What Little We Have
Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Preached on July 28-29, 2012 at Saint Mary Catholic Church, Perryville KY and Saint Andrew Catholic Church, Harrodsburg KY
Readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15
After a grueling Death March from Bataan to Pampanga, the prisoners of war were put on a train headed for Camp O’Donnell in Tarlac. Each of the train’s boxcars could hold forty men; the Japanese soldiers packed a hundred in each. There was no room for anyone to sit or to lie down: those who passed out from the sweltering summer heat had to be held up by their comrades.
The prisoners were exhausted from four months of fighting; they also were dying of hunger and thirst. The civilians who had been brave enough to hand them food and drink along the way were often stabbed with bayonets by the Japanese guards. History records that 60,600 Filipino soldiers and 9,900 American GIs took that 80 mile trek from April 9 to 15, 1942. By the time the trains had reached Capas, the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) had lost some 10,000 Filipino soldiers and 650 Americans.
The train passed through my hometown of Angeles where it started to crawl at a speed of three to five miles per hour due to the sharp incline on the tracks. Once they heard about this, the townsfolk rushed to the railroad, expecting to catch a glimpse of their loved ones among the prisoners. But, all they saw were arms outstretched between the boards of the boxcars, weary arms begging for some relief. That sorry sight moved the crowd to risk their lives for those who had risked theirs for them. Celerina Tanhueco tossed some puto seco between those boards, hoping that the dry rice cracker would reach the hands of her fiancé. Vicente Soriano threw sugarcane and rice wrapped in banana leaves. His daughters Elpidia, Bernardina, and Remedios handed drinking water in used ketchup bottles to the waiting hands. The sisters imagined that one of those hands must be that of their brother the soldier.
None of them bothered to ask, “What good are these for so many?” (Jn. 6:9) They just kept giving what they had, throwing what they had brought to the outstretched hands. Few historians record this food throwing frenzy in Angeles, but, for those prisoners, it was a kindness that they would never forget. The sip of water that they had received, the crumb of bread and the few grains of rice that they had been given, all these helped to tide them over through that hell on earth.
Celerina’s fiancé, Sergeant Pedro Zamora, never made it home after the war. He was my grandfather’s first cousin and best friend. He died at Camp O’Donnell alongside Private Feliciano Soriano, son of Vicente and brother of Remedios, Bernardina, and my grandmother Elpidia. I doubt if any of my family ever learned whether the provisions they gave reached the hands of my great-uncles. Still, they knew that, even if they did not, they had made a difference for someone else. I would like to think that what they did somehow helped thirty-seven of the sixty-six tankers beat the impossible odds and make a miraculous return home after the war to Harrodsburg, the town that someday would have me, their progeny, as its pastor.
Sometimes all it takes for a miracle to happen is for someone to share what little he has and to let the Lord take care of the rest.
That was exactly what the boy in the Gospel did. He too must have known that five barley loaves and two fish could not have fed a crowd of five thousand (cf. Jn. 6:9-10). But, at that moment on that mountain, he did what the rest of the naysaying disciples would not do: he stepped up to the plate and gave what he had. Out of that multitude the only one who was man enough to man up was this little boy. He probably thought that for this one time he would have to go hungry so that the hungry could eat. Still he trusted that the Lord Jesus would know what to do with what he had to give.
The apostle Philip on the other hand was still busy calculating the cost of catering a meal for that crowd (cf. Jn. 6:7). He could not see how a lad’s lunch could make a difference. Perhaps, he wondered, like so many of us do, why the Lord would not just go ahead and send bread from Heaven to feed the hungry, why He would not just eliminate war and disease and get it all over with.
But, as the evangelist tells us, the Lord knows what He is going to do (cf. Jn. 6:6). He already has a plan in place and part of that plan is to give us a chance to show some initiative, to make use of our creativity, and to give our contribution. What we have to give does not have to be much: the boy offered his lunchbox; the townsfolk of Angeles gave what provisions they could carry to the tracks. Yet, as the feeding of the five thousand has shown, sometimes all it takes is for us to share what little we have and to let God make a miracle out of that.