A few times some friends and I have gone out to feed the hungry. There were two different ways we would go to them. We either went to a church to prepare food in a warm, sheltered place and invited the hungry to meet us there for a meal. Or we prepared food beforehand and went to where they were. Both can be seen as works of mercy in their own right, and I am not criticizing the very setup of either ministry. However, I tended to get comfortable when we met the hungry and homeless in the church. There was them and us. I could just give them a plate of food and then move on to the next person. I could have made the effort to talk to more of the people to whom I gave the plate of food, but I felt I was there mainly to feed them so I grabbed as many plates of food as I could and fed as many as I could.
When we went out on the streets to find those who could use a meal, I was faced with individual encounters. It was much harder to just hand the person food and then walk away, leaving him or her alone on the sidewalk. There are two reasons why I've drawn this comparison. First, I believe a one-on-one encounter with the person you are serving is central to the way Jesus ministered. Second, whenever Jesus met someone's physical needs through either feeding or healing, he didn't stop there. There was something underneath he was trying to teach every time.
To convey my first point, if you notice, most of the acts of mercy and kindness Jesus performs are towards individuals. He washes the feet of the disciples, rescues the adulterer from being stoned, heals the paralytic. The Gospels give accounts of these stories because God wants to speak directly to us through them. He doesn't want us to just know about his son, to know he was a miracle-worker and to know how he lived and died. We're supposed to put ourselves in the shoes of every person he healed, to compare our spiritual struggles to their physical and spiritual ones. He wants us to enter into the shoes of the publican and the Pharisees. Whenever he tells a story or teaches a lesson, he doesn't want us to think of someone in our life that may benefit from that story or lesson. We all go through many different spiritual phases, and each lesson or story Christ offers can apply to us in some way at some time in our lives. I am the Pharisees, the publican, the blind man, the deaf man, the paralytic, the adulterer, the disciple who disowns him and so on. Yes, there may also be times when I am the Good Samaritan, the beloved disciple, the good thief, or the one with ten talents, but in my own spiritual battles I have found it most beneficial to regard myself as the greatest of sinners. This one pearl of wisdom I have learned in my struggle to be humble: God came to save me from myself, not from something outside of me . He came to offer us spiritual nourishment. All other kinds of nourishment are just complementary sides to that heavenly meal.
To my second point, I am not saying these complementary sides are useless. Far from it. The corporal works of mercy are great ways to break the ice when telling people about Christ. By our baptism, Catholics are committed to following Jesus Christ and to be "salt for the earth, light for the nations." As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, "It is necessary that all participate, according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This is inherent in the dignity of the human person."
My issue is with the imbalance between meeting people's physical needs and meeting their spiritual ones. Both are needed, but in our time serving people's physical needs has received much greater attention to the deprivation of spiritual ones.
People aren't pets. If there are starving people we'd like to help, we need to do more than just feed them like we would our pet dog or cat. People aren't projects either. If we're going to serve and love someone, we cannot picture them as someone who needs to be fixed, or simply create programs they can enter to become fixed. The number of people who are helped by the projects we create to help them is not a good measure of success.
Performing miracles, healing people and feeding the thousands were all acts Jesus performed to draw people in, to get their attention. If you notice, there's always a message connected to his miracles which alludes to the spiritual reality to which we are so blind. That is why he heals the blind man, and gives hearing to the deaf man, because we are "ever hearing but never understanding, ever seeing but never perceiving." He feeds the 5,000 with bread to foreshadow how he will give himself as life-giving bread to the world, as food for our souls. He walks on water and calms the storm, and afterwards says "Oh, you of little faith," to show how mastery of the physical world is just the beginning of God's awesomeness. Performing miracles was child's play to him. The thing that took his life was his attempt to win our hearts.
For decades, there have been dozens of international organizations feeding starving people around the world. I don't see fewer people starving. Why is that? It's because food is just a treatment for their situation, not a cure. The cure comes when they meet Christ personally through prayer, Scripture and the Sacraments. This is and always has been the most noble mission of missionaries around the world for centuries. The chance to love someone is our only sincere objective, because people are ends in themselves. They are not our pet projects. Love is enough in itself. Just love people. That is the most noble motive.