With superb didactic, using the material figure of the multiplication of loaves, the Divine Master prepares the people to receive the true Bread of Life, announced for centuries.
Gospel of Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
24 “So when the people saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. 25 When they found Him on the other side of the sea, they said to Him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ 26 Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not labour 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 has God the Father set his seal.’
28 “Then they said to Him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ 29 Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.’
30 “So they said to him, ‘Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”’ 32 Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.
33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.’
34 They said to Him, ‘Lord, give us this bread always.’
35 “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst’” (Jn 6:24-35).
I – God Educates the Chosen People
The texts from the liturgy of the eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time treat of episodes that are intimately related, despite a large chronological gap. The First Reading, from the Book of Exodus, narrates the murmuring of the sons of Israel due to their shortage of food while crossing the desert; a state of spirit revealing the characteristic ingratitude of those who are “impudent and stubborn” (Ez 2:4).
It can be readily understood that the journey of an entire people to the Promised Land was an arduous one. “The valleys became progressively narrower; the mountains more forbidding. The rugged landscape, with its gorges which had to be crossed single file, became increasingly foreign to the Israelites, used to the plains of Lower Egypt. It was a gruelling march, with its scarcity of food, and constant worry about encampment and concern for their wives and children. Then they remembered Egypt, where the toil had been greater, but where they could at least count on the rest and the comfort of night. A deep nostalgia took hold of them.” 1
In Egypt, despite the inherent asperity of slavery, after the thankless daily toil, there was always food in the house. For, in addition to the abundance of fish, the regular flooding of the Nile River so fertilized the land that, at that time, three harvests were possible each year. Naturally, with the instability of a march through the desert, they had lost these benefits. Now, they depended on Providence for everything, and often, water had to be obtained from a rock through the intercession of Moses… In other words, there was total material insecurity, demanding of them constant acts of confidence in divine aid, often despite all appearances to the contrary.
The sons of Israel revolt against God
In that difficult situation, the Jewish people murmured, through infidelity, against Moses and, in reality, against God Himself, saying: “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex 16:3).
Forgetting all the wonders that God had performed in liberating them from slavery and unconscious of the superior divine plan, the Israelites revolted at the prospect of dying of hunger. In those circumstances, they were living, quite literally, a daily miracle. However, they were not sufficiently high-minded to comprehend that the God of Israel had foreseen all.
“Then the Lord said to Moses: I will rain bread from heaven for you” (Ex 16:4). They were given instructions on what to do with the miraculous food from on high. These instructions explain the reason for the trial: God is educating this stiff-necked people in the virtue of confidence.
A trial to teach confidence
At the heart of the matter, the true dilemma of the Jewish people consisted in their lack of faith and confidence in Divine Providence. They preferred material security which would exclude uncertainty regarding the future. Nevertheless, God was asking of them total abandonment into His hands, for their conversion from their old nature into a new nature—as we see in the Second Reading—with higher sights and another mentality, flexible to heavenly designs.
Day-by-day confidence was the condition demanded: “The people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law or not (Ex 16:4). We can imagine that, despite having clearly heard the Lord’s order, many would have gathered more than necessary the first time, doubting the repetition of the miracle on subsequent days… only to find that this carefully reserved portion had spoiled. This trial was to educate them in faith, in confidence and in full surrender into the divine hands, for the God of Abraham knew how to care for them better than they themselves.
It is intriguing to note the meticulousness of this solicitude: in order to preserve the practice of worship, the people were permitted to collect two measures on Fridays, to avoid work on the Sabbath, which should be entirely dedicated to prayer. Furthermore God said to Moses: “‘I have heard the murmurings of the people of Israel; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’ In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning dew lay round about the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as hoarfrost on the ground” (Ex 16:12-14).
Despite their murmuring, the Lord gave food to His Chosen People generously showing them unconditional love. “You shall be filled with bread.” He also sated them with meat, “until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you” (Nm 11:20).
God prepares them for the true Manna
Once again, however, God’s gift serves to show them the frailty of their faith, for: “When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat’” (Ex 16:15). Despite this, for forty years they unfailingly received a food which contained all flavours—manna took on the taste desired, to the palate of whoever consumed it (cf. Wis 16:20-21).
God proceeded in this way during the entire wandering of the people in the desert, to accustom them to depend on heaven, to rectify their excessively calculating and pragmatic mentality.
In this way, through this material food, manna, He prepared them for the true Manna; the spiritual food from heaven that imparts eternal life and which is announced to us by Jesus Himself in today’s Gospel. With a truly divine didactic, the liturgy prepares our souls to address the subject of the Eucharist.
II – The True Bread Come Down From Heaven
After the first multiplication of the loaves, the people became enthralled with Jesus, for they had tasted a food of a quality unknown to them. Coming from the Divine Redeemer’s hands, this bread was, beyond doubt, the most excellent of all history, just as the wine of the Wedding of Cana would have been. As a symbol of the Eucharist this fare of unequalled taste must have even been highly beneficial to the health, providing favourable conditions for practicing virtue, as well as spiritual consolation.
“You seek Me because you ate of the loaves”
24 “So when the people saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.”
The next day, in the grip of these considerations, the multitude wanted only to follow the Master, eager to taste that bread again. Perhaps, imagining that Our Lord would always multiply loaves and fishes, they entertained the hope of not needing to work for their daily keep, mindless of the divine decree: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gn 3:19).
But they were informed that in the late afternoon the disciples had left by boat to Capernaum and that afterwards the Master had gone in the same direction. Nevertheless, they did not know that Jesus had walked upon the water and joined them at daybreak (cf. Jn 6:17-21).
25 “When they found Him on the other side of the sea, they said to Him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ 26 Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.’”
They were surprised when they found Jesus; He had not entered the boat with the disciples; how had He arrived there?
But Christ did not reveal to them the miracle of walking upon the water, for they were not yet ready for the perspective of His having dominion over His own body; it was, rather, to His disciples that He wanted to show this power. Witnessing the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves would help them to understand what would later be revealed to them.
With divine wisdom Jesus did not respond to the question, but to the intention of those who asked it, at the same time using the opportunity to admonish them for their merely material concern: “You seek Me, not because you saw signs….” In reality, the multiplication of the loaves was a resounding and unequivocal demonstration of His power over matter, but the people did not seem to grasp its significance.
Viewing the effects without turning to the Cause
This spectacular sign alone would have served for those people to conclude that they were in the presence of God. However, more concerned with material sustenance than supernatural revelation, they did not draw this conclusion, but were moved by purely pragmatic interest. Restricting their sights to the bread, they failed to admire the One who manifested Himself to them in so extraordinary a manner. In other words, they looked to the effects without turning to the Cause, and for this Our Lord admonished them.
We can take an important lesson from this verse to avoid the same error in our spiritual life: we can often become attached to consolations, as that people were to the bread, forgetting to look to the Creator of them. Those who do not always turn to the Source of grace, making due restitution for everything received, lose extraordinary spiritual fruits.
It is worthwhile to re-emphasize the Master’s wisdom in educating the multitudes: first, He satisfied all, offering them that extraordinary bread; then, although they were moved to seek Him for self interest, He takes this opportunity to prepare them to accept a much more important revelation.
Food which endures to eternal life
27 “Do not labour 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 has God the Father set his seal.”
Long ago the Lord had provided His people with onions, meat and bread in plenty on the fertile banks of the Nile. Subsequently, He had liberated them from their long slavery, and, in the desert, offered them manna from heaven, quails in abundance and water drawn from rocks. Finally, present among men in the Divine Person of Jesus, He multiplies loaves. By this method, He educated them in continual dependence on Divine Providence; but, ultimately, these were all perishable aliments, pertaining only to earthly life.
Now, this same God wished to take a further step in the manifestation of His love for humanity: to disclose the mystery of the Eucharist, the true Bread of the Angels, the very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. He sought to call the people’s attention to this imminent revelation. Hearing of a food that “endures to eternal life,” they judged Him capable of performing this miracle, because, among so many other prodigies, He had already made that unequalled bread.
Then, starting from a material image to arrive at the spiritual reality, He associates the miracle of the multiplication of loaves with another bread that He will give.
And in an increasing manifestation of His divinity, He affirms Himself to be the man on whom “God the Father has set His seal.” However, even so, He would not be accepted: those people had already witnessed many miracles—the blind recovering their sight, the lame walking and even the deceased returning from the dead. But they perceived that something difficult would be demanded of them, and so they tried to temporize.
What was lacking for them to believe?
28 “Then they said to Him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ 29 Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.’”
This was not a fitting question for people faced with the revelation of the divinity of Our Lord, since it deviated from the essence of the mysterious theme being dealt with. When a Man shows himself to be God, He should be followed. This question, on the contrary, revealed a desire to practice works divorced from the Messiah, as if their authors imagined they could get along without Him.
In answering, Our Lord returns to the subject that He was addressing, while giving orientation at once so easy and so difficult: it is necessary to believe in what He says—In this consists the realization of the divine work.
30 “So they said to him, ‘Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”’”
Seeking a pretext to reject the revelation made to them, they seek a sign to believe in Jesus, just as their ancestors had demanded that the prophets of old work wonders to prove their veracity. It was an inappropriate request, considering the countless miracles performed by Our Lord in the various places where He had preached. What was lacking for them to believe?
According to the Messianic concept in vogue, the Messiah must have the power to restore Israel’s political dominion. This makes the reference to manna more comprehensible since they understood it not as a gift from God, but rather a solution for a temporal problem coming from a great leader like Moses. According to this reasoning, it was Moses, and not God Himself, who gave the people manna. In the same way, they considered the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as a way around a material difficulty, viewing Jesus as a merely human leader, like another Moses.
Proclamation of the true Manna
32 “Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.’”
Our Lord uses the formula of an oath—“Truly, truly”—to emphasize His words. Blinded by their human vision of reality, they erred, attributing the miracle of the manna to the power of Moses, who was only the mediator between God and the Chosen People.
However, He who would give them “the true bread from heaven” is the same God who once sustained their ancestors with manna. In saying “my Father”, Jesus refers again to the nature of His identity; therefore, once again He proclaims His divinity.
In a crescendo of explanations, He invites His listeners to acknowledge Him as the Son of God. This served as a preparation to understand the transcendental significance of the Eucharist, which would be instituted at the Last Supper.
A yet imperfect desire
34 “They said to Him, ‘Lord, give us this bread always.’”
Although they did not clearly understand the scope of Jesus’ words, they believed that they would be satisfied in their search for earthly happiness if they were always given bread like this. They had to put off the old nature, of a materialist spirit, and acquire the mentality of the new nature (cf. Eph 4:22-24), which does “not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4), as the Gospel Acclamation states.
This Word is Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. It is necessary to live by this Word.
They understood that the bread with which they had been filled on the previous evening was nothing in comparison to what they were being promised. Therefore, Our Lord proceeds to clearly reveal the great gift of the Eucharist.
35 “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.’”
It was the moment for the announcement prepared by God for many centuries: the Bread of Life is none other than He who gives, maintains and develops supernatural life—the Lamb immolated for our salvation.
Our Lord seeks to elevate this still materialistic desire to a supernatural perspective, so that they will accept what He will reveal to them in the subsequent verses, not considered in this Sunday’s liturgy: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:54). Scandalized with this proclamation, some of the disciples even left the Divine Master after this.
An announcement repeated until today
Although limited beings, in creating us God kindly placed in our soul an open window to the infinite, to facilitate our relationship with Him. Nothing of this world entirely satisfies man because “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing” (Eccl 1:8). As a result, we become disillusioned when we seek happiness in pleasures or earthly goods.
Those who do not know God and live, like the pagans, running after material things, will always suffer hunger and thirst, for they will never be able to satisfy themselves through their pride and sensuality. On the contrary, those who nourish themselves from the true Bread, the angelic Bread, the divine Bread that is Jesus Christ Himself, will experience a great thirst and hunger for God, for the supernatural, the divine life and, consequently, will be goaded less by the desire to sin.
In sublime terms, St. Augustine expresses the happiness of freeing oneself from the hunger and thirst of sin and burning with thirst and hunger for God: “Belatedly I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved Thee. For see, Thou wast within and I was without, and I sought Thee out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things Thou hast made. Thou wast with me, but I was not with Thee. These things kept me far from Thee; even though they were not at all unless they were in Thee. Thou didst call and cry aloud, and didst force open my deafness. Thou didst gleam and shine, and didst chase away my blindness. Thou didst breathe fragrant odours and I drew in my breath; and now I pant for Thee. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. Thou didst touch me, and I burned for Thy peace.” 2
The world of the old nature offers us all kinds of material goods, of ego-worshiping satisfaction and sensual appetites, but does not provide that which gives peace of soul, the Eucharist, in which Our Lord Jesus Christ is truly present.
How, then, can we show our gratitude for this inestimable gift?
III – Let us not look back
This Sunday’s liturgy refers to man’s happiness when he surrenders entirely to the ways of the Divine Redeemer. This is the teaching of St. Paul to the Ephesians, found in this Sunday’s Second Reading: “Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds” (Eph 4:17). Using the name of God, he cautions us not to be as the pagans, who apply their intelligence to material things adoring idols of wood, metal or stone, which in essence constitutes a form of self-adoration.
“You did not so learn Christ!—assuming that you have heard about Him and were taught in Him, as the truth is in Jesus. Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:20-24).
We must renounce the errors of our past life, the bad environments and the inappropriate friendships, everything that leads to sin. The old nature is guided by a series of erroneous principles and is dominated by its passions. But a person should choose the direction for his life through a deliberation of the will, overcoming the solicitation of his evil inclinations. If our goal is God’s glory, we must flee from everything that links us to the old nature, without even looking back to contemplate the past, as the wife of Lot did (cf. Gn 19:26). Scripture says: “The dog turns back to his own vomit” (2 Pt 2:22). Let us not imitate it!
The revelation of the Eucharist, food that opens the soul to blessed immortality constitutes the apex of a didactic developed across centuries, from the pilgrimage of the Chosen People through the desert to the magnificent episode narrated in this Sunday’s Gospel.
Let us be grateful to God, for in this Sacrament we receive benefits far superior to those granted to the Jewish people in the desert, or the multitudes that sought the Divine Redeemer moved by a desire for material bread. They saw and heard Him, but did not have the privilege, very much within our reach, of receiving Him daily in the Eucharistic banquet! ◊