the early church had Mass stipends, the whole community would have had to share in the wealth.