THE BREAD OF LIFE
Ex 16:2-4,12-15; Eph 4:17,20-24; John 6:24-35
Last Sunday, we began five weeks of Gospels from the sixth chapter of John. This long chapter of 69 verses is the basis for much of what wet, Catholics, believe about the Eucharist. I would suggest reading the entire chapter and letting it speak to you.
Today, the 18th Sunday of Year B, we continue with this reflection. Today’s Gospel takes place the day after the events we heard about last Sunday. Last Sunday we heard about the multiplication of loaves, and the feeding of the 5000. Today, the people who had been fed search for Jesus. They find him in Capernaum, across the sea of Galilee. It would have been indecent for them to just blurt out, “Give us some more of yesterday’s food.” So, they simply asked diplomatically, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus was not deceived. He knew exactly why they were looking for him, and he told them so: “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.” Then, he went on to add an important message: “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Indeed, they really do not want him. They want free food. They see only the social aspect of Jesus’ work. But dwelling only on the social aspects may make Jesus look simply like some unrivalled social worker, or an excellent prototype of the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of Catholic Charities.
Towards the end of the passage, Jesus would reveal that the food he was talking about is HIMSELF. “I am the bread of life.”
- JESUS SPEAKS ABOUT WHAT REALLY MATTERS
Jesus uses this as an opportunity to speak about the food that really matters, the Bread of Life that God provides. Jesus lifts the discussion beyond the world of the perishable (worldly bread). He teaches us that there is something imperishable (heavenly bread); and it is worth dying for this eternal bread. Jesus’ social acts were only the ingredients needed to embark on this teaching journey. He tells them about a gift of food that they knew very well, the manna in the desert during the time of Moses. This theme of “manna” is what the 1st reading of today is based on. When the Israelites were travelling through the dry desert, God fed them by means of Manna. This was seen as the greatest gift of God. It was God’s daily testimony of his love and care for his People until they arrived at the Holy Place which he would give them. Jesus mentions that they ate the manna, but they were still hungry. Jesus would provide food that would not leave them hungry, the Bread of Life. (This discussion will intensify in the gospel reading of next Sunday.)
- JESUS CORRECTS ERRORS
The Jews erroneously stated their history, when they said: “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” Here, the Jews of John’s gospel attributed the manna from heaven to Moses. This is totally false. In Exodus 16:15: Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” THE GIVER OF THIS BREAD IS “THE LORD” AND NOT MOSES. Jesus corrects his contemporaries as follows: “Truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” Here, Jesus plays the role of the Supreme Rabbi and Teacher of Israel and corrects a “theological error” or a misinterpretation of sacred history. This is important because if error is not corrected it could be misconstrued as the truth. The manna-discussion, enshrined in the book of Exodus is brought in (Ex. 16:11-16). In this way, Jesus introduces the theme of “the bread from heaven.”
- THE BREAD FROM HEAVEN
Jesus declares to the Jews: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” There is a consensus between Jesus and the Jews that the bread in question came from heaven. If this is the case with the manna from the desert, how then can Jesus say that he is also the bread from heaven?
The similarity between Jesus and this bread is that both of them have a common origin – heaven. Secondly, both of them have a similar assignment, which is, TO GIVE LIFE. However, whereas the manna gave a temporary life because it was perishable, Jesus gives a permanent life because he is imperishable. In this case, if the Jews believed in the manna from God, they should also believe in Jesus as the one sent from God to give everlasting life to them.
Jesus introduces himself as the “Bread of God”, who came down from heaven and gives life to the world. He is both a feeder and life-giver. The True Bread means real, true, genuine, veracious, and sincere (without any pretense). It is the opposite of what is fictitious, counterfeit, imaginary, simulated or pretended. It contrasts realities with their semblances. It is the opposite of what is imperfect, defective, frail, or uncertain. This word is also used in the vine discussion, in John 15:1, in relation to the real vine. “I am the true vine”. Jesus is now moving the discussion away from the vanity and emptiness of this world to the immortality and imperishability of the other world. From now onward, he will begin to teach his disciples and followers about the one who came down from heaven and who would go back to heaven.
- THE IDENTITY OF JESUS
To talk about Jesus’ identity, we begin with a reference to last Sunday’s Gospel. We are told that, after Jesus multiplied the loaves, the people wanted to make Jesus their king. That was how they saw Jesus’ identity: Someone who could free them from Roman oppression, bring down their enemies. They wanted to carry Jesus away and crown him as their king. The interesting thing is that they are not wrong. They recognize at least part of Jesus’ identity. He is a king. He admits his kingship when he stands before Pilate. Jesus is meant to rule. So the people have it partly correct. They do not, however, see the whole picture. Jesus is meant to rule, but not for just a few years – and he does not belong to only one group. That is why Jesus withdraws from them – not that they are wrong, but they have too narrow a view of who he is.
This is quite characteristic of many Christians today. They want Jesus to have some place in their lives, but (like the people of his days) they want to limit him. That is the definition of heresy – not some new idea about Jesus, but a limited idea. “Heretics” emphasize one aspect of Jesus in a way that leaves everything else out. Some, for instance, want a Jesus who simply affirms them as they are. They want a Jesus who does not talk about REPENTANCE and SIN. Many others in modern culture (Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, etc.) see Jesus only as a good teacher. They are not wrong about that. Jesus is a great teacher of people. But, he teaches a lot more than just “feel good about yourself.” He calls us to repentance. There are some things we should feel bad about, that we need to change. And Jesus warns about consequences if we do not.
If these views of Jesus are too narrow, who then is he? To understand Jesus’ identity, we have to be alert to his “I am” statements. In these statements Jesus uses various metaphors to describe his person, character, and mission. “I am the Light of the World” (Jn 8:12, 9:5); “I am the Gate for the Sheep” (Jn 10:7); “I am the Good Shepherd” (Jn 10:11)”; “I am the True Vine” (Jn 15:1), etc. We have one in today’s Gospel. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” When you think about the depth and truth of these statements, you cannot help but recognize that Jesus is a lot more than just a king or guru or business partner. Jesus is the bread of life. We need him as we need food.
THE RELEVANCE OF THE “BREAD OF LIFE” DISCOURSE TO OUR LIVES
There are several important lessons to be drawn from the Gospel of today:
- a) In today’s gospel Jesus corrects errors. Similarly, in our own day, the Magisterial authority of the Church plays this role. It is important that an authority exists, who can “sieve the chaff from the wheat.” Somebody has to point out either that an error is in progress or that something is erroneous. All of us cannot play this role. Furthermore, it is important that we become “Truth-Sayers” wherever we are. Otherwise, falsehood can gain foothold and replace the truth.
- b) We live in an age where people are in search for “daily manna” at all costs. This inordinate search for MANNER affects our daily lives in many ways. In today’s society, the need to acquire more money is ever increasing. This is true of individuals, groups, associations, churches/houses of prayer, governments, etc. While it is understandable that these various bodies need to meet up with financial challenges, this has given birth to the endemic search for money. Today, many people, regardless of their devotion to Jesus, are seeking Jesus, “THE BREAD-GIVER”, and not Jesus, “THE LIFE-GIVER,” the real bread of life. Accordingly, many churches are now proclaiming Jesus as a business commodity in order to get perishable “bread.” Church institutions are gradually becoming tithe preachers, instead of gospel preachers.
This is the same attitude that has given rise to the “Name it and claim it movement” of the prosperity preachers. Money is now largely what quantifies a successful Gospel ministry. Many Christians do not know which way to go. There are charlatans in our midst, skillful impostors, who are also preaching Christ but for sordid gain. Jesus boldly confronts them in these words: “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.” (John 6:26-27).
- c) At the level of ordinary Christians, we still have “manna-seeking Christians.” Such Christians pay attention to religion when they are in trouble. Once the problem is over, religion has played its role and it is over till the next problem arises. In such situations, the priest, pastor or, “powerful man of God” is seen as a kind of “juju priest,” who prepares a “talisman,” or “charms,” or amulets or “concoctions” to solve varying degrees of human problems. The search for the “holy man of God” becomes a search for human solutions and rarely a search for how to lead a holy life. Also, the search for “anointing water” and the blessing of “special oils” for anointing is on the rise in our local church. With this mindset, the childless seeks God because he/she is looking for a miracle child; the jobless is attending church to get job; so is the spinster or bachelor looking for a life-partner; the desperate are looking for victory over their enemies; or even the physically handicapped taking to crusades after crusades to receive miracles. It is time to set everything aside and seek Jesus, THE BREAD OF LIFE. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and everything else will be added onto you” (Matt 6:33).
- d) This gospel applies also to SECULAR LIVING. Praise singers usually do their job with vested interest. Once they are assured that there is a form of “manna” to be received from some financially powerful person, they sing his/her praises. But once this “manna” dries up, their praises dry up as well. In our African context, the more money one gives to dependents, the more respect one has. But once this monetary help evaporates, respect usually evaporates too. Here, it is not about YOU but about THE MONEY or THE MATERIAL THINGS YOU GIVE OUT. Needless to say, many of those coming to you are coming because of what they can get from you. Watch out! Many people still come to Jesus with the wrong motives.
Today we have learned something about Jesus’ identity. JESUS IS THE BREAD OF LIFE. (This theme will be further developed in the gospel texts of the coming weeks) Jesus comforts us in our troubles, but he does not say he will affirm us no matter what we do. He helps us have a better life, but he does not guarantee financial success. He teaches the purpose of life, but he does not give secret knowledge to make us superior to others. He is meant to rule our lives and our world, but he does not allow us to use him for personal political ends. What he tells us is this: “I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE.” If we come to him, we will never hunger and thirst for anything else. He is the Bread of Life. That is Jesus’ identity. Today, we are left to answer this question: who is Jesus for me?