All of the readings in this Sunday’s Mass speak of human desire. In the first reading, the Israelites in the desert are hungry, so are the people by the lakeside with Jesus in the Gospel reading, and in the Epistle, St. Paul warns of deceitful desires. In all these passages, God teaches us that our desires are ultimately directed to Him, who alone can truly satisfy us. Why is this? Because our desires are infinite, and thus a finite world cannot satisfy them.
Let’s look at what the Lord teaches by focusing 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 – Today’s Gospel begins where last week’s left off. (To refresh your memory, Jesus had multiplied the loaves and fishes and satisfied the crowd with abundant food but then 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.
We begin by simply noting the hunger of the people. Allow hunger to represent all of our desires. Desires, of themselves, are good and God-given. It is the people’s hunger, their desire, that makes them seek Jesus. Further, their desire is deep and strong; they are willing to journey a significant distance to find Jesus.
Desire has something important to teach us. It is easy to see that our desires motivate us, but we should also recognize that they are infinite, unlimited. No matter how much we get, we always want more. We may experience some temporary satisfaction, especially with things like food, but it doesn’t last long. Taken together, our desires are limitless.
This limitless, infinite quality demonstrates God’s existence, for a finite world cannot give what it doesn’t have. Our infinite longings point to God and must come from Him. Our hearts, with all their infinite longings, teach us that we were made for God and will not find rest apart from Him.
Purification is needed. The journey of the people around the lake to find Jesus is good in itself, but their hunger needs purification and a more proper focus. They do not seek Jesus as God, but rather as the “bread king.” They seek food for their stomachs, but the Lord wants to teach them that their desires really point higher.
II. THE HEALING OF DESIRE – As already noted, desire is good and God-given, but due to our fallen condition, our desires are often unruly, and our darkened minds often misinterpret what our desire is really telling us.
Desires 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 in that we consistently turn to the finite world in a futile attempt for satisfaction, and, when it fails, we keep thinking that more and more of the finite world will satisfy our infinite longing. This is futile and is 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 to realize that their desire for bread is about much more than mere food; it is about God. He is the Lord whom they really seek. Let’s observe how He works to heal their desires.
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 insincere, because they know exactly when He got there; they are simply trying to strike up a conversation in order to get more bread. As we shall see, Jesus calls them on it. Note this much, however: they are looking for Jesus and they do call him “Rabbi.” Their desire, though imperfectly experienced, has brought them to Jesus, who can now teach them about what their longing is really telling them.
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.
This is our essential problem: we focus on our lower desires, our bodily needs, while neglecting our higher, spiritual desires. We have a deep, infinite longing for God, for His love, goodness, beauty, and truth. Instead of seeking these things, though, we think another hamburger will do the trick; or if not that then a new car, a bigger house, a better job, more money, more sex, more power, or more popularity. We think that if we just get enough of all this “stuff” we’ll finally be happy—we will not. A finite world cannot possibly satisfy our infinite longing.
In today’s second reading, 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 used to mean unreality, purposelessness, ineffectiveness; a kind of aimlessness due to a lack of purpose or any meaningful end; nonsense because it is not enduring.
This 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 amass 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 that our life is about them and that if we attend to them only we will be happy—we will not. Simply getting more food, sex, money, power, etc. will not cut it. These are finite things while our desires are ultimately infinite.
So the doctor, along with his assistant, St. Paul, has made the diagnosis: You and I are seeking mere bread when we should also be seeking Him 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.
We have our diagnosis: Our desires are our out of whack and/or our darkened minds misinterpret the message that our lower desires are really giving us.
The Directives – The Lord gives three essential directives:
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.
The point is 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, the sacraments, building our relationship with the Lord, learning His will, and obeying His will, all get short shrift. We attend to “the man” while telling God to “take a number.” It’s kind of dumb, really.
The passing world, a sinking ship, gets all our attention. Calling on the one who can rescue us and learning and following His saving directives gets little attention. Instead we “rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic,” indulge ourselves on the “lido deck,” and get angry that we don’t have a first-class cabin.
The Lord tells us, fix your focus; that ship is going down and then what will you do? Why obsess about those things? Turn to me and listen carefully because I alone can save you.
Fix your focus: worry less about things that perish and focus more on the things that last and can save.
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.”
The ship is going down; the world is perishing. So how do we get saved from it? The answer is faith.
Faith here must be understood as more than just answering an altar call or reciting a creed. 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, a new heart, and new priorities; indeed, a whole new self. To be in a relationship with Christ, through faith, is to be changed by Him. It is this change, this obedience of faith, this transformation, that saves us and gets us ready to meet God.
Find your Food – As the discussion with them continues, they show themselves to be a stubborn lot. 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 back to demanding bread. It’s as if to say, all that higher stuff is fine, but we want bread for our bellies; give us that first and then we can talk about all that higher stuff and that bread that endures and does not perish; if you want us to have faith, first give us bread for our bellies.
They’re still more interested in the stuff of a sinking ship.
So Jesus says 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.”
Jesus is in effect saying, Don’t you see that 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. So it must be for you. You must understand that even your lower desires are ultimately about God. If mere grain is your food, you are doomed, for food perishes and you along with it. If God Himself is your food, you can be saved, for I, the Lord and the Bread that endures, will draw you with me to eternal life.
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.”
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 fulfill your infinite longings, for I AM the Lord and I AM infinite. Yes, I AM your true bread.
What does the Lord mean in saying we will never again hunger or thirst? To some extent we must understand 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 concept here and describe how it is used elsewhere, but in short it is the capacity to see things as “already but not yet,” and to begin to live out of the “already” while in the here and now.
In more modern language Jesus is saying, To the degree that you enter into a life- changing and transformative life with me, to the degree that I become your bread, to the degree that I become that which satisfies you, your desires will come into line and you will find them being satisfied more and more with each passing day. You will find in your life a satisfaction that the latest smartphone could never give; that money, power, sex, possessions, and all other passing goods could never give. One day, this satisfaction will be full and will 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 that 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 long way to go, but the Lord has been good to me and His promises are true, for I have tested 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 Gospel readings 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: