Henri Nouwen was a man people wanted to know. In his lifetime he taught at Harvard and Notre Dame, and was a tenured professor at Yale. He was a prolific author and a speaker often in demand. Yet ironically, the people who wanted to know him most were probably the least interested in his most crowning achievements.
In 1986, Nouwen walked away from his position at Harvard and accepted the position as pastor of the L’Arche community in Toronto, a community where mentally handicapped persons and their assistants live together in an attempt to live the gospel. Describing his experience, Nouwen remarked of the people of L’Arche, “If they express love for you, then it comes from God. It’s not because you accomplished anything. These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.”(1)
Interestingly, it was a similar selfless love that caught Nouwen off guard years earlier, piercing the conditional world he had grown accustomed to with the notion of the freeing love of God. A director of the L’Arche community had come to visit Nouwen while he was still at Yale. She visited the campus for a few days, cooked him an enjoyable meal, and offered help in simple, practical ways. Nouwen recalls, “I expected this greeting to be followed by a request to give a lecture, write an article, or offer a retreat.” But the visit had no strings attached; she had simply come to care for him in the name of Christ. It was altogether unlike the rules of kindness Nouwen was used to practicing. In a world where we are told there are no free lunches, the simple act stirred deeply in his soul.
The Gospel of Matthew similarly recalls an evening of few words and free meals. With the murder of John the Baptist weighing heavily on his mind, Jesus withdrew to a solitary place, traveling privately by boat. But the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. Seeing this, Jesus was not bothered, suspicious, or disheartened, rather Matthew tells us he was filled with compassion. He did not send the crowds away, but healed the sick and remained among them. But as evening approached, the disciples came to him with their own concerns, bothers, and suspicions. “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food” (Matthew 14:15). But Jesus only replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat” (14:16).
His words strike deeply, sharp with accountability: You give them something to eat. The call is personal and practical, piercing motive-ridden hearts. The disciples didn’t want to be responsible for the needy, hungry crowd anymore than most of us. Yet the sort of kingdom and economy Jesus proclaims doesn’t stop for rational explanations for putting hungry crowds out of mind. In a simple command he unravels the economy of self-protection. Do I offer any sort of practical love to the crowds around me? What’s more, does my service come freely or does it come with a cost? I shudder to think how often I have fed the very crowds Jesus would have had compassion on with un-free lunches—kindness peppered with conditions and expectation, love given with costs built-in. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to matter what religion or worldview we are coming from; it is easy to play as if there is no such thing as a free lunch. Henri Nouwen was a well-connected, much-loved member of the Christian community, and yet a kind and selfless visit from a fellow Christian took him completely by surprise.
C.S. Lewis once remarked that the hard sayings of Christ are nourishing only to those who find them hard. The disciples met Christ’s command with objections more reasonable than the ones I usually come up with: the crowd was large, the place remote, the food sparse. The cost to them seemed more than costly. Nonetheless, the instructions lingered: You give them something to eat. That is, will you freely offer nourishment to those who need it most—knowing full well that the cost may be personal?
Whatever your thoughts on Jesus, it is hard to dismiss this scene without stopping to wonder about the freeing love of God. This God does not look like we do; nor does the kingdom of God operate like the kingdom of humans. Jesus has given us the daunting task to feed unconditionally the hungry and broken around us. He has also given us himself. “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” he said, adding, “I am the bread of life.”(2) Christ’s is a love that receives us unadorned and vulnerable, love not merited because of accomplishments, but because of desperate need and disparaging hunger. Will we offer others this same, free, nourishing regard?
“Bring them here to me,” Jesus told the disciples. And with five loaves of bread and two fish he fed five thousand. And Matthew reports, “They all ate and were satisfied.”
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Henri J.M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (New York; Crossroad, 1993), 27-28.
(2) cf. John 6:33.