18th Sunday of ordinary Time
“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.” Jn 6:32-3.
What does man need to be fully and truly man? Surely we need certain material goods to sustain our physical life, but every human person also needs other, much greater goods, spiritual goods, to nourish the mind and soul and thus to enable one to be fully and truly the image of God, and thus truly man in the deepest sense.
In today’s Gospel, we have the second installment taken from St. John’s Sixth Chapter, which is commonly referred to as the Great Eucharistic Discourse. In this one Gospel chapter, we have the most realistic and most deeply theological presentation of the true and real presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. Here Jesus Himself explains to us what the true “bread from Heaven” really is; it is the bread “that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” The true bread from Heaven, then, is Jesus Himself, because He Himself is the true bread that gives life, eternal life, to those who believe in Him, and receive from Him, this heavenly food.
However, in this same chapter, we will also witness the opposition to Jesus and His Gospel of Life begin to grow. We will see the dark clouds gathering which will try to obscure and even suffocate the light of Christ and, above all, His teaching on the Bread from Heaven. Thus, we might also call this chapter of St. John the great Eucharistic conflict, for in the end this teaching on the Eucharist will be a great sword of division, and it will cause many of his disciples, who are 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.
Now in today’s Gospel we hear Jesus beginning this teaching ever so gently, by questioning the crowd’s motivation for following him after the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. He reveals that they are not following Him for any spiritual motives, but rather for very earthly motives, and He unveils their lack of faith behind their seeking Him, their purely materialistic objective: “you are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” Many in the crowd are following him simply hoping for free food that he can provide and which they perhaps presently cannot provide for themselves. There is perhaps nothing precisely sinful in this very worldly motivation, but it does present a danger that the mission of Jesus might be terribly misunderstood, by reducing it to a merely earthly means for providing for the material needs of the poor and the sick.
So Jesus will not allow His mission to be confused with the mission of those we today refer to as social workers or charitable organizations or organizations seeking social justice. He says, “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, the Lord knows that man also needs the food that perishes, and in fact man has a duty to work to provide for his material needs.
But here, at this moment following the great miracle, in the event that it’s true significance be misunderstood, and He be misunderstood, Jesus is insisting on the fact that man also has higher needs. Indeed, He has come precisely because Man is not made or destined to have his true and final perfection in this world. Indeed, just as earthly food perishes, so does man himself who consumes this food. this earthly “food” Jesus speaks of here refers to all the goods of this world which all together cannot make man immortal, but they leave man ultimately subject to the law of nature, which means that man is still perishable.
Thus, Jesus insists that 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 whoever comes to Jesus, whoever believes in him, will possess Eternal Life. Faith is the door that man must pass though to enter this new world, to gain eternal life, and the food that brings eternal Life, God’s gift, is the Bread from Heaven. Jesus is that Bread.
The fact that many or most of that crowd, these present followers, have their hearts and minds set on this world and not on the higher goods is a mortal threat to their final happiness. Their focusing their hearts on the material goods of this world undercuts the very possibility of life giving faith.
Nonetheless, belief in Christ, belief in His divinity, belief in the Eucharist, all three have their starting point in man’s search for happiness, his search for what can truly fulfill his life. If a man is working for, seeking happiness solely in perishable goods, hoping such goods will ultimately satisfy his hunger and thirst for fulfillment (happiness), then Jesus, His Word, His Body will not be seen to possibly satisfy this innate hunger and thirst, for there is no room for faith. Only faith can open man’s heart to His true destiny and happiness.
On the other hand, if a man is working for, searching for truly imperishable goods to fulfill the hunger in his heart, then Jesus’ message and promises will begin to 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, the crowds 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.
There is a great warning in this for our day. At the last supper, in another discourse of Jesus found in St. Luke’s Gospel, 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.
Still, the loss of faith we are witnessing in the western world today seems to be caused by the same problem we saw in today’s Gospel. The peoples of once Christian countries are now more interested in perishable things than in the goods of eternity, in goods that are purely tempoal rather than the goods, the food, that remains unto life eternal. “It’s the economy stupid,” say the politicians today, and indeed it does seem that the goods of this world are the all absorbing interest of our politics and our society.
Thus most people today in the western world are no longer really searching for God’s bread, for 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 one third of those who are polled say they any longer believe in the hard teaching of Jesus on the Eucharist. Perhaps the same percentage of baptized Catholics any longer believe in Christ’s true divinity. It is a post-Christian world we live in; and it will not change until man begins to seek the goods that last forever, the food that brings eternal life.
The Church continues to preach the truth about the Bread that has come down from Heaven and remains with man in the Holy Eucharist. But only when men and women once again seek the goods that are transcendent and set their hearts on the goods of eternity, will the Bread from Heaven have a chance of becoming again the primary object of their deepest hunger. The more we long for Eternal Life, the closer we draw to Christ and the more we cling to this fundamental truth for man that we heard in the Gospel today: “This is the work of God: have faith in the One he sent.”