18th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 2nd August 2015

"Service before Self"

Scripture Reading – John 6:24-35

When the people saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into those boats and crossed to Capernaum to look for Jesus. When they found him on the other side, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’
Jesus answered:

‘I tell you most solemnly,
you are not looking for me because you have seen the signs
but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat.
Do not work for food that cannot last,
but work for food that endures to eternal life,
the kind of food the Son of Man is offering you,
for on him the Father, God himself, has set his seal.’

Then they said to him, ‘What must we do if we are to do the works that God wants?’ Jesus gave them this answer, ‘This is working for God: you must believe in the one he has sent.’ So they said, ‘What sign will you give to show us that we should believe in you? What work will you do? Our fathers had manna to eat in the desert; as scripture says: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ Jesus answered:

‘I tell you most solemnly,
it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven,
it is my Father who gives you the bread from heaven,
the true bread;
for the bread of God
is that which comes down from heaven
and gives life to the world.’

‘Sir,’ they said ‘give us that bread always.’ Jesus answered:

‘I am the bread of life.
He who comes to me will never be hungry;
he who believes in me will never thirst.’

REFLECTION

Teenagers, as you know, are quick to respond to a challenge.

When the American Postal Service recently decided to issue a new stamp honouring young people, they wanted input from the young themselves. So they invited suggestions for a design for the stamp and for a motto that would reflect young peoples’ outlook on life.

Thousands and thousands of replies came flooding in as the young responded to the postal challenge.

A design was agreed and a motto was selected. The motto “Service before Self” expresses the inherent generosity of the young.

That motto “Service before Self” provides a key to the real understanding of to-day’s Scriptures.

In the Exodus story we hear about the miracle of the manna in the desert. We learn that God provides for his people when they trust Him, when they serve him generously by doing what is right. Service of God before self.

In the Gospel, Jesus points out that the crowd coming in search of him have got it wrong. They are concerned firstly about themselves. They are concerned mainly about their material needs. No service before self here. In fact, Chapter 6 of St John, of which to-day’s reading is a part, is at pains to point out that human happiness and fulfilment is to be found not in self seeking but in the gift of self to God and the gift of self to others in meeting their needs. To be nourished by the Eucharist means being empowered to live generously. The Eucharist we celebrate is a symbol of how to give freely and generously. Under the signs of bread and wine Jesus shares the gift of himself with us, and inspires us to give ourselves to others. Generous giving is a sign of a true Christian. Service before self.

Eucharistic people are caring people… To receive Holy Communion is to receive others into our world of caring. That is what Mother Theresa referred to   when she said to a group of European visitors to her slum in Calcutta:  the spiritual poverty of the West is greater than the physical poverty of the East. In the West there are so many who suffer from loneliness and emptiness – what is missing in their lives is a relationship with God and with each other. If Christ washed the feet of his disciples before he instituted the Eucharist it was to call all people to deepen their sense of caring and sharing. It was to adopt the motto –  Service before self!

INTRODUCTION TO LECTIO DIVINA

The people who were fed miraculously by Jesus must have been surprised when they came to him again. They went back to look for him and could not find him at first, but when they did find him, they got a most unexpected reception. Jesus reproached them: they were not looking for him because of the signs he had given but because of the benefit they had gained from what he had done. They were not looking for signs that would help them to believe better but for food to satisfy their hunger once more. The reaction of Jesus is unusual, almost unfair. He criticizes the people who come looking for him, and even before they declare their intentions, he dismisses them as unworthy. This Jesus who is capable of working miracles is surprising at times, and incredibly strict. The people who came in search of him had good reason, for without him they were in danger of returning to their state of hunger, and there was nobody else they could count on to satisfy their need so easily. If Jesus escaped from their lives, they would have lost an opportunity to experience further miracles. They still needed him, because they still had needs they could not meet without him.

LECTIO DIVINA

I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it

The discourse on the bread of life (Jn 6, 22-59) took place at Capernaum (Jn 6, 22.24). Jesus has just fed the crowd (Jn 6, 1-15) and rescued his disciples from a storm at sea (Jn 6, 16-21). Now the crowd and the disciples gather round him again.

The first part of the discourse (Jn 6, 25-34) opens with a question from the crowd, to which Jesus does not respond directly (Jn 6, 25). The people are puzzled by the sudden appearance of Jesus in Capernaum (Jn 6, 22). Their search for him was prompted and guided by the hope that he could once again satisfy their needs. Jesus reveals their unspoken motivation. They had witnessed a miracle and had benefitted from it (Jn 6, 26). But they had not grasped its deeper meaning. It is not worth their while making an effort to search for Jesus, if all they want is to be sure of receiving material bread (Jn 6, 27). The effort is worthwhile only if they seek the bread that lasts forever. The Son can give that bread, because he has the gift from God, God’s seal, his Spirit (Exod 28, 11).

That revelation of Jesus is met with incomprehension. The Jews are willing to fulfil some works, some precepts of the law. They agree to work for something which is not just daily nourishment, and they ask what works are pleasing to God. They did not understand what Jesus had told them – the one who gives eternal life is the beloved of God. The bread is not the fruit of their own work but a gift to be received. Jesus corrects their understanding by telling them that working for God consists in believing in the one he has sent. It is not about trying to do things but rather accepting someone as sent by God. This is the work that ensures the bread of life (Jn 6, 29).

They do not believe and they require proof. The sign of the multiplication of bread (Jn 6, 30) is not enough for them. They refer to Moses who gave them the law and overcame their incredulity with a sign – the manna in the desert (Jn 6, 31). The people who had been fed miraculously ask for further signs. They want Jesus to prove his legitimacy, in the same way as Moses had proved his. From working for the people, satisfying their hunger, Jesus passes to the work of God, faith in the one he sent. This now centres attention on the work of the Son.

Jesus rejects their claims, without denying them, but by overcoming them. And he does so solemnly. The bread of Moses was not true bread. It was used up, and became corrupt if it was not used. (Exod 16,15-21). It did not satisfy the people’s hunger (Num 11,4). The only bread that guarantees life is the bread that only the Father can give (Jn 6, 32). It comes from heaven and gives life to the world (Jn 6, 33). Just like the manna which was a gift from God, so also this bread comes down from heaven, but, unlike the manna, it gives life to the world, not just to Israel.

The people’s lack of understanding is now seen in their wrong interpretation of the nature of the true bread. They think it comes down from the upper regions, that it is to be eaten again and again, and that it merely preserves natural life. They are hungry for this bread. The failure of the Jews to understand calls for a further revelation from Jesus and he introduces a new development in his discourse (6, 35-51b). For the first time he uses the formula “I am” (Jn 6,41.48.51), the formula God used in the Old Testament to refer to his salvific will (cf. Exod 15,26; Ps 35,3). The essential needs of man are met in his person – I am the bread of life (6, 35.48). The same is true in the real miracle worked by Jesus. The multiplication of the bread was nothing more than a sign that he who was capable of satisfying the hunger of the crowd is himself, in person, the life that has no end.

II. Meditate:  apply what the text says to life

The multitude went in search of Jesus because he had satisfied their hunger. When their hunger returned, it led them to come to him once again. With unusual harshness, Jesus unmasks their real motives. They are looking for him for what he can give them, not for who he is. They search for him because they want bread, but they will never totally satisfy their hunger by eating bread that perishes. Their effort deserves a better end and a greater recompense. Faith in him would mean they could have him as imperishable food. They lose the greater gift because they go in search of a lesser one. If we look for God for the sake of what he gives us, we are only nourishing our needs. Seeking him for who he is eliminates the need to seek further nourishment. God does not let himself be found if he is sought only to satisfy our needs. He would show little respect for himself if he allowed himself to be transformed into merely meeting our needs, however spiritual or urgent they may be.

These good people were full of good will when they embarked on their boats and crossed the lake in search of the only one who could satisfy their hunger, and yet Jesus received them with a reproach.  You are looking for me “because you ate your fill of the loaves.” And even though that was their only motive  – that they sought him so that he could satisfy their hunger again – it had been reason enough for Jesus to work the first miracle a little while earlier. The people were merely looking for what Jesus had already given them. But that is not how Jesus saw it on this occasion. What harm could there be in working a miracle to provide them with the necessities of life? What is wrong with doing everything possible to guarantee life? If someone offers us bread, without any effort on our part, and is able to satisfy our most essential needs, would it not be foolish of us to let him out of our sight and not maintain our friendship with him, and have everything we need at our disposal? Who among us would not do the same?

Those people went out of their way in search of this perishable bread, and according to what Jesus said, were not concerned about the food that lasts, because they were missing something. St Augustine says we are to seek Jesus for who he is, and he has Jesus saying. “You are looking for me, but not because of who I am. Look for me, myself.”  And it could be that we are missing the same thing.  We spend our time, and our lives, looking for food that does no more than satisfy our hunger, and we keep on seeking nourishment from that food. Jesus does not want us to search for him and follow him just to be satisfied for the time being, with bread that meets our hunger. Jesus wants us to come to God when we are unable to find nourishment ourselves.  He criticises us if we turn to God only because we have not had enough to meet our needs.

To tell the truth, we have to admit that we often turn to God when we need something, and we fail to recognize that, deep down, God is the only thing we need, He alone is necessary. We tend to forget that God is good, not because of what he gives us, but that he gives us what he wants to give us, because he loves us.  Like the people who came to Jesus, we come to realize that God is greater than our needs.  However vital our needs may be, they are only a sign of our need for God. Seeking God only for what he can give us lowers him to the level of our needs. And yet, is it not true that we normally turn to God only when we are in need of something?

Jesus criticized the crowd who sought him only to satisfy their needs. He found fault with them not because they were in need, but because they did not realize their need of him. They came to him because they were hungry and they remembered that he had fed them. It was not that they wanted to be with Jesus, but they wanted to be fed. Jesus wanted the poor people to realize that they had been hungry once, and he had fed them that once. But he was unhappy that the interest of the people was so trivial and unworthy – small and short-lived, like their hunger.

Indeed, what good would it be to have a God that we turn to only to satisfy our hunger and our needs? A God that we make use of only when we need something is a useless God, puny and ephemeral as our little momentary needs. A God that meets our needs might be useful at times, but will never be the true God. If we look for God only when we need something, then we can also do without God at times. A God who satisfies our needs, whenever we happen to be in need, is no more than a product of our poverty.

God can defend himself from us, as Jesus did that day, by giving us hunger that remains unsatisfied, and needs that are unmet.  It is because, like Jesus, he wants us to seek him, not just for what he can give us, but for what he wants to be for us. Reducing God to one who satisfies our hunger can be to our advantage for the time being, but it means making him as ordinary and insignificant as we are ourselves. It could well be that we are losing God simply because we want him only for the sake of his gifts, for his help and the good things he gives us. We seek him, not because he is good, but for the sake of the things we want. If we turn to God to make up for our lack of resources, it is not because we love God, but because we love ourselves. Our search for God, like that of the crowd that day, is nothing more than an act of self-love. And if eventually we find him, instead of a miracle Jesus will give us a rebuke.  Now, as then, Jesus does not want to be sought after for the good things he can give us, but for his own sake because he is good.

It is true that most of us today, unlike the people who went in search of Jesus then, do not know what our real need is. It is also true that when we get hungry, we are able to satisfy our need easily, without recourse to God. God is not necessary any more, either because we do not suffer hunger, or because we are able to satisfy out hunger ourselves. If we don’t want to lose God forever, we will have to rediscover our hunger, not for perishable bread but for authentic life. However much we may hide it, we all live nourishing our own needs, we live for the things we want and the people we want, for the good things we have not got and are still looking for. God has made us needy, incapable of quenching our thirst and satisfying our hunger, because he wants nothing and nobody to take his place in our hearts. If we forget our hunger, or find the remedy to satisfy it ourselves, we will have neither time nor reason to seek God.  And if we never seek God, then we have lost God forever.

And yet, we have him always close at hand.  In the Eucharist Jesus, our God, has become bread for our hunger and remedy for our poverty. Because he wants to be for us both food and rest, he has left us hungry and anxious. We are poor and needy so that we may always have need of him and he can be our riches. It is true, our state of dependence may not make us happy, but we should be consoled by the knowledge that God has prepared bread for our hunger and wine for our thirst. In the plan of God, Christ Jesus is the bread of heaven and nourishment for our life. We may have made the mistake, like the people who went in search of him, of hoping only for a God to satisfy our needs, but we can still come to him and say what the crowd said, “Lord, give us this bread always. Do not allow us to satisfy our own needs. Do not let us become self-sufficient, but make us understand that you alone are our good, you alone are bread for our hunger and the support of our lives.”

PRAYER

We recognize with joy
that you, Lord, created us,
and that you guide us by your providence.
In your unfailing kindness, support us in our prayer:
renew your life within us,
guard it and make it bear fruit for eternity.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

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PLAY AUDIO

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Music used in the reflection: “Alleluia” by Lee Rosevere (CC-BY-NC)

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