18th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Sign and Substance

The Gospel reading this weekend is a continuation of the story of the feeding of the multitude - the sign that Jesus gave, nourishing the people not only with his words, but with something very substantial… something they could touch, taste and assimilate. They had come from all walks of life, to follow him and to listen to his words. But by the end of the day they were still hungry. He rewarded them by removing their bodily hunger, but they missed his  more important gift - that of satisfying their spiritual hunger.

Jesus offers two types of bread: the one that is life and that gives us life, and the one that sustains our physical body.

It is no wonder then that these people continued to follow Jeses around.  In today's Gospel passage, we find them still running after Jesus, looking for more. They even went around to the other side of the Sea of Galilee "looking for Jesus". But when he saw them, he confronted them: You folks are just looking for the kind of bread that will fill your stomachs; but I have something better for you. I have the kind of food that will give you not just physical, earthly life, but eternal life.

Jesus knew that they were looking for more food, that they were hungry. But he was talking about another kind of hunger, the kind that affects or can affect all of us. This hunger is spiritual - the kind that no physical food can satisfy. Only He can begin to satisfy it, whatever its origins, whatever its symptoms or signs.

The crowd we see today seems to mistake the sign for the substance. They clamor for Jesus because they want more bread. They get caught up in a too-literal understanding of "bread." Even though they have just witnessed the impressive feeding of the multitude done by Jesus, they complain that what they got was "just bread," that is, just earthly bread as opposed to the "heavenly" bread (manna) from Moses. Though in this week's Gospel reading they responded, "Lord give us this bread always," by the end of the day they abandoned Jesus and the Bread of Life which the Father sent from heaven.

In today's world, the people don't need anything to remind them that they are hungry, but they are nevertheless involved in a similar "misreading" of a sign.

Dissatisfaction of spirit is often made manifest in different ways. Some people have an uneasy restlessness that seeks satisfaction for spiritual hunger in the pursuit of one thing after another. This spiritual hunger often drives people to pursue the latest electronic toy, the latest philosophy, or the latest experience. Like a universal remote control they are haphazardly flipping through the options of life but never able to settle on anything that fully satisfies their inner hunger.

Even as we cannot live without food, so the spirit of man cannot survive and thrive without the spiritual nourishment which is Jesus himself. Over the next three weeks the Gospel readings will explore John 6 and Jesus' discourse on the Bread of Life. We will read of the promise that by partaking of him we will receive real life. Jesus is the source of that life and when he comes to us in the Eucharist he comes to make a difference in lives.

One difference we can expect to see is that our hunger of spirit will be satisfied. St. Paul tells us that it is through this Bread of Life that Jesus brings about the renewal of our minds and hearts. He enables us to know him, his values, his character, his nature, his truths in an intimate way, and so to "learn Christ." It is this relationship of knowing him that removes the hunger of spirit.

We would do well to re-examine Jesus' advice to the crowd that they reevaluate their lives and not continue to expend their energy on things which do not satisfy.