18th Sunday of ordinary Time 2012
“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… ” Jn 6: 26f.
What does man need to be truly man? Surely he needs certain material goods to sustain his physical life, but every human person also needs other goods, spiritual goods, to nourish the mind and soul and enable man to be truly the image of God, truly man in the deepest sense.
In today’s Gospel, we have the second installment out of five taken from St. John’s Sixth Chapter, which is commonly referred to as the Great Eucharistic Discourse. In this one chapter, we have the most realistic and deeply theological presentation of the true and real presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. Here He will explain to us what the true bread from Heaven really is, “that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” The true bread from Heaven is Jesus Himself, and He is the true bread that gives life, eternal life, to those who believe in Him, and receive from Him, this heavenly food.
But at the same time, we will see the opposition to Jesus and His Gospel of Life growing, and we will see the clouds gathering which will try to obscure and even suffocate the light of Christ, His teaching on the Bread from Heaven. We might as accurately call this chapter of St. John the great Eucharistic conflict, for in the end this teaching on the Eucharist will be a sword of division, and it will cause many of his disciples, lacking in faith, to refuse to follow him any longer. They are as scandalized by Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist as they are by his claim to be God’s Son, and equal to the Father.
But here Jesus starts this teaching moment gently, by challenging their motivation for following him after the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. They are not following him for any spiritual motives, but for very earthly motives, and so He unveils the lack of faith in their motivation and their purely materialistic objective: “you are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” They are following him for the free food he can provide which they need not or perhaps presently cannot provide for themselves. There is nothing sinful in this worldly motivation, but it presents a danger that the mission of Jesus might be misunderstood, reducing it to a merely earthly goal of providing for the material needs of the poor and the sick.
But Jesus’ mission is not to be confused with that of the social worker or charitable worker seeking social justice. “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Of course, man needs the food that perishes, and in fact he must work to provide for his material needs. But here Jesus is insisting on the fact that man also has higher needs, for Man is not made to have his true and final perfection in this world. Indeed, just as earthly food perishes, so does man himself who consumes this food, and this “food” Jesus speaks of refers to all the goods of this world which cannot make man immortal, but leave him ultimately subject to the law of nature which means that man is perishable.
So, Jesus, insists, we must work for, seek, the “food” that endures for Eternal Life, the food that makes man immortal, and that food is Jesus Himself. He is the Bread that has come down from Heaven, and the man who comes to Jesus, who believes in him, will possess Eternal Life. Faith is the door that man must use to enter this new world, to gain eternal life, and the food that brings eternal Life, God’s gift of the Bread from Heaven. Jesus is that Bread.
The fact that these followers have their hearts and minds set on this world and not on the higher goods is a mortal threat to their final happiness. The focus on the material goods of this world undercuts the possibility of faith. But belief in Christ, belief in His divinity, belief in the Eucharist, all three depend upon the starting point of man’s search for happiness, what man is looking for to fulfill his life. If man is working fundamentally for perishable goods to satisfy his hunger and thirst for fulfillment (happiness), then Jesus will not satisfy his hunger and thirst.
On the other hand, if a man is working for, searching for imperishable goods to fulfill the hunger in his heart, then Jesus’ message and promises will resonate in his heart and lead to faith. Man will not have faith in the one God sends, if man’s heart is set on the wrong goods, on perishable food, rather than on the goods that remain for life eternal. Like the Samaritan woman, they too ask Jesus to give them this bread always, but they are still thinking of this bread in purely materialistic terms, and Jesus will soon unveil their misreading of his words and their lack of faith in Him.
At the last supper, in another discourse of Jesus found in St. Luke, Jesus asks the rhetorical question, “Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Some people think that the massive loss of faith in the western world in our day may be a sign that the end is near, when Jesus will come and find little or no faith on the earth. But the passage simply asks a question, and does not answer it. The loss of faith in the modern world seems to be caused by the same problem we saw in today’s Gospel. The peoples of the once Christian countries are now more interested in perishable things than in the goods of eternity, the food that remains unto life eternal. “It’s the economy stupid,” say the politicians, and indeed it does seem that the goods of this world are the all absorbing interest of our society. Thus most people today in the western world are not really searching for God’s bread, the bread that gives eternal life to the world. This is absolutely destructive of faith, and it is no accident, that even among Catholics today, only about a third say they believe in the hard teaching of Jesus on the Eucharist, and perhaps the same number believe in his true divinity. Only when we set our hearts on the goods of eternity, will the Bread from Heaven become the primary object of our hunger. The more we long for Eternal Life, the closer we draw to Christ, and the more we cling to this truth: This is the work of God: have faith in the One he sent.”