Commentary to the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 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 called "the old become 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 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," and "to be happy." Only the 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 delusion, 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 were in quiet silence and the night was in the middle of its course" (Wis 18:14), he sent his word, "Whatever has come to be, found life in him; a 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."
First Reading: Exodus 16:2-4,12-15
According to the current scientific criteria, some healings are unexplainable. For this, if a saint was prayed to, recovery is attributed to his/her intercession. Others, those obtained with the administration of drugs, are considered a cure through medical sciences and do not call the supernatural into question. Yet one wonders if those cared for by a doctor should be less grateful to the Lord: is the second grace perhaps inferior to the first?
For those who believe, all events, even the most ordinary, talk of God. Lovely dawn, the scent of narcissus, the smile of a poor person, the cry of a mother, or a child's pain 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 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 (Ex3:14). During the exodus, his presence was apparent at all times.
In today's reading, two facts that Israel read with the eyes of faith are related: the quails and the manna. They relate to 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 for Egypt (vv. 2-3). Significantly, 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 a person who, having abandoned the state of sin, slavery of vices, and unruly passions, embarks 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 customary to hear of the longing 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 harsh 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 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, further evidence of his presence.
On the one hand, the gift of manna was a help; on the other, it 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 many goods more significant than the daily need, to settle for the "daily bread," showing that she placed complete 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 the present and 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." The one who prays thus refuses to accumulate food "for the next day," while those around are hungry "today," thus freeing 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. Rebbi 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) clarifies 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 gift source and called on the people to look upward, to God (v. 15), in the expectation that he would send from heaven his other bread, which communicates imperishable life (Dt 8:2-3).
Second Reading: Ephesians 4:17,20-24
The second part of the Letter to the Ephesians is dedicated to moral appeals. In today's passage, the author invites us to draw the practical consequences of the conversion to the Lord. Paul 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 entirely ignored. The shepherd of souls here seems worried that a Christian has become "a new creation," falls back to the former vices, surrenders to lust, and lets himself be guided by the greed of money.
After presenting the diverse adverse effects typical of pagan life, the author sums up the morale of one who has known Christ with a straightforward 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 baptism day, 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).
Gospel: John 6:24-35
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 by force 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 how to introduce the crowd to understand the signs of bread, Jesus withdrew to the mountain (Jn6:15), 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 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 for his word or 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 clear 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, to 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, one's 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, and protection against misfortunes. In specific sectors of the Church, the proliferation of practices related to magic to achieve healing and secure the favor of the Lord proves that the misunderstanding regarding the "bread" that Jesus offers is always present. Even the Samaritan woman did not understand that the Master was giving her 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 collecting the twelve baskets of leftover bread, we would have expected a reference to the fish; instead, there was nothing. They had appeared and then not remembered even in the long discourse of Jesus.
The symbolism of the "five loaves" and the "two fish" will be evident 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" (Deut 8:3), and the invitation addressed to the inexperienced of the Wisdom of God, "Come, eat of the bread" (Prov 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 to complement the Torah. They helped to understand better 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), that is Jesus, whose word is all the food that God has given to his people. Whoever has him does not need other bread; does not need other revelations. This symbolism that he 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 asks 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 it 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 "I believe" in her husband, she means that she trusts him blindly, shares his choices, is willing to risk her life with him, being sure that she could be happy with no other.
Jesus asks this blind trust. That is the reason why the Jews, as a condition to trust him, demand of him concrete evidence, a great miracle (vv. 30-33). The fact of the loaves is not enough because Moses did so much more; he gave manna for a meal not just for five thousand men; he has fed an entire people for forty years.
Jesus clarifies that 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 just as rust corrodes or as thieves steal the treasures accumulated in this world. Still, 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 provided. "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).
People long for life, and all that favors and feeds it. Unfortunately, in this food search, one is often mistaken because the sages taught, "the hungry find any bitter thing sweet" (Prov 27:7). The only bread that satisfies the need for happiness is the word of Christ. His Gospel, not the manna in the desert, is the bread coming 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 for those who eat it.
These statements of Jesus do not yet refer to the Eucharist. The bread is he as the Word of God.