Leftovers. Is there anything better than opening the refrigerator in the morning, and finding that there’s one piece of apple pie on the shelf, waiting there for your breakfast. Or one perfect piece of cold, congealed Pagliacci’s pizza ready for a quick snack. Or just enough mint chip ice cream in the bottom of the carton that hasn’t gotten all frosted over. Life’s little pleasures.
We’ve heard today’s gospel a hundred times. The multiplication of the loaves and fishes is the only one of Jesus’ miracles that made it into all four gospels. So it must be a very important sign. It’s a prefigurement, a pointer towards the great mystery of the Eucharist Jesus instituted at the Last Supper, and which we continue to celebrate here. The formula is exactly the same: Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and shares. Takes, blesses, breaks, and shares. And in that action, in the Spirit’s power, what is ordinary becomes extra-ordinary, plain food becomes Christ’s enduring presence, our nourishment and our hope.
But when we hear this story, we rarely ever consider the leftovers we hear about at the end. After feeding the multitude with five barley loaves and two fish, equivalently a hand full of tortillas and a couple of cans of Starkist tuna, all the accounts tell us that there were baskets full of leftovers: in some tellings like today’s, 12 big baskets; in other tellings, 7 smaller baskets. No matter. Both are good biblical numbers. And both point to lots and lots of leftovers, leftovers that are a metaphor, a sign, a sacrament of the superabundant grace and mercy of God. We are not told what happened to the leftovers in the Gospel, but we can be pretty certain that they went into folks’ knapsacks for the long walk home after Jesus’ marathon homily. And once they left, the seagulls on the shore of the Sea of Galilee did the cleanup.
When I look into the fridge at home—remember here that I live with twenty-five Jesuits with one overworked cook—sometimes I get lucky, and find that piece of apple pie or pizza. More often, though it’s not such a pretty sight.
Father X, the eminent scholar with not a shred of practicality, has left two slices of baloney, unwrapped, in the bottom of the meat drawer. It has plasticized, more suitable as a frisbee than for a sandwich. Father Y, who observes poverty for the rest of us, regularly leaves half gallon cartons of milk with precisely one teaspoon of milk in them, alongside the 4 jars of raspberry jam not one of which contains enough to cover a piece of toast. Forgetful Father Z leaves an uncapped, half-empty bottle of club soda for “later” and never returns.
I suspect if you do a periodic look at your fridge at home, you’d find these, and maybe a few other horrors. In the back corner there’s a small carton of half-and-half that has soured, curdled to semisolid state. In the vegetable crisper there’s bag of lettuce you saved for later that has gone from crisp to oozy. There is a jar of salsa stamped “use before September 2016” that is generating new and heretofore unknown life forms on the door rack. And if your refrigerator is old, and it’s summer, there is a small glacier beginning to drip out of the freezer compartment, and the inevitable, almost empty carton of ice cream in the back is covered with hoarfrost so it resembles Mount Rainier in the dead of winter.
Reflecting not only on the contents of the refrigerator, but more importantly on the image of the leftovers in the gospel, I’m inclined to think consider the leftovers in my own life.
There are things I can’t seem to throw out, even when they are outdated, curdled, or of no possible use. I harbor old hurts that have turned into sourness, but can’t seem to throw that carton away. I get lazy with my relationships, and let what was bright green become dark and oozy. I ignore warning signs, don’t keep up, and pretty soon the spicy salsa of friendships degenerates into a wispy, moldy mess. I keep old resentments in the freezer, and eventually they start dripping out in a messy stalactite.
Today’s gospel message is about the abundance of God’s grace, but it’s also a call to sharing the good I have in my heart and the goods I hold with others. And maybe, hidden in it, is a call to clean out the useless leftovers in our lives that have become useless or toxic. So on this hot day, we’d do well to take courage, open the fridge, bask for a moment in the blast of cool air, and start tossing.
Fr. Thomas Lucas, S.J.