The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Bread of Life Discourse II

Today’s readings

My niece Molly used to say that she wanted to open a restaurant when she grows up. She even had a name all picked out for it: “Hungry.” That makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Where are you going to go when you’re hungry? Well, to Hungry, of course! I thought about that this week because today’s Liturgy of the Word speaks to those of us who are hungry – which is to say, all of us.

There’s a lot of hunger in the readings today. First we have the Israelites, fresh from their escape from slavery in Egypt, finding that they are hungry as they wander through the desert. I think we can understand their hunger. But what is hard to understand is the content of their grumbling about it. They say that they would rather be back in Egypt, eating bread and the meat of the “fleshpots.” Why on earth did God have to drag them out into the desert only to kill them by hunger and let them die there? They would rather be in slavery in Egypt than be in the situation in which they find themselves. Please understand how serious this grumbling is: it is a complete rejection of God, God who has done everything miraculous to save them from abject slavery.

Not so different is the clamoring of the people in today’s Gospel reading. Today we pick back up our reflection on the “Bread of Life Discourse,” the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. Because Mark’s Gospel, which we are hearing from this liturgical year, is a little shorter than the others, we get five wonderful weeks to take a little journey into John’s Eucharistic theology during these summer days. We began last week, with the famous story of Jesus feeding the multitudes. Today’s story picks up where last week’s left off: the people were so impressed by Jesus feeding so many with so little that they pursue him across the sea to Capernaum.

Why do they follow him? Well, they want more food, of course. But the real feeding he intends is not just barley loaves, but instead something a little more enduring. So Jesus tells them that the best way they can do God’s will is to believe in him – the one God sent. So they have the audacity to ask him what kind of sign he can do so that they can believe in him. Can you believe that? He just finished feeding thousands of people with five loaves and two fish, and they want to see a sign? Instead, Jesus gives them a spiritual sign, a challenge really. He tells them to believe in him because “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

Jesus wants to get to the root cause of their hunger … and ours too, by the way. So I think the starting point is that we have to be clear about what it is we hunger for. And that question is very pressing on all of us today. Every one of us comes here hungering for something. Our hungers may be very physical: some here may be unemployed or underemployed, or perhaps our hunger is for physical healing of some kind. But perhaps our hungers are a bit deeper too: a relationship that is going badly, or a sense that we aren’t doing what we should be or want to be doing with our lives. Our hunger very well may be very spiritual as well: perhaps our relationship with God is not very developed or our prayer life has become stale. Whatever the hunger is, we need to be honest and name it right now, in the stillness of our hearts.

Naming that hunger, we then have to do what Jesus encouraged the crowds to do: believe. Believe that God can feed our deepest hungers, heal our deepest wounds, bind up our brokenness and calm our restless hearts. Believe that Jesus is, in fact, the Bread of Life, the bread that will never go stale or perish, the bread that will never run out, or disappear like manna in the heat of the day. Jesus is the Bread that can feed more than our stomachs but also our hearts and souls. The Psalmist sings, “The Lord gave them bread from heaven.” And we know that bread is the most wonderful food of all, because it is the Body of Christ. Amen!

Monday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

When God made the human person, he put into him and her a hunger and a thirst that could only be filled up with God.  God made us for himself, because he is Love itself and Love must always have an object of that love.  As Saint Augustine said well, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  The Psalmist also says that today in his words:

As the hind longs for the running waters,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
Athirst is my soul for God, the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God?

Given that all people are created with this spiritual hunger, it should not have come as a huge shock to the circumcised believers that many Gentiles were turning to follow Christ.  Christ showed us the most perfect way to the Father, the only One who can fill up all the longings of the human heart.  Every conversion story is a return of the soul to our God; a filling up of the heart with what it really lacks.

We try to fill up our lives with all kinds of things.  We turn on the television to drown out the silence.  We seek refuge in food and drink and career and even darker things.  But all of this is nothing more than a misguided attempt to fill up our lives with things that do not matter.  We can only fill ourselves up with what we truly long for: God himself.

 

Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It was shortly after lunch that I finished this homily, and who could blame me?  With all this talk of “juicy, rich food” and wedding banquets, and even St. Paul saying that he knew what it was like to be well-fed and what it was like to be hungry, whose mind wouldn’t turn to food?  And that’s really okay, because all of us have come here [today / tonight] because we are hungry, but maybe hungry in a different way.

Many people, when asked why they pick one church over another, say that they do it because it is at that church that they are “spiritually fed.”  And that is certainly one of the tasks of the church, to feed those who hunger with the spiritual food that comes from our Lord Jesus Christ.  And I think that’s the lens through which we have to see this rather curious Gospel parable today.

When our modern ears hear this parable, there are surely things that seem odd about it, aren’t there?  First of all, as the wedding banquet is finished, the guests have to be summoned to the feast.  But in those days, they probably had received a formal invitation previously, and then had to be let know when the feast was ready.  But then we come to this very curious issue of the invited guests not wishing to attend.  What could possibly be keeping them away.  Even if they weren’t thrilled by the invitation and honored to attend, you’d think they would show up anyway because of who it is that is inviting them.  You would think they would want to keep the king happy.

And many of us have been in the position of going to some social event because it is expected of us, I am sure.  I myself remember clearly attending events for work in my pre-priesthood days because clients or other VIPs were in the area.  Even in seminary, we were often “invited” to events that really were mandatory, which always used to drive me nuts.  But we can all relate in some way to attending some social event because it is expected of us, and not necessarily because we would choose to be there.

And that makes what happens next even stranger.  Did they really think they could mistreat and kill the king’s messengers without any kind of consequences?  No king worth his salt would let such a disrespectful challenge to his authority go unpunished.

But now the banquet is still ready and the guests are well, unavailable shall we say…  So the king sends the messengers out to all the public places in order to invite whomever they find.  And who are they going to find?  Well, probably pretty much what you’d expect: peddlers, butchers, beggars, prostitutes, tax collectors, shop lifters, the physically impaired and sick … in short, not the sort of people you’d expect to find at a king’s wedding banquet.

So, to me, it’s not all that shocking that one of them is not appropriately dressed for the banquet.  What is shocking is that the rest of them are, right?  Some biblical scholars have suggested that perhaps the king, knowing who was going to show up, may have provided appropriate attire, and that one person refused to put it on.  Certainly if that were true, we could all understand the king throwing that person out.

Putting the parable in context, the banquet is the kingdom of God.  The distinguished invited guests are the people to whom Jesus addressed the parable: the chief priests and the elders of the people.  These have all rejected the invitation numerous times, and would now make that rejection complete by murdering the messenger, the king’s son, Christ Jesus.  Because of this, God would take the kingdom from them, letting them go on to their destruction, and offer the kingdom to everyone that would come, possibly indicating the Gentiles, but certainly including everyone whose way of life would have been looked down upon by the chief priests and elders: prostitutes, criminals, beggars, the blind and lame.  All of these would be ushered in to the banquet, being given the new beautiful wedding garment which is baptism, of course, and treated to a wonderful banquet, which is the Eucharist.  Those who further reject the king by refusing to don that pristine garment may indeed be cast out, but to everyone who accepts the grace given them, a sumptuous banquet awaits.

Can you imagine the hunger that those beggars, prostitutes, criminals, blind and lame people had?  Think about how filthy were the garments they had to be wearing.  Yet they are all washed clean in the waters of baptism, fed to satisfaction on the Bread of Life.

If by now you’re thinking that the beggars, prostitutes, criminals, blind and lame are you and me, well, now you’re beginning to understand what Jesus is getting at.  Our sinfulness leaves us impoverished, and hardly worthy to attend the Banquet of the Lord.  It would only be just for our God to leave us off the invitation list.  But our God will do no such thing.  He washes us in the waters of baptism, clothing us in Christ, bringing us to the Banquet, and feeding us beyond our wildest imaginings.  We come here desiring to be spiritually fed, and our God offers us the very best: his own Son’s body and blood.

[Today we join with our RCIA candidates for full communion, who are themselves answering the king’s invitation tonight.  They are one with us in baptism already, and in the days to come will complete the formation that will bring them along with us to the table of the Lord.  Their presence here stirs our own hearts, reminding us to keep that wedding garment pristine, and approach the Lord’s table with renewed love and devotion.]

As we come to the Banquet today, we must certainly be overjoyed that our names are on the list.  We have been summoned and the banquet is prepared.  Now we approach the Banquet of the Lord with gratitude for the invitation, which is certainly undeserved, but just as certainly the cause of all our joy.  We sing this joy with our Psalmist today: “Only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for years to come.”

Tuesday of the Third Week of Easter

Today's readings [display_podcast]

At our core, we all want peace and security in our lives.  We don’t want rough waters, or pain, or discord in our families, and that’s all understandable.  I think it’s that very same sentiment that is behind our Scripture readings today.

The Jewish people, the elders and the scribes, the religious establishment of the time, had their laws and customs, and for them, following those laws and customs represented a peaceful and secure life.  So they were not at all open to any kind of teaching that challenged their way of life.  Stephen points out that whenever a prophet called them to a deeper reality, a deeper sense of God’s call, rather than accept that teaching and reform their lives, their ancestors instead murdered the prophets.  And so their response was to prove his point.  They could not accept Stephen’s own prophecy that Christ in his glory was the key to human salvation.  So they stone him to death, with the tacit approval of a man named Saul, a man for whom God had future plans.

The crowd in the Gospel reading wants peace and security too.  They had recently been fed in the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  But they had missed the point.  They wanted just the bread they could eat for today; they didn’t get and didn’t want to get the bread Jesus really wanted them to have – the bread of eternal life.  And so they ask today for another feeding sign.  Just like Moses was able to provide bread from heaven, they wanted Jesus to feed their physical hunger too.  But Jesus is more interested in their spiritual hunger, and longs to provide that in himself, he who is the bread of life.

But if all we hunger for is peace and security, bread for today, then we will certainly miss receiving the Bread of Life.  Our hearts have to be open and our desires have to be for the deepest longings.  Then we can receive our Savior who wants to give us everything we truly need.  “I am the bread of life;” he says to us.  “Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”