11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.John 6:11-15
Our readings from this week remind us of God’s plenty. For the 5000 there is an abundance of food – more than enough, “as much as they wanted”, an excess to what was needed so “they were satisfied”. In our other New Testament reading, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us of the rest from work, for restoration and communion with God, that He has given us in the Sabbath, and urges us to use this gift as intended.
And yet, when I think of the plenty – of all the good things that many of us are personally gifted by God, there is an important counterpoint that comes to mind. Our response to these gifts is our gratitude-filled relationship with God and the fruit given to us through that relationship, the fruit of the Spirit. As Paul reminds us in Galatians 5…”the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” While our response to all that God has given us may be most rightly thought of in terms of generosity, love and kindness to others, there is also the important call to self-control.
We don’t often dwell on this virtue, although it has certainly been prominent in past monastic traditions. And yet when we look at our society, a failure to respond with self-control to all that God has given us is evident. Our world is failing because we cannot practice restraint in our use of resources, or deny or inconvenience ourselves to ensure that there will always be enough for everyone. Our response to God’s abundance should not be the assumption that it is endless, but that we are called to stewardship, prudence and fairness.
This is, of course, true in the bigger picture of climate change and the world’s natural resources, but I also see it every day in the microcosm of our hospitals. It saddens me to know that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States has determined that life expectancy is decreasing for Americans. This will also happen in Australia; the next generation will be the first in history that, on average, dies younger, than the one before. At a time when we know more than ever about how to live long and healthy lives, and God has gifted us with this knowledge and the tools to achieve it, we are actually becoming sicker and dying younger, and our hospitals and health services are stretched to breaking point as a result.
Why is this happening? Well, this is largely, although not exclusively, a problem of excess and of our lack of self-control as a society and as individuals. We eat too much and exercise too little, we suffer addictions to alcohol, tobacco and opioids and fail to take advantage of basic preventative measures such as cancer screening and recently, masks and vaccinations.
Of course, each person has suffered trials and struggles, and my reflection here is not to pass judgment on any person’s specific circumstances. We find ourselves in this situation often due to pain, trauma and circumstance well beyond our control. But I reflect that it is timely to remind myself and others that we can draw on the strength given to us through our relationship with God to find the fruit of the spirit, the self control, to change our behaviour, to live healthy lives and to ensure that our healthcare resources are there in abundance for those who need them.
Canon Prof Dr Kate Drummond AM is a Lay Canon St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of Neurosurgery, Royal Melbourne Hospital