Sunday, August 02, 2009

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Gorging on Appetizers

Readings: Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15; Psalm 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54; Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; John 6:24-35
Picture: cc avixyz

Sisters and brothers, some years ago, together with a couple of traveling companions, I spent several weeks in a foreign country. This being our first time there, we weren’t too familiar with the local customs. On one occasion we were invited by some friends to share a simple home-cooked meal at their modest apartment. As we sat around a small table, beer was served, followed very quickly by several dishes of food. Our hosts encouraged us repeatedly to eat and to drink, even as they engaged us in friendly conversation, continually refilling our glasses and replenishing the food on the table. As I recall, I was quite happy to do as I was told, since I was hungry, and the food was very tasty. After some time, however, my companions and I were stuffed. Perhaps noticing that we had stopped eating, our hosts began to clear the table, and we thought that the meal was over. We were wrong. It had only just begun. From out of the kitchen came even more substantial and mouth-watering dishes of food. To our regret and embarrassment, however, neither my companions nor I were able to eat much more than a few mouthfuls of these delicacies. Having earlier gorged ourselves on the appetizers, we no longer had any room in our bellies for the main course. If only we hadn’t mistaken one for the other.

If only we hadn’t mistaken the appetizers for the main course. Which is something that can be said too about the people in today’s gospel reading. As you know, earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus had fed five thousand by miraculously multiplying five barley loaves and two fish. Suitably impressed, the people now come looking for Jesus, so that he can keep on feeding them in the same way. Are they wrong to do this? Are they wrong to look to Jesus to fill their stomachs? Are the Israelites in the first reading wrong to expect God to provide them with bread in the wilderness? Are we wrong, when we pray to God to find us a good and steady job so that we can feed our hungry children? Probably not. After all, didn’t Jesus teach us to ask our heavenly Father to give us today our daily bread?

The problem then lies somewhere else. The people’s mistake is similar to the one my traveling companions and I made. In their search for material food, the people treat Jesus merely as a miraculous bread-making machine. But Jesus wants to be much more than that for them. More than simply filling their empty bellies with the food that perishes, Jesus wishes to satisfy their hungry hearts with the food that endures for eternal life. The bread Jesus multiplies miraculously is meant only as an appetizer, something to increase the people's yearning for the main course, the Bread of Life himself. But the people are unable to appreciate this. Having gorged themselves on the appetizers, like I did, the people have no room in their hearts for Jesus. All they are looking for is more of what they have already received. As the Lord tells them, you are looking for me not because you saw the signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.

Here, even as they present us with the people’s mistake, our readings also invite us to reflect upon two of the factors that tend to lead the people astray. What is it that makes the people more susceptible to mistaking the appetizer for the main course? The most obvious factor is, of course, hunger. We see this especially in the experience of the Israelites in the first reading. Wandering in the wilderness, the people are so hungry that they find themselves dreaming even of the miserable food that they had eaten as slaves in Egypt. Their hunger is so great that they find it difficult to trust in the promises of God. They are unable to imagine the rich delicacies that await them in the Promised Land. But, as powerful as it is, hunger is not the only factor. As we noted earlier, in the gospel, Jesus had already provided the people with all the bread they could eat, with much left over. Yet they continue to look for him. They continue to want even more. What do we see at work in them, if not the power of greed? Hunger and greed. Are these not the insidious forces that remain very much in evidence in the world in which we live, especially in these times of deep recession and yawning budget deficits? Today, could these same forces be rendering us more susceptible to mistaking the appetizers for the main course?

And if they are, what can we do about it? What ought we to do about it? How might we better follow Jesus’ advice and work for the food that endures instead of the food that perishes? The way to correct our mistake is perhaps a matter of commonsense. If we have filled our lives with too many of the wrong things, then we need to empty them to make room for the right ones. The second reading describes this process in terms of a taking off and a putting on: 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, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.

The imagery that is evoked here is, of course, that of baptism. It is said that, in the early days, candidates for baptism were stripped of their garments, before being plunged into the baptismal waters. And, after their immersion, a white garment was quickly draped over them to symbolize their new life in Christ. Even if we who were baptized at a later time may not have had the experience of being stripped naked, we nonetheless still share the same calling. It is our task continually to strive to put away the old self so as to put on the new, to expend our energies in doing the works of God. This will involve different things at different times and for different people. But perhaps especially in these days, it will involve as much the work of feeding of the hungry as that of challenging the greedy.

Sisters and brothers, there’s actually an important addendum to the story with which we began this reflection. From what I told you, I might have perhaps given you the impression that the main course in that meal at our friends’ apartment consisted in the dishes of food that were served later. But that’s not really accurate. Even though the food and drink had a crucial role to play on that occasion, if we had been focused solely on eating and drinking, we would have missed the whole point. For the crux of the meal consisted less in the food and drink than in the conversations that were being shared and the relationships that were being built among those of us at table.

Sisters and brothers, how is Jesus the Bread of Life, inviting us to pay greater attention to the main course today?


  1. Good morning Fr. Chris,

    Your reflection resonante as we recently visited a country we hankered for years. Mother, daughter and yours truly had a great time "bonding". That came across most cogently.
    We were in search of good tapas and walked many kilometers to find the places listed in the guide book. They turned out very good but it was in the exploration that we remembered most.
    Since the Spanish cities were filled with Churches and several moorish architures, it was also a reminder of the role Christianity played in the past in their construction. For us, attending mass at these hallowed buildings took our attention solely away from food.
    But acquring "things" is also a part of our materialistic tendency which recall this statement made by a friend - "People buy things that don't need with money they don't have to impress people they don't even know. This has an eerie ring to it".
    Thanks for your reminder.

  2. Not only hunger and greed, I believe, but fear that often blinds us to our true needs, and to recognising God's daily providence in life-giving food and relationships.

    At the bottom of all hunger, greed and fear, is the deep desire to experience real love.
    And 1 Jn 4:18 tells us the it is only perfect love that drives out all fear.

    Where is this perfect love? In perishable bread? In relationships we can't control??

    This love we yearn for is in us and around us, but it can never be possessed in hunger, greed or fear. It can only be recognised, valued and set free to be and be given away.

    Sharing a meal and being in fellowship brings into awareness and celebration that we are already filled with the Indwelling Presence of God's that is nourished through communion with the One who has created us.

    So it is first in looking inwards that we will find the wellspring of Life we seek so desperately from outward sources. And finding Life from within, we can radiate God's presence and join him in the feeding of hungry hearts.

    As we mourn the passing of our beloved Fr Tom, we get a glimpse of a blessed life that is truly nourished by the Bread of Life in humility and simplicity, deep prayerful presence, liturgy, song and communion with all God's people.

    Fr Tom, thank you for your powerful presence even in your passing into New Life-- a place we all hunger to be, yet fear the loss of our earthly security to really let go and let God's will be done.

    Pray for us....

  3. What a delicious picture, Fr Chris! I can understand why you would gorge on the appetizers. But isn't it kind of deceptive to call what you've described "a simple home-cooked meal"? Your hosts must have pretty huge appetites!

    As for the main course, you've said it, "For the crux of the meal consisted less in the food and drink than in the conversations that were being shared and the relationships that were being built among those of us at table."

    Most of us know WHAT to do, but do not HOW to do that. Maybe especially yours truly. :-p

    Jesus, the Bread of Life, is constantly and continually challenging me to love the people around me and the people whom I meet each day. Whenever I fail/"fall", I simply pick myself up, run to Him for forgiveness and for more nourishment and then try again. I don't know what I'll do without Him.


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