Ten days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, people from the town of North Platte, Nebraska, heard that some soldiers from their town would be passing through on the train on the way to the West Coast. Five hundred people showed up with food, drink and letters for the soldiers.
As it turned out, the men passing through were not locals, but a regiment from Kansas. The residents were disappointed at not seeing their loved ones, but they shared their gifts with the soldiers nonetheless.
A few days later, a woman from the town wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper suggesting that the town organize a canteen for the soldiers passing through on their way to the war. The response was overwhelming. Every day during the next four and a half years, people came with sandwiches, snacks, coffee, books and magazines for the soldiers on their train ride. By the time the last train arrived on April 1, 1946, six million soldiers had been blessed by the people of North Platte.
The people of North Platte provide an example of generosity and kindness. When we see this type of charity and compassion, we are reminded of God’s goodness and love. The story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes is one such example.
The story is well known to us, and each of the four Gospel accounts retells a version of it. Today’s passage is from the Gospel According to St. John. A very large group of people follow Jesus up the mountain. He recognizes even before they do that they will need to eat and that there is no food available. So he asks Philip where they can buy some food.
“Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little,” Philip replies. Andrew tells him that a boy among the crowd has five barley loaves and two fish, but asks “what good are these for so many?”
Jesus, knowing what he was about to do, had the people recline. He then gave thanks and distributed the bread. Everyone ate and “had their fill.” The disciples collected 12 wicker baskets of leftover fragments so there would be no waste. Jesus gave the people more than they needed.
The feeding of the multitude reminds us of God’s generosity. It is overflowing and limitless. The responsorial for today’s liturgy says it well: “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.”
John’s account of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes is closely related to what is referred to as “the Bread of Life” discourse given later in the sixth chapter of the Gospel. In this context, we can see a fuller picture of God’s generosity rooted in love. Jesus will say that there is a food he will feed us with that will endure forever. That food is Jesus himself, for he says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (John 6:27). The culmination of the Father’s generosity is Jesus, and Jesus’ generosity is complete.
Recognizing the gracious love of God encourages us to turn to him in thanksgiving and praise. In the multiplication account, before Jesus distributes the food, he gives thanks. At the last supper, before he breaks the bread, he gives thanks. When we celebrate the Eucharist (a term derived from the Greek word for “thanksgiving”), we give thanks in recognition of God’s generosity and love.
The act of thanksgiving takes further form in our day to day lives when we strive “to live in a manner worthy of the call (we) have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace.”
Our gratitude also takes shape in generosity. Recognizing God’s gracious love for us calls us to love one another. Charity takes shape in the form of kindness and compassion, caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving shelter to the homeless, welcoming the immigrant, educating the youth, caring for the sick, providing companionship for the dying, and so forth.
God is generous. We are grateful.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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