We live in times that tend to emphasize the physical and the material. And this affects even those of us who strive to have a spiritual life. Too easily we assess our blessings in ways that emphasize the material more so than the spiritual. We feel blessed if our income is good and our physical health intact, but many seem to have little esteem for spiritual gifts like wisdom (which often comes from suffering), knowledge of the truth, and fortitude or courage.
Our prayers often skew heavily toward asking God to improve our finances, mend our health, or alleviate some discomfort in this world. While it is not wrong to pray for these sorts of things, at times it almost sounds as though we are saying to God, “Make this world comfortable enough for me and I’ll just stay here forever.” We’re a little bit like the older son in the story of the Prodigal Son, who wants a kid goat so he can celebrate with his friends rather than to go into the party and celebrate with his father (Luke 15).
But the true goal in life is not to celebrate with our friends, it is to celebrate with the Father! Yet you’d never know it from the way many pray. “King Jesus is a-listening” all day long just to hear some sinner pray for wisdom, greater love for God, deeper prayer, greater longing for spiritual things, chastity, generosity, proper priorities, and so forth.
We also see something of this in the first temptation in the desert: Satan tries to tempt the hungry Jesus to turn stones into bread. Satan’s goal is to try to distract Jesus from His fundamental mission as Redeemer and to have Him use His power to satisfy His own physical hunger rather than to liberate souls.
In and of itself, satisfying hunger is not evil. We all need to eat in order to have the strength to do what God asks. But Jesus, of course, had gone into the desert to fast as a way to strengthen His soul and prepare for His mission.
There are things that are simply more important than bodily hunger and other physical needs. Ultimately, the needs of our soul are more important than those of our body. And thus if food or drink or sex, while not evil in themselves, endanger our soul or hinder our spiritual mission, they should be refused.
Jesus counters Satan by saying that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Bread alone, the physical world alone, does not satisfy our needs. Man’s life does not consist in possessions (Lk 12:15). We are not only physical beings; we have a soul that it has its hungers, and the Word of God must answer these hungers.
This is balanced. But Satan would have us off balance; he would have us overly concerned—even obsessed with—the needs of the body and other worldly concerns.
Parents, for example, often pay close attention to the academic grades of their children, but many show little concern for the spiritual lives of their children or important aspects of their moral lives. Our culture shows great concern for overcoming physical maladies such as heart disease, AIDS, cancer, and so forth, but there’s little attention paid to the spiritual and moral maladies that often underlie many of our social ills and even contribute to our physical illnesses.
Jesus does not deny that there is a place for bread and the physical needs and daily life that the bread symbolizes. He merely says that man does not live by bread alone, and that the Word of God, the truth of God, the beauty, the holiness, and the glory of God, is also to be food for our soul.
Father Livio Fanzaga has eloquently written,
With the cutting sword of the Word of God, Jesus removes the mask of one of the most current and devastating Satanic lies. Man is not an animal trapped in the short-term cycle of matter. He is a spiritual being who needs to find divine truth even before material food. Never before as in our time Satan has taken succeeded in promising happiness through material good … Man is reduced to the hungers of his body … [And thus] the liar succeeds in depriving man of his dignity, his beauty, his greatness, and his immortal and divine destiny (The Deceiver, p. 118-119).
For the Church, too, there are great temptations in this materialistic time. Great esteem is given to the corporal works of mercy such as feeding the sick, clothing the naked, and so forth. It is clear that these are important, necessary, and glorious works without which we cannot be saved (Matt 25:31ff). And yet, seldom are the Spiritual Works of Mercy mentioned today in Church settings. But they are essential and, frankly, foundational to the corporal works of mercy.
Here too, Father Fanzaga has much wisdom for us:
Satan’s temptation to turn stones into bread quote is a permanent temptation for the Church until the end of time. The Church is certainly placed in this world and shares its joys and sufferings, hopes and defeats … The Church has always promoted the human growth of society, but her ends are the eternal salvation of souls. The temptation to secularize the Church, orienting her towards human promotion and removing her from her supernatural objectives, is among the most subtle and insidious. This temptation has led many parishes and religious communities to abandon prayer, catechesis, sacrifice and the supernatural means of the apostolate, involving themselves in social activities that empty the Christian presence of its meaning … [It is an] earthly messianism, a Christianity reduced to humanitarian religion, a Church that becomes a sort of Red Cross of the world (The Deceiver, p 117).
It is the subtle purpose of Satan to distract the Church from her primary mission so that he can continue to wreak spiritual havoc while the Church’s attention is directed elsewhere.
It is a kind of food fight: Bread for the body rather than the Bread of Life unto eternal salvation. Matter is all that matters. Satan does not trap us with evil, but with what is good yet out of proportion. Bread … bread … bread! Bread is all that matters. Meanwhile the famished soul is neglected.
Jesus rebuked the men of his day who sought him out for another free meal of multiplied loaves: Jesus answered them and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs [to have faith], but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.” (Jn 6:27).
The bread had become their idol, for they valued it more than the very God who stood before them and provided it in the first place. They had no faith for Jesus, only desire for bread. Properly understood, their desire could have led them to Jesus, but they could not see past the bread to the Bread of Life who stood before them. Indeed not by bread alone, but by every Word from the mouth of God, by the Word made flesh, are we to live.
10 Replies to “Food Fight: A meditation on our struggle to see past our worldly hunger”
Good points! I don’t think I ever prayed for wisdom, patience or chastity until I had to undergo a miserable divorce. I now see that this disastrous event was necessary for my salvation.
Also, I was talking to someone about Mother Teresa allegedly not giving her patients enough palliative medicine as they died. But maybe they needed to suffer and repent. I can’t really judge her for not giving people medicated and comfortable deaths. Suffering can bring spiritual dividends that happiness and comfort simply cannot offer…
I’m going to read that book about Satan. Sounds informative!
Thank you for this piece. In my reading of St. Augustine, I’ve often thought that there is a dual danger when it comes to “bread” and spirituality. When one had too little of it, one becomes concerned about survival, so the physical takes precedence. When one has sufficiency or plenty, one becomes like the young man who refused to sell all he had to follow Christ.
Another excellent piece!
I’ve been battling with the thought that the Church has been giving in to this temptation for some time now.
Recently, Pope Francis seems to me to have taken the bait:
“The path of education, the path of sports, and the path of employment, in other words, that there be jobs available at an early age. If we have these three paths, I assure you there will not be any addictions, no drugs, no alcohol. Why? Because school carries you forward, sport carries you forward, and work carries you forward.”
Hi. That story seems flawed and incomplete. It looks like they say Azione Cattolica formed the non-profit Sports Center in ’44 with support from St. Pius X but the Saint died in 1914. That report was not so good, I think. But this Homily is grrrreat! http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2014/06/09/pope_the_beatitudes,_a_practical_programme_for_holiness/1101553
And another great article from you, Father! God bless us everyone!
Those details are tangential, though, are they not, to Pope Francis’ thinking about the importance of education, sports and employment? The homily you linked to seems to me to be another instance of the internal contradiction in this Papacy.
I’m sorry but I don’t understand your meaning. I read the Homilies and readings daily and haven’t noticed an internal contradiction, but then I am very simple. God bless!
This article dovetails very nicely with the talk that Helen Alvare gave the the bishops at the USCCB Meeting in New Orleans this morning. The spiritual needs must be addressed along with the physical needs.
Thank you Rev.Msgr !
With Father’s Day around the corner , special gratitudes to all the Fathers , who bring the Father’s words and power, wisdom and love, to bring life – life and its joy that might have been stolen off , by the enemy pacts that might have entered into , by self or those in authorty over us or even those from the past , under temptations such as what The Lord was also tempted with and countered well , showing us The Way .
‘ It is finished ‘ on The Cross – thus alowing us to be baptised unto His death , inorder to cancel out the enemy pacts and its effects – of simmering hatreds , fear / contempt for life and so on ..
and we , the children , thus get to command , the mountains of claims from the pacts ,
to move … to be cast into teh ocean of His mercy ;
yes , it does take ‘ education’ of the spiritual type too, which the Holy Father would have ardently wished, for all the young people too , thus for them too , to know the schemes of the enemy and the power of every word from the Giver of Life !
Glory be and again, thank you , to all the spiritual Fathers too , who persist patiently , to wash off the blindness and hardenss of hearts , possibly from the effects of he same enemy pacts , new and old , that can make it difficult , to see the light or the traps faced by self and others !
Yet, compared to the infinite graces of The Cross , the power /presence of those pacts can decrease, when He increases , through faith and trust , brought into all realms of life !
A blessed Father’s Day to all and thank God ,we do have a Holy Father , who too showcase the Father love,
in graspable ways for many , including the young , all the while , being responsible to his role , to help undo the effects of the knots and pacts from the enemy , in so many lives !
Wow! This Italian priest writes forcefully and pointedly about the dire effects of a life of spiritual paucity. He is, of course, correct on all counts. Too many have been lured into praying for and thinking of material things and acts, together with the obligatory attendance at mass on holy days. Those are good and necessary things–as you say–but far too many (me included) don’t pay enough attention to those spiritual works of mercy. How many of us fail to console another in need, fail to counsel someone who is falling short of the mark because it makes us uncomfortable, etc. This is a welcome piece for all of us, as we all have overlooked this in our lives at one time or another. Jesus in the desert reminds us of what we must strive to be.
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