“So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But it it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.”
Acts 5: 38-9
“Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?”
In Erik Erikson’s theory of human development the very first stage, which is negotiated in the first year of life, is trust vs. mistrust. The truth of the matter, however, is that the negotiation begun at the very beginning of life never ends. Be it in individual encounters with persons or vis-à-vis the world at large, we are always struggling with whether or not the person before us is one we can trust and even the very world itself. This also includes the struggle involved in trusting ourselves and our own experience and judgment.
Because of our familiarity with it in religious contexts, the centrality of faith in our entire lives is often lost to us. Because of our powerful conscious and unconscious need for security in a world that is vastly beyond our control, it is difficult for us to live in harmony with the reality of constant change. Despite the fact that everything, including ourselves, is significantly different from moment to moment, our consciousness is always trying to reify that reality, to stop things from changing.
In today’s gospel we find it very easy to identify with the disciples when Jesus suggests that they should feed the multitude who are accompanying them. To attempt to make changes or to do things differently is to experience within ourselves and from others the very attitude of the disciples. There will alway be countless reasons for not acting or changing. We shall immediately summon up all of those contingencies that make the proposed response impossible. Those of us with some years of life experience will readily identify the truth which is more often than not we fail to act, we fail to make a change for fear that it will be a mistake. We then justify that fear with multiple reasons and excuses for not acting.
In today’s reading from Acts we hear from the teacher Gamaliel an expression of faith. In this case it is in service of not acting, but the principle is the same. Gamaliel tells those who want to persecute and to imprison the disciples for speaking of Jesus that they should leave them be, for if their teaching is true and comes from God it will prevail whatever they do, but if it is not in accordance with the truth and reality it will fail of its own accord. Gamaliel is able to “take the long view” because he has a foundational faith in reality and so in God. Let things play out, he says in effect, because God’s will concerning them will be manifest in due time.
For the longest time I have had difficulty making sense of Jesus’ words that faith can move mountains. My problem lay in the fact that I couldn’t connect how my conceptually and notionally affirming my belief in God or in Jesus could change anything. But my problem is based on my inability to understand faith. I am only beginning now to realize that Jesus is speaking to an experience we all well know. Without a basic faith and trust we are paralyzed. Nothing moves because we, in our fear and mistrust, have frozen life in its current form in our consciousness. We cannot move anything because we cannot move ourselves. In today’s gospel story, Andrew seems to say something quite ridiculous. He points out that there is a boy there who has “five barley loaves and two fish.” He speaks this despite the fact that he doubts that what he is saying is meaningful to the situation: ” . . . but what good are these for so many?”
To work collaboratively and collegially is enormously difficult for us. This is the case because it is difficult to trust that anything can really be effectively accomplished if we don’t manage and control it ourselves. Most of us live by the maxim, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” This, however, is but another manifestation of our lack of faith and trust. Despite his doubts concerning the loaves and fish, Andrew draws what the boy has to Jesus’ attention. Andrew, as the boy, offers to the situation and the problem at hand the little that he has. Somehow, however, by offering the little they have, by doing the little that they can, the multitude is fed. Somehow by offering our limited insight and knowledge to the shared effort, we make possible a response greater than the limited abilities of any one of us.
When we do what we can, when we offer to the shared conversation the little that we have, something new, greater life, can come of it. We can only do this, however, if we have the faith that ultimately the will of God will be done, despite what seems to us to be its improbability. Instead of withholding what we have under the guise of its insignificance and unsuitability to the task, instead of using our poverty and limitation as an excuse, we can try to give the little that we have away trusting that what is of God will ultimately prevail.
There are always countless reasons to do nothing, reasons that at one level make more sense than the risk involved in acting. Yet, “nothing will come of nothing.” Little do we realize that we practice, perhaps a bit too often, a kind of prudence that is not a virtue but a lack of faith, an opting for security over life. It is often said that our sins of omission greatly outweigh our sins of commission. We experience this truth when we fail to grow, or to love, or to change because we fear the unknown that comes with such choices. Sigmund Freud spoke of the conflictual energies of eros and thanatos in human life, of our life instinct and death instinct. To reflect on our lives is to realize the truth that at times we actually choose death rather than life, because in our lack of faith in reality and in God we mistakenly take one for the other. Life looks to us like holding tight to the static construction of ourselves and our world we have imagined, and the darkness and uncertainty of a future of God’s making but unknown to us looks like death.
Thus to really respond in faith and trust will always entail a risk for us. We know what we have now but we don’t know tomorrow. To really live is to abandon ourselves trustingly and appreciatively into the hands of Mystery. It is to offer our five barley loaves and two fish to the situation and the conversation even as we wonder what good they are in the midst of such a need or difficulty because we believe that to give away what we have is what reality asks of us. To commit ourselves in faith to the continual changing of forms of the world is to really live. To hold onto, in fear, those always and already outmoded forms that afford us a false security is to choose death.
There can be no love without trust, yet it must be an intelligent trust. Love is not blind, despite the saying, and we cannot truly give our hearts to the unknown. The story of Abraham and his only son Isaac has always been a daunting one. Abraham believed that God was calling him to sacrifice his son, and he was saved from this hideous action only at the last minute. I have a personal reading of this story: to me the only one that makes sense. It is that God would never ask us to do something that is evil, and Abraham must have known this. So what we have is two gigantic acts of trust, each based upon knowledge of the other person, and of God. Abraham could only have gone ahead in the absolute belief that the horror would never happen. Isaac, for his part, submitted to being bound and laid on the altar, believing against all appearances that his father would not harm him. If Abraham had not known God, if Isaac had not known his father, such trust would have been madness. Love insists that we make a true judgment and then cleave to it, whatever the appearances.
Sr. Wendy Beckett, Sr. Wendy’s Book of Meditations, p. 102