Aug 2, 2015: 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

I am the bread of life.

1st Reading – Exodus 16:2-4,12-15

The whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.
The Israelites said to them,
“Would that we had died at the LORD’s hand in the land of Egypt,
as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread!
But you had to lead us into this desert
to make the whole community die of famine!”

Then the LORD said to Moses,
“I will now rain down bread from heaven for you.
Each day the people are to go out and gather their daily portion;
thus will I test them,
to see whether they follow my instructions or not.

“I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites.
Tell them: In the evening twilight you shall eat flesh,
and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread,
so that you may know that I, the LORD, am your God.”

In the evening quail came up and covered the camp.
In the morning a dew lay all about the camp,
and when the dew evaporated, there on the surface of the desert
were fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground.
On seeing it, the Israelites asked one another, “What is this?”
for they did not know what it was.
But Moses told them,
“This is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.”

This reading takes place during the Exodus, after the Israelites have left Egypt. The particular events recounted here take place in what Exodus 16:1 refers to as the desert of Sin, an area just to the northwest of Mount Sinai.

The whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 

The people complain against Moses and Aaron, but their ultimate complaint is against God.  Note that “the whole community” grumbles; while this may be an exaggeration, we can assume that at least the majority of the people were involved.

The Israelites said to them, “Would that we had died at the LORD’S hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots

Literally cir ha-basar (“pot of the flesh”), a cooking utensil usually made of bronze or earthenware. This is the only mention of fleshpots, by name, in all of scripture.

and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!”

In Egypt, although slaves, they had plenty to eat. Pharaoh had provided for them in
abundance; now they are starving.

Given their vulnerability in the wilderness, a certain level of complaint is expected. However, the content of the complaint — that they would be better off under oppression in Egypt — is disturbing.  They would rather be enslaved and well-fed than free and without food.

One would think that the events in Egypt would have created a deep faith in God, who had conquered the mighty pharaoh and inflicted such horrible plagues on their oppressors.  Instead, they are wishing that these events could be undone: a complete rejection of God.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “I will now rain down bread from heaven for you. Each day the people are to go out and gather their daily portion; thus will I test them, to see whether they follow my instructions or not. “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them: In the evening twilight you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread, so that you may know that I, the LORD, am your God.”

God hears their rebellious grumbling and responds.  The Israelites longed for the meat and bread of Egypt, so God promises to make those provisions in the wilderness.

We shouldn’t mistake God’s graciousness for a lack of offense at their ingratitude.  He is grieved by them, and yet he cares for them, like the parent of a wayward child.

In the evening quail came up and covered the camp. In the morning a dew lay all about the camp, and when the dew evaporated, there on the surface of the desert were fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground.

There is likely a natural explanation for these phenomena: the quail were probably migrating and forced to land because of a weather pattern.  Weary from the flight, they would have been easy to catch. The flaky bread-like substance was probably secreted from insects that infested tamarisk trees, which hardened when the dew evaporated.

However, the fact that the events can be explained does not mean they weren’t acts of God.

On seeing it, the Israelites asked one another, “What is this?” for they did not know what it was.

Literally, mān , which we commonly refer to as manna, meaning, “What is it?

But Moses told them, “This is the bread which the LORD has given you to eat.”

The Israelites had been willing to give up their privileged status, but God’s action shows that he was not willing to allow that to happen.  He has once again demonstrated his power and preference for the Israelites.

2nd Reading – Ephesians 4:17,20-24

Brothers and sisters:
I declare and testify in the Lord
that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do,
in the futility of their minds;
that is not how you learned Christ,
assuming that you have heard of him and were taught in him,
as truth is in Jesus,
that you should put away the old self of your former way of life,
corrupted through deceitful desires,
and be renewed in the spirit of your minds,
and put on the new self,
created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.

Last week Saint Paul called us to unity; this week he speaks of interior renewal.

Brothers and sisters: I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.

Paul is not instructing Christians to consider themselves better than the Gentiles, he is comparing two ways of living and thinking.  The old way of living was futile; the new way of living is true.

“Consider what Paul calls ‘futility of mind.’ This occurs when someone has a mind but does not use it for contemplation, instead surrendering it to captivity under Satan” [Origin (ca. A.D. 240), Commentaries On The Psalms, 118.37].

That is not how you learned Christ, assuming that you have heard of him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus, that you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.

This admonition by Paul follows the wisdom tradition, which draws contrasts in an uncompromising manner.  There are only two ways of living: one way is true, right, and holy; the other is foolish at best, wicked at worst.  There is no middle path.

The instruction to “put away the old self” and “put on the new self” is reflected in some baptismal liturgies where the candidate removes his/her old clothes, enters the baptismal water, then puts on new white clothing upon emerging.  These are outward signs of an inner change: the putting aside of the former life, the washing away of sin, and the putting on of Christ, beginning a new life.

“When one is already clothed, how is it said that one must further ‘put on’ a new nature? New clothing was once put on in baptism. The new clothing now being put on is the new way of life and conduct that flows from baptism. There one is no longer clothed by deceitful desires but by God’s own righteousness” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392-397), Homilies On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 13,4,24].

Gospel – John 6:24-35

When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there,
they themselves got into boats
and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
And when they found him across the sea they said to him,
“Rabbi, when did you get here?”
Jesus answered them and said,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
you are looking for me not because you saw signs
but because you ate the loaves and were filled.
Do not work for food that perishes
but for the food that endures for eternal life,
which the Son of Man will give you.
For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.”
So they said to him,
“What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them,
“This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”
So they said to him,
“What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?
What can you do?
Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written:
He gave them bread from heaven to eat.?
So Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven;
my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.
For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven
and gives life to the world.”

So they said to him,
“Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them,
“I am the bread of life;
whoever comes to me will never hunger,
and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

One of the characteristics of John’s gospel is the way miracle stories are presented.   The astonishing nature of the miracle and the reaction of the witnesses are downplayed; instead, the story serves as an opportunity for a lengthy explanation of the deep meaning of the sign.

True to this pattern, today’s gospel reading begins the lengthy explanation of what was recounted last week: the feeding of the 5,000.

When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

Capernaum is a city on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which served as Jesus’ center of activity. Matthew 4:13 notes that he established a residence there. Since Jesus had fled to the mountain alone (John 6:15) and the crowd knew that he had not departed with the apostles (John 6:16), they looked for him where they knew he maintained a home base.

And when they found him across the sea they said to him, “Rabbi,

Rabbi means “master,” and was a student’s form of address for his teacher. The use of this term here is significant because, even though they don’t know precisely who Jesus is, or what his mission is, they do recognize him as a religious leader. (Recall that Jesus fled after the feeding of the five thousand because he realized they wanted to make him king.)

when did you get here?”

They are curious about when (and how) he got there, because there is no boat anywhere.  He arrived by walking on water (John 6:16-21).

In his gospel, John often uses a technique of misunderstanding, in which a pupil poses incorrect questions on their journey to wisdom.  Jesus provides a rich answer to this simple question, an answer which is actually a condensed summary of his entire ministry.

Jesus answered them and said, “Amen, amen, I say to you,

In Hebrew, Greek and Latin, the words are the same: “Amen, amen.” Amen means “truly,” “so be it,” “I do believe.”

The doubled amen is a solemn affirmation, an oath, signifying the importance of what is about to be said.

you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.

He ignores the compliment and respect they have given him (by addressing him as rabbi), and instead of answering their question, he calls out their hypocrisy.

Jesus is acutely aware that the people were seeking him out not because he taught them, but because he fed them — and they wanted more.  They have not understood the true meaning of the signs he has performed.

Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life,

Jesus uses the people’s desire to feed their bodies as an opportunity to teach them how to feed their souls.  Recall that the woman at the well was promised living water and that she would never thirst (John 4:1-26).

which the Son of Man will give you.

Jesus has come to bring eternal life, that is, the fullness of life to people, and he will do so through the cross.

Son of Man is Jesus’ favorite designation of himself, a title which is never applied to him by the evangelists. This image draws upon Daniel 7:13-14 and 8:17, where the son of man is prefigured as the messiah who is to usher in the final days.  The Jews knew their Scriptures very well; they would have easily recognized this as a claim to have been sent by God.

For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.”

An indication of his authority.  By setting his seal, a master authenticates an ambassador.  Jesus, the Son of Man, is God’s ambassador, with full authority to deal between God and man, and has proved his commission by miracles.

So they said to him, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”

By “works of God,” the people presumably mean the works of the law.

Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”

Jesus again uses a simple question to provide a profound answer.  In it, he re-interprets “work” in a radical way.  Manual labor produces bread; a different kind of work — belief in Jesus — is required for the eternal bread of which he speaks.

Stating that the work of God is believing in Jesus is an incredibly bold claim.

Believing, which is never a noun (i.e., “faith”) in John’s gospel, is the aim of the entire gospel.  John continually challenges his readers to accept the extraordinary claim that the transcendent God has been made present in the person of Jesus Christ.

So they said to him, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

In response to this bold claim, the crowds demand a reason to believe in him, citing the example of being fed with manna in the desert (today’s first reading) as an example. This is a startling challenge, considering that he has just fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish.  Their enthusiasm from that event is already starting to wane, proving how material-minded they are.

Revealing another miracle to them (such as his walking on water to get there) would have reinforced their superficial search for physical/material satisfaction.  Instead, he continues to teach.

So Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven;

With a doubled amen Jesus reminds them that this was not a miracle of Moses: it was God, not Moses, who provided the manna.

my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.

By using the phrase “my Father,” Jesus reiterates his claim as the Son of God.

Note the transition from past tense to present tense: “Moses gave … my Father gives”.

For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

God’s bread is not simply food; it is life to the world.

So they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

This echoes the words of the woman at the well in John 4:15.  The people finally understand that he is speaking of non-material bread, and that he can give it, but they do not yet understand that the bread is Jesus himself.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life;

Jesus makes it very clear, specifically identifying himself as this gift from God that will give life to the world.

whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.

Like the “water of life” from John 4:10, the bread of life satisfies forever.

While the bread metaphor certainly implies eating, the teaching here has to do with faith, not the Eucharist. The bread of life is a wisdom theme, and those who believe will be satisfied.

Connections and Themes

  • We continue this week with the bread of life theme:
    • The first reading demonstrates how graciously God provides for us, despite our shortcomings.
    • The gospel reading makes it clear that Jesus is the real gift God provides.
    • The epistle lays out the implications of this reality in our daily lives.
  • We work for food to feed our bodies; we work for our salvation, to feed our souls.  We give great effort, we follow the rules, we practice virtue.  Sometimes this allows us to believe that we can do it alone, that we can actually earn it all.   The scriptures challenge us to a higher understanding of a deeper reality: it is God who provides.  This demands that we let go of the illusion that we can ultimately feed or save ourselves, but that is exactly what is required of us.
  • Jesus warns us today not to work for perishable food.  If we fill ourselves with all the world provides, we will still hunger.  We will feast on it, but we will be hungry again.  If we fill ourselves with what God provides — that is, Jesus — our deepest hungers will be satisfied, and its effects will endure for eternity.  Jesus is the true bread from heaven; he is the real basis for our survival.
  • When the crowd asks what they must do to perform the works of God, Jesus’ answer is very clear: This is the work of God: have faith in the one God has sent.  Our essential labor as Christians is nothing other than believing that Christ is indeed who he says he is.  If there is any pre-eminent task for us, then, it is not that we carry out our ministries well, or work out our different roles within the Church, however important and helpful those things may be.  Our task is to believe.  This is as difficult for us as it was for those who heard it directly from Christ.
  • If we accept Jesus as the source of our life, we are no longer content to live with full bellies and empty minds.  We put aside our old selves, who focused worldly and selfish things, and are transformed by Christ into our new selves, who live in testimony to our new understanding.  We have learned Christ, and we are nourished by his teaching.

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