Look beyond

Bread of life is the theme that dominates four Sundays this month, and it actually began last month (July 26) with the sign of the multiplication of the loaves.

Signs is a particularly Johannine name for miracles. Each sign was intended to reveal something of the person and purpose of Jesus and to challenge and encourage those who witnessed the sign to believe -- or to deepen their faith.

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Eighteenth Sunday in
Ordinary Time
Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15
Psalm 78
Ephesians 4:17, 20-24
John 6:24-35

In the sign of the multiplication of the barley loaves and dried fish, Jesus was revealed as bread from heaven. God sent him to nourish humankind with the bread of his teaching and the bread of his very self so that all might know God's love and be saved.

In order to grasp this truth, Jesus' contemporaries had to look beyond the gift of mere bread to recognize its deeper significance. Jesus was not just providing a picnic lunch for the crowd; he was giving his very self to them.

In Jesus' society, many people lived on a subsistence level. If the head of the family did not work that day, there would be no supper on the table that evening. Can you imagine the joy and relief that a steady supply of bread would bring? Surely, we can understand how some of Jesus' contemporaries could get caught up in the sign of the bread and not look beyond it to appreciate what was being revealed.

Some among them also thought he might be the promised prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15), who mediated with God so the desert travelers would be fed with manna and quail. Or perhaps Jesus was a new Elisha, who had fed 100 men with 20 loaves of bread (2 Kings 4:42-44).

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Jesus, who knew the human heart intimately, was aware that the people had come in search of him in order to satisfy their physical hungers. However, he was attempting to whet their appetite for the true bread from heaven, who gives life to the world. In the first of several similar statements, Jesus declares, "I am the bread of life." Speaking in the same manner as God, Jesus is, in effect, identifying himself with God. Jesus can do this because he and the Father are one (John 10:30) and he possesses the life-giving power of the Father.

In today's first reading, the authors of Exodus made it clear that the gift of manna and quail in the desert served three purposes: Not only did it satisfy the physical needs of the people as they made their way to the land promised them by God, it also revealed the power and compassion of God. "In the evening twilight, you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread, so that you may know that I, the Lord, am your God" (Exodus 16:12).

As they ate their fill, they were to look beyond the food to the One who had given it, and believe. To cultivate their faith and trust, God told the desert travelers to take only what they needed for the day and rely on God to provide for all their tomorrows.

With the grace and strength God affords us, we who eat the bread of life are able to follow the Ephesians author's advice to put away our old selves and put on the new selves of righteousness, holiness and truth. We who look beyond the bread to see and believe in Jesus, our Lord and our God, are also challenged to look beyond our own concerns in order to see and tend to the needs of others, especially the poor, for whom the church has declared a preferential option.

Centuries ago, in 980, a persistent famine prompted St. Ethelwold, bishop of Winchester, to sell the gold and silver vessels of his cathedral church in order to alleviate the hungers of the poor.

He explained his actions in this way: "There is no reason that the senseless temples of God should abound in riches and the living temples of the Holy Spirit starve for hunger."

Nor is there any reason that the hungry among us should not be not fed. After all, said the ancient author of Ephesians, we have learned Christ; we have been taught in him. He is the bread of life. Therefore, all of us who call ourselves Christian are to be authentic disciples, worthy of the name and eager to share our bread with others.

[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]

This story appeared in the July 17-30, 2015 print issue under the headline: Look beyond .

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