It is impossible to go to a banquet or wedding reception in our country without food being leftover. Running out of food makes the caterers look bad, the hosts look chintzy and leaves a lot of unhappy, hungry people not in the best of all moods. So there is always an abundance of food at banquets. And even at normal dinners, food always seems to remain after everyone has eaten. While some of that food is saved for the next day or taken home by some people, much of the food is discarded. In fact, the Department of Environmental Protection estimates that we Americans threw away 33 million tons of food in 2010.
Though this Sunday’s Gospel focuses on the multiplication of the loaves, my prayer honed in on one aspect of the story – how Jesus deals with the leftovers. It seems, on initial reading, that the intent of the miracle is about the feeding of the people and that the leftovers were simply signs of God’s abundance. But Jesus is specific in his directions to his disciples to “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” The gathered leftovers fill 12 wicker baskets. Why be so attentive to the leftovers?
Certainly, food was not to be wasted, both then and now. Jesus was part of a society where obtaining enough food for oneself and one’s family was a daily challenge. Furthermore, food, whether divinely multiplied or a result of natural processes, was seen as a gift from God to be reverenced. Wheat grew, trees bore fruit, animals provided nourishment, and seeds became life sustaining crops, because God, the creator, was at work.
But maybe there was another reason. Throughout the Gospel Jesus seems to be concerned about leftovers. He was concerned that leftover food not be discarded, and he was even more concerned about human “leftovers” as well. They were the persons that society readily disregarded and discarded as “leftovers” – the lepers, the unclean, the crippled, the blind, the prostitutes, the poor, the powerless, the widows, the orphans, the sinners. Jesus came to gather them to himself and bring them into God’s embrace. Jesus loved the leftovers of our world.
12 wicker baskets full were gathered, we are told. We know that number – 12 – representing the 12 tribes of Israel and then the 12 apostles. It is those twelve who continue to gather the leftovers from the abundance God pours out upon the world in His Son. We, the church, are still charged with both the task of multiplying the loaves – using our loaves of time and talent and treasure, loaves of sacrifice and service that continue that one act of Jesus feeding the multitudes with his love and care. And we are called to continue the work of reaching out to and gathering in the ‘leftovers’ of our world.
And if leftovers don’t seem so grand, think about this. 12 baskets of fragments spread by the 12 apostles changed the course of the world. Never underestimate the power of God to take what we give, multiply it and then create so much that the abundance is falling out of our hungry hands.
How we treat leftovers, whether they are the kind that remain on our tables or that walk among us in society, reveals a great deal about our reverence for God’s creation and our reverence for God’s children. Jesus it seems saw nothing, saw no one, without value. Everything, everyone, was worth saving! So this week, as you gather those leftovers from the table, breathe a word of thanks – thanks for the abundance and thanks for the reminder of God’s providence. But mostly, thanks for including us, every last and least and lost and leftover among us into the glory of your kingdom.