• Ex 16:2-4, 12-15
• Ps 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54
• Eph 4:17, 20-24
• Jn 6:24-35
“The sign of the feeding of the thousands,” wrote Monsignor Romano Guardini in The Lord, “shatters the narrowness that has been closing in on Jesus.”
What does that mean? Those in the crowds following Jesus viewed him through a cramped and selfish set of lenses. Having witnessed amazing signs, they wondered how they could benefit materially or politically, perhaps by setting Jesus up as king (Jn. 6:15). Having seen bread multiplied before their eyes, they could think only of getting even more, and of satisfying their physical hunger.
The shattering was, in today’s Gospel reading, going to become a sort of spiritual explosion, which would begin to destroy mere material ambitions and challenge the people’s understanding (or absence of understanding) of God’s ways. Although Jesus had compassion for the hungry crowds and fed them, he knew far more was needed.
The Son of God did not become man just to fill stomachs, but to awaken, save, and fill souls. “Our Lord made bread in plenty from just a little bread in the desert and changed water into wine at Cana,” wrote Ephrem the Syrian, “He first sought to accustom their mouths to his bread and his wine until the time would come for him to give them his blood as well as his body.”
Just as he spoke of natural birth with Nicodemus and natural water with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus began, in this instance, with natural bread. But it was just a starting point, for he was intent on showing the people their spiritual starvation and their need for heavenly nourishment. And so he took a further step when he offered a stiff rebuke. “Amen, amen, I say to you,” he declared as he exposed their earth-bound thinking, “you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”
This is the first of the four “Amen, amen” statements made in John 6. Each builds on the previous; each is a profound pronouncement. The Hebrew word “amen” (sometimes translated “truly” or “verily”) indicated a solemn statement of truth and veracity. It was, in essence, a sacred oath. In this first instance, the rebuke was followed by an exhortation to not work for food that perishes, but “for food that endures for eternal life.” What is required? What is needed? Belief in the One sent by God.
The response to this call to faith was astounding: “What sign can you do …? What can you do?” They had seen him multiply five loaves and two fishes to feed thousands and they still demand a further sign, further proof! Their reference to their ancestors in the desert with Moses is, of course, quite ironic, for the Israelite community—as today’s Old Testament reading recounts—continually doubted and second-guessed the authority of Moses. Given manna—“bread from heaven”—the Israelites had asked, “What is this?” (Ex. 16:15).
Their descendents, likewise, failed to recognize the supernatural character of the Incarnate Word and the heavenly origin of the God-man. In order to comprehend where he was from, they had to be corrected about Who gave the bread from heaven. It was God the Father, not Moses, who sustained the people in the wilderness.
The woman at the well, not yet comprehending the spiritual nature of Jesus’ words, had said, “Sir, give me this water” (Jn. 4:15). In a similar manner the people in the crowd insist, “Sir, give us this bread always.” But they, like their fathers, still did not understand “that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3). Having eaten the bread miraculously multiplied before them by the hands of God, they still tried to force God into a box—a lunch box.
That box—the destructive illusion of selfishness, political schemes, and materialism—was shattered with a few simple words: “I am the bread of life.” The new manna was a man!
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the August 2, 2009, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
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