All the readings in today’s Mass speak of the fact of human desire. The Israelites in the desert are hungry, so are the people by the lakeside, with Jesus. And in the Epistle St. Paul warns of corrupted desires. In all the readings, God teaches us that our desires are ultimately directed to Him, who alone can really satisfy us. Why is this? Because our desires are infinite, and no finite world can really satisfy us.
Lets look at what the Lord teaches by focusing especially on the Gospel, but also including insights from the other readings. There are three basic parts to the teaching on desire.
I. THE HUNGER OF DESIRE – The Gospel text begins where last week’s gospel left off. Jesus had multiplied the loaves and fishes and satisfied the crowd with abundant food. After working this miracle he slipped away and headed across the lake to Capernaum. Today’s text begins: When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
Thus we begin simply by noting the hunger of the people. Allow hunger here to represent all our desires. Desires, of themselves are good and God-given. It is their hunger, their desire, that makes them seek for Jesus. Further, their desire is very deep and strong, for they are willing to journey a significant distance to find Jesus.
As such, desire has something important to teach us. It does not take much to note that our desires not only motivate us, but that they are infinite, unlimited. For no matter how much we get, we simply want more. We may experience some momentary satisfaction with certain things like food, but it doesn’t last long. And, taken together, our desires are limitless.
But this limitless, infinite quality demonstrates God’s existence, for a finite world cannot give what it doesn’t have, namely infinite longing. Thus, our infinite longings point to God and must come from him. Our hearts, with all their infinite longings teach us that we where made for God and will not find rest apart from God.
Purification needed – Thus the journey of the people around the lake to find Jesus is good in itself. But as we shall see, their hunger needs purification and a more proper focus. They do not seek Jesus as God, but rather as “Bread King.” They seek mere bread, mere food for their stomachs. But the Lord wants to teach them that all their desires really point higher. And that leads us to the second movement of this Gospel.
II. THE HEALING OF DESIRE- As we have already noted, desire is good and God-given. But, in our fallen condition, our desires are often unruly, and our darkened minds also misinterpret what our desire is really telling us.
They are unruly because we desire many things out of proportion to what we need, and to what is right and good.
Our minds are darkened to the degree that we consistently turn to the finite world in a futile attempt to have it satisfy us, and, when it fails, we keep thinking that more and more of the finite world will satisfy our infinite longing. This is futile and the sign of a confused and darkened mind, because the world cannot possibly satisfy us. More on this in a moment.
For now, Jesus must work with these bread-seekers (us) and help them realize that their desire for bread is about much more than bread, it is about God, and He is the Lord whom they rally seek. Lets observe how he works to heal their desires.
A. The Doctor is in – the text says, And when they found him across the sea they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” – Their question is somewhat gratuitous since they know exactly when he got there, and they are simply trying to strike up a conversation in order to get more bread. As we shall see, Jesus calls them on it. But note this much, they are looking for Jesus and they do call him “Rabbi.” Both these facts are good. Their desire, though imperfectly experienced, has brought them to Jesus who, as Lord, can now teach them (and us) about what their longing is really saying. The doctor is in.
B. The Diagnosis – The text says, Jesus answered them and said, “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. In other words, “You are not looking for me because you saw signs and want to believe in me, but because you want your bellies filled.”
And this is our essential problem, that we focus on our lower desires, our bodily needs, and neglect our higher spiritual desires. We have a very deep and infinite longing for God, for his love, for his goodness, beauty and truth. But instead of seeking these things, we think another hamburger will do. Or if not that, a new car, a new house, and new job, more money, more sex, more power, more popularity. Yes, we think, if we just get enough of all this “stuff” will finally be happy. We will not, it is a lie. A finite world cannot satisfy an infinite longing.
In the Second reading from today’s Mass St. Paul warns: I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds….that you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds (Eph. 4:17, 20-23)
Note St. Paul’s use of the word “futility.” The Greek word is ματαιότης (mataiotes) here meaning unreality, purposelessness, ineffectiveness, a kind of aimlessness due to lacking purpose or any meaningful end; nonsense because it is transitory and not enduring.
In other words it is exactly what the Lord is getting at, in telling them that their desires are messed up. It is the sign of a darkened mind to pile up finite, earthly goods, in a futile attempt to satisfy infinite desires.
St. Paul goes on to say that some of our desires are deceitful. They are so because they bewitch us into thinking our life is about them and that if we attend to them only, we will be happy. We will not, this is a deception. Simply getting more food, sex, drink, houses, money, power, marrying the prom queen, etc., cannot cut the deal. These are finite things, our desires are ultimately infinite.
So the doctor, along with his assistant, St. Paul has made the diagnosis. You and I are seeking bread (not evil in itself) when we should also be seeking He who is the True Bread of Life. They say to us, in effect, “You seek the consolations of God, but not the God of all consolation. You want good things, but do not seek the giver of every good and perfect gift.”
So we have our diagnosis. Our desires are our of wack and/or our darkened minds misinterpret the message our lower desires are really giving us. Next come the directives:
C. The Directives – The Lord gives three essential directives:
1. Fix your focus – Jesus says, Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. Here the point being that we should attend more to things that endure unto life eternal, than to the passing things of this world.
Most of us do just the opposite. The passing world and its demands get all our attention and things like prayer, scripture, sacraments, building our relationship with the Lord, learning his will and obeying it all get short shrift. We attend to “the man” and tell God to take a number. Kind of dumb, really.
The passing world, a sinking ship, gets all our attention. And calling on the one who can rescue us, learning his saving directives and following them, gets little attention. Instead we “rearrange deck chairs on the titanic,” indulge ourselves on the “ledo deck” and get angry that we don’t have a first class cabin.
The Lord says, Hey! Fix your focus! That ship is going down. What then? Why obsess about that stuff? Turn to me and listen carefully, I alone can save you.” Fix your focus: Less worry about things that perish, more focus on things that last and can save.
2. Firm Up your Faith – Jesus goes on to say: For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.” So they said to him, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.“
Okay, so the ship is going down, the world is perishing, so how DO we get saved from it? And the answer is faith.
But faith here must be understood as more than answering a mere altar call or reciting a creed, and surely it is more than “lip-service.” Faith here is understood as being in a life-giving, transformative relationship with Jesus Christ.
Real faith puts us into a relationship with the Lord that changes the way we walk, that gives us a new mind and heart, new priorities, indeed, a whole new self. To be in a relationship with Christ, through faith is to be changed by him. And it is this change, this obedience of faith, this transformation that saves us and gets us ready to meet God.
So the Lord says “Come to me and firm up your faith.”
3. Find your Food – But as the discussion with them continues, they show themselves to be a stubborn lot. and they say: “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”
In effect they are still back to demanding bread. As if to say, “Sure fine, all that higher stuff is fine, but I want bread for my belly. So give me that and then we’ll talk about all that higher stuff and that bread that endures and does not perish. If you want me to have faith, give me bread for my belly.”
So they’re still more interested in the stuff of a sinking ship.
So Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” And in saying this, Jesus is saying, in effect, “Don’t you see the ancient bread in the wilderness was about GOD. It was not merely food to fill their bellies, it was food to draw them to deeper and saving faith. It was food to strengthen them for the journey to the Promised Land. And so it must be for you that you understand that even your lower desires are ultimately about God. If mere grain is your food, you are doomed for that food perishes and you along with it. But if God himself is your food, now you can be saved for I, the Lord and the Bread that endures and draws you with me to eternal life.”
And in these ways the Lord seeks to heal their desires. But now comes the main point.
III. THE HEART OF DESIRE – So they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.“
And thus we see that the Lord now makes it plain – I AM your food. I AM the fulfillment of all your desires. I AM the only one who can really fulfill your infinite longings, for I AM the Lord and I AM infinite.Yes, I AM your true bread.
Question: And then the Lord adds that if we come to him we will never be hungry or thirsty again. This says to us that he is the fulfillment of our infinite longings, but it does raise a question. For even those of us who come to him in faith and receive him weekly, even daily in Holy Communion, who are in a life changing, transformative and saving relationship, we still hunger and thirst. So what does the Lord mean in saying we will never again hunger or thirst?
To some extent we must see that Jesus is employing an ancient “Jewish way of speaking” which looks to the end of things and adopts them as now fully present. There is no time to fully develop this here and how it is used elsewhere, but in effect it is the capacity to see things as “already but not yet” and begin to live out of the “already” here and now.
Thus Jesus is saying, in more modern terms, “To the degree that you enter into a life changing and transformative life with me, and to the degree that I more and more become your bread, become that which satisfies you, your desires will come more and more into line and you will find your deepest desires being satisfied to a greater and greater degree, with each passing day. You will find in your life a satisfaction that a new iPad could never give, that money, power, sex, possessions and all other passing goods could never give. And one day, this satisfaction will be full and never pass away when you are with me in heaven.”
Of this I am a witness, for with each passing day in my life of faith with the Lord, I can truly say I am more and more satisfied. The things of this passing world are of less interest to me, and the things of God and heaven are increasingly the apple of my eye. I have a way to go, but the Lord has been good to me and his promises are true for I have test them in the laboratory of my own life.
The old song is increasingly mine which says: I heard my mother say, Give me Jesus. You may have all this world, just give me Jesus.
In the weeks ahead the Lord Jesus will develop how he is bread for us in more than a metaphorical way. Rather he is our True Bread in the Eucharist and the Bread he will give is his flesh for the life of the world, yes, his Body and blood are our saving food for the journey to the Promised Land.
I am mindful of an old gospel hymn that I’d like to give a Catholic spin. For I have it on the best of authority that when Jesus was speaking to the crowd in today’s Gospel he started to tap his toe and sing this song: 😉