Commentary on the Readings
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
There is bread that gives eternal life
A person’s dream has always been to have life, eternal life. To achieve this, Gilgamesh, the hero of Mesopotamian literature, had challenged the monster Humbaba in the garden of cedars. Then he went down the abyss of the seas to take possession of the grass which is called “the old becomes young.” He reached it but a snake stole it from him. The destiny of man is sad; he is born to die. Dejected, the psalmist also concluded: “For redeeming one’s life demands too high a price and all is lost forever. Who can remain forever alive and never see the grave” (Ps 49:9-10). Despite of being short as a breath (Ps 144:4), this life is sacred and inviolable.
In the Hebrew language the word “to live” is never applied to animals or plants, but only to humans, and is used as a synonym of “to heal,” “to recover health,” “to be happy.” Only one who lives a peaceful existence, free from disease, full of joy, really lives. Tears and pain are signs of death.
Bread maintains, but does not ensure biological life forever; it is destined to be extinguished, and the legendary plant of immortality is a chimera, an illusion. But God has a bread that communicates eternal life, and has given it to the world, because he wants everyone to have life and have it abundantly (Jn 10:10). “While all was in quiet silence and the night was in the middle of its course” (Ws 18:14), he sent his word, “Whatever has come to be, found life in him; life which comes for human beings, was also light” (Jn 1:4).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Every day I have to feed myself with the word that comes from the mouth of God.”
According to the current scientific criteria, some healings are unexplainable. For this, if a saint was prayed to, healing is attributed to his/her intercession. Others, those obtained with the administration of drugs, are considered a natural fact and does not call the supernatural into question. Yet one wonders if those who are cared for by a doctor be less grateful to the Lord: is the second grace perhaps inferior than the first?
For those who believe, all events, even the most ordinary, talk of God. A lovely dawn, the scent of narcissus, the smile of a poor person, the cry of a mother or the pain of a child, are an invitation to raise the eyes to heaven. They are signs of the Lord’s love, and often also a source of legitimate questions about his way of managing the creation and of intervening in human history.
Israel is a nation that believes in God and does not need to check extraordinary interventions to notice his presence. “I am who am who is always at your side” is the meaning of the name with which he revealed himself to Moses (Ex 3:14). During the exodus, his assistance was evidently apparent at all times.
In today’s reading two facts that Israel has read with the eyes of faith are related: the quails and the manna. It is about very natural and well known phenomena that occur even today. In spring and autumn quails migrate in flocks between Africa, Arabia and the Mediterranean countries. When exhausted, they stop in the Sinai Peninsula and become easy prey to the Bedouins. The manna, in turn, is the whitish discharge that comes from a shrub that grows in the desert of Sinai, and is called by botanists tamarix mannifera. God fed His people, letting them find these foods along the way. They became the sign of his protection and love. The quails and manna appeared, to the believers, as gifts of heaven.
Our passage begins with the murmurings of the people who, after the first few days of enthusiasm for the liberation, begin to feel nostalgic of Egypt (vv. 2-3). It is significant that the land of slavery, forced labor and beatings are now remembered in a moment of collective hallucination, as an Eden where it feasted on meat and bread to the full.
It is the image of what happens to one who, having abandoned the state of sin, slavery of vices and unruly passions, embarked on the path to freedom. After the passing of the first moments of serenity and peace that always accompany the conversion to the Lord and the gospel choices, it is normal to hear of the regret for the old life, customs, conduct that did not constitute a source of pride, but always offered some advantages and gratification.
Faced with the murmurings of the people we would expect a tough response from God. He, instead, does not punish; he responds by “sending manna” (v. 4).
In times of distress, when people are tempted to retrace their steps, it must be remembered that God does not get angry for the frailty of persons, does not disdain the weaknesses and relapses. He not only does not punish those who are hesitant, but accompanies them more closely and—as he did with Israel—gives them new signs of his love, new evidences of his presence.
The gift of manna, on the one hand was a help, on the other hand represented a test for Israel, a stimulus for the growth of her faith. The journey in the wilderness was to serve her as an apprenticeship; it had to be a school to accustom her to control greed. She had to learn not to grab a quantity of goods greater than the daily need, to settle for the “daily bread,” showing that she nourished full trust in the providential love of her God.
The life lesson learned by Israel remains relevant for today’s person. He is always tempted to dominate not only the present but also the future that instead belongs only to God. In the “Our Father,” Jesus invites us to ask the Lord not security for the future, but the bread “for this day.” Who prays thus refuses to accumulate food “for the next day,” while the brothers are hungry “today,” frees his heart from the greed of possession and anxiety for the future (Lk 12:22-34).
Even the rabbis of Jesus’ time recommended not to be dominated by the unrest and worry for food. Rabbi Eliezer taught his disciples: “Whoever has food to eat for today and asks ‘what will I eat tomorrow?’, is a man of little faith.”
The last part of the passage (vv. 13-15) makes it clear that the manna was not Moses’ gift to the people; he has been eating it along with the others. It was the Lord who gave this food. Moses was able to recognize the source of the gift and called on the people to look upward, to God (v. 15), in the expectation that he would send from heaven his other bread, that which communicates imperishable life (Dt 8:2-3).
The second part of the Letter to the Ephesians is dedicated to moral exhortations. In today’s passage the author invites us to draw the practical consequences of the conversion to the Lord.
He realizes that Christians are always subject to the temptation, to reintroduce into their own lives, behavior and pagan reasonings, called “nonsense” pursuits of nothing (v. 17).
He then outlines a bleak picture of the pagan world, “Their understanding is in darkness and they remain in ignorance because of their blind conscience, very far from the life of God. As a result of their corruption, they have abandoned themselves to sensuality and have eagerly given themselves to every kind of immorality” (vv. 18-19). The emphasis on the negative traits is evident. The solid principles and values of Stoic ethics are completely ignored. The shepherd of souls here seems worried that the Christian having become “a new creation”, falls in the former vices, surrenders to lust and lets himself be guided by greed of money.
After presenting the diverse negative effects, typical of pagan life, the author sums up the morale of one who has known Christ with a very simple and effective expression: “That is not the way you learned!” (vv. 20-21). He continues by using an image: the disciple is “stripped of the old man” and he “clothed himself in a new habit” (vv. 22-24). On the day of the baptism he was radically transformed; he threw away, as one does with a worn and filthy dress, debauchery, moral misery, deceitful lusts, and from the water, he came out a new man, having put on Christ (Gal 3:27).
The final scene of last Sunday’s gospel marked, according to human criteria, the pinnacle of Jesus’ success. A huge crowd cheered him and, moved by an irrepressible enthusiasm, tried to take him to make him king. What looked like a triumph was, however, for Jesus, the most disappointing of results, the evidence that he was not able to make people understand the sign. His gesture had been misunderstood: he had proposed sharing and they had understood comfortable multiplication of food.
To reflect on the way in which to introduce the crowd in understanding the signs of bread, Jesus withdrew to the mountain (Jn 6:15), but the next day they tracked his trail and catching up with him in Capernaum, they ask him, “Master, when did you come here?” (vv. 24-25).
Jesus does not answer the question put to him, but to the real one, the one that all would like to ask: “Will you repeat the miracle today? Will you guarantee us bread forever?” He goes right to the heart of the problem: “You look for me, not because of the signs which you have seen, but because you ate bread and were satisfied. Work then, not for perishable food, but for the lasting food which gives eternal life” (vv. 26-27).
He realized that they are not seeking him because they are hungry of his word, because they want to deepen his message and be helped to understand the gesture he did. They only hope to continue to have food in abundance, for free, without working.
In the first part of the passage (vv. 24-27), Jesus begins to disperse the confusion that has been created. He did not come to turn, with the magic wand, the stones into bread, but to teach that love and sharing produce bread in abundance. He then accompanies the audience from the first step of faith, that of the admiration and gratitude for the food received, then a second step, higher, that of understanding the message contained in the gift that he has given.
In the misunderstanding of the people of Capernaum, the evangelist wants that every Christian sees, as a watermark, his own incomprehension. He turns to the disciple the invitation to verify, to ask oneself of the motive of seeking the Lord, taking refuge in him, praying and practicing religion. Many, such as those who have witnessed the miracle of the loaves, should admit to being moved by the secret hope of obtaining from Jesus the food which perishes: special graces, miracles, health, success, wealth, protection against misfortunes. The proliferation, in certain sectors of the Church, of practices related to magic to achieve healing and secure the favor of the Lord, proves that the misunderstanding on the “bread” that Jesus offers is always present. Even the Samaritan woman did not understand that the Master was giving her a water different from that of the well.
So what is the food “which endures to eternal life”?
In last Sunday’s gospel there is perhaps one overlooked detail: at the beginning of the story there were the loaves and fish, then later, oddly enough, they were forgotten and all the attention was focused on the bread. Even at the end, after the collection of the twelve baskets of left over bread, we would have expected a reference to the fish, instead nothing. They had appeared and shall not be remembered even in the long discourse of Jesus.
The symbolism of the “five loaves” and the “two fish” will be obvious to those who know the language of the Bible and remember the words of Moses: “Man lives not on bread alone, but that all that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Dt 8:3), and the invitation addressed to the inexperienced of the Wisdom of God, “Come, eat of the bread” (Prv 9.5); “Why spend money on what is not food, and labor on what does not satisfy?” (Is 55:1). Here is the bread of the Lord: his word, his teaching; the “five” books of the Pentateuch, the Torah, are the bread of life.
And the “two fish?” They are the bread of bread representing the other two series of sacred books of Israel, the Prophets and the other scriptures, which were used as complement to the Torah. They helped to better understand and assimilate it.
It is only the bread that remains. On the boat—Mark notes—the disciples “had only one loaf with them” (Mk 8:14), Jesus, whose word is all the food that God has given to his people. Who has him does not need other bread, has no need of other revelations.
It is in this symbolism that Jesus wants to introduce to his listeners who instead insist on thinking only of material food.
How do we nourish ourselves with this bread? “What must we do?”—the crowd of Capernaum ask Jesus. The answer is given in the second part of the passage (vv. 28-33).
Not many works, but only one, to believe in him whom the Father sent. No other thing is required.
In the Gospel of John the word “faith,” so dear to Paul, is never found. The verb “to believe” often recurs. It indicates the vital act of one who unconditionally trusts the word of Jesus, who takes his Gospel and assimilates it as happens with food. The Gospel was written “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Believe and you will have life in his name” (Jn 20:31). He who believes in this way has eternal life (Jn 3:16; 6:40,47).
It is not enough to be convinced that Jesus existed, that he was a great character, who preached love and laid down rules of a wise life. The atheists are also convinced of all this. When the bride declares “to believe” in her husband, she means that she trusts him blindly, shares his choices, is willing to risk her life with him, sure that, with no other, she could be happy.
Jesus asks this blind trust. That is the reason why the Jews, before giving it to him, demand of him a concrete evidence, a great miracle (vv. 30-33). The fact of the loaves is not enough because Moses did so much more; he not only gave manna for a meal and only five thousand men; he has fed an entire people for forty years.
Jesus clarifies: it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven. It was my Father, the same one who gives today to the world, no longer the manna, but the food that feeds a life not destined to perish, the true bread from heaven that gives life to all humanity. The moldy manna (Ex 16:20) decomposes, as rust corrodes or as thieves steal the treasures accumulated in this world, but the bread of Christ does not perish when collected and stored in baskets, redistributed, always entire and tasty to those who are hungry.
What is this bread of heaven? Why does Jesus not give it at once to all? In the last part of the passage (vv. 34-35) the answer to these questions is given.
“Give us this bread always”—asks the crowd. A similar sentence was pronounced even by the Samaritan woman: “Give me this water” (Jn 4:15). The woman did not understand what water was promised by Jesus. She kept thinking of the water from the well. Now, the people fall into the same mistake. They cannot detach their thoughts from the material bread.
Jesus makes it clear: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall never be hungry, and whoever believes in me shall never be thirsty” (v. 35).
The Bible often uses images of hunger and thirst to indicate the need for God. “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God,” sang the psalmist (Ps 42:3) and Jeremiah confessed to the Lord: “I devoured your word when they came. They were my happiness and I felt full of joy” (Jer 15:16).
Man longs for life and all that favors and feeds it. In this search of food, unfortunately, one is often mistaken, because the sages taught, “the hungry finds any bitter thing sweet” (Prv 27:7). The only bread that satisfies the need for happiness is the word of Christ. His gospel, and not the manna in the desert, is the bread that came down from heaven. So that it can communicate life, however, it should not be a text to be read and evaluated in a detached way, as it is done with the sayings of the sages of the past, but be treated as the bread that becomes life of those who eat it.
These statements of Jesus do not yet refer to the Eucharist. The bread is he himself as the Word of God.