The people who saw Jesus miraculously multiply loaves and fishes tracked Him down afterwards, looking for something. What was it?
By Gayle Somers
Gospel (Read Jn 6:24-35)
St. John tells us that after Jesus fed a hungry crowd with very little food, the people who had been with Him were eager to see Him again. After a brief interlude (see Jn 6:16-24), they found Him, yet they tried to act nonchalant by asking Him, “When did You get here?” Remember, these were the people who had exclaimed, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” (see Jn 6:14) and whom Jesus suspected of wanting to make Him king (Jn 6:15). They were anything but nonchalant.
Jesus knew they were there for more than small talk, so He got right to point: “You are looking for Me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” They wanted more bread. However, there was probably more than just a desire for a free meal motivating these folks. Many Jews who lived in Jesus’ day expected that when “the Prophet” Moses had promised them appeared, he would once again feed Israel with manna, bread from heaven, just as Moses had done. For example, here is a quote from the ancient non-biblical Jewish apocalyptic book called 2 Baruch:
And it will happen that when all that which should come to pass in these parts is accomplished, the Messiah will begin to be revealed… And those who are hungry will enjoy themselves and they will, moreover, see marvels every day… And it will happen … that the treasury of manna will come down again from on high, and they will eat of it in those years because these are they who will have arrived at the consummation of time. (2 Baruch 29:3, 6-8)
In his fine book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Brant Pitre says:
This text, which most scholars date to the late first or early second century A.D., is an important witness to the fact that the Jewish belief in the return of the manna was circulating at the time of Jesus. It also shows that the coming manna was expected to be miraculous. In the days of Messiah, the righteous would see miracles (“marvels”) every day, because they would eat manna every day. (pg 91)
Jesus had already raised suspicions about His identity with the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The people here very probably wanted to see if He could provide more miraculous bread. If so, He was beginning to look increasingly like the Messiah they sought. However, Jesus cautions them: “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.” Here, He wants to introduce a radically new idea into their expectations. The manna in the desert was temporary and perishable. Yes, it had been miraculously provided from heaven. Yes, it had kept the people alive for their journey home. However, both the manna and the people who ate it eventually perished. Jesus had something better in mind for those so eager to find Him: “Work for the food that endures for eternal life.”
This sounded good to the crowd: “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” His answer was simple: “Believe in the One He sent.” The people wanted to know what sign He could do to prove that God had indeed sent Him. They hinted broadly that God had enabled Moses to work miracles so that the Israelites would believe in him as their leader (see Ex 4:1-9). They spoke of the miraculous manna. They had come full circle. They were still looking for the bread they hoped Jesus could produce.
Jesus now moves in a direction they couldn’t have expected. First, He reminded them that it was His Father, not Moses, Who had provided “bread from heaven” in the wilderness. Then, He tells them God has better bread in mind for them: “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir, give us this bread always.” The crowd is ready and eager. We can imagine their anticipation. Jesus then delivers the news: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Moses would never have uttered words like these! Where is this conversation going? Stay tuned for a few more weeks.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me recognize the times I hunger for the wrong bread. Feeling restless and dissatisfied is always a clue, isn’t it?
First Reading (Read Ex 16:2-4, 12-15)
This reading takes us back to the historical setting of God’s first provision of miraculous bread for His people. Moses had delivered the Israelites from Egypt, and they began their journey home. It didn’t take long, however, for the people to begin to complain, accusing Moses of wanting to kill them by starvation. God didn’t get angry with them. No, this was part of their formation as His own people. They would have to learn to trust Him on a daily basis for whatever they needed to survive. So, God showed them something about Himself, and then He tested them to see if they would obey Him. He miraculously provided both flesh (quail) and bread (manna) for them, with instructions about when to gather it and when to rest from gathering. The bread (“like hoarfrost on the ground”) was not like anything they had ever seen before. “What is this?” they asked. In Hebrew, that question is rendered, man hu, which later became the name of the bread. Imagine—right within the name of “the bread that the Lord has given you to eat,” manna, the quizzical awe that the people who first saw it experienced is permanently retained. Miraculous bread! We, of course, are never far from that same kind of wonder in the presence of another miraculous Bread: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him Who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”
Possible response: Heavenly Father, the Israelites were full of amazement over the manna, as I am, too, over our daily Eucharistic Bread. Help me never lose this.
Psalm (Read Ps 78:3-4, 23-25, 54)
The psalmist recounts the history we have just reviewed in Exodus. Here, however, is not only the history but also the glorious joy of people for whom God so lovingly provided. The psalm makes a strong connection between the manna on the ground and its origination in heaven: “He commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven … He rained manna … and gave them heavenly bread … man ate the bread of angels.” When Jesus spoke to the Jews in our Gospel reading, He reminds them of the divine beginnings of the bread Moses gave the people in the wilderness. This idea of “bread from heaven” will be very important in the next three Sunday Gospels, as Jesus teaches the Jews that the manna was a foreshadowing of a much more wonderful provision from God, “the true bread from heaven”—Himself. We can prepare ourselves for this lesson with our responsorial refrain: “The Lord gave them bread from heaven.” We can rejoice that He still does!
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Eph 4:17, 20-24)
Once again, we profit from St. Paul’s practical direction to us in light of our Gospel theme: If we are people who are being fed on the True Bread of Heaven, how should we live each day? How is life different for those nourished on Jesus this way?
First, St. Paul tells his convert friends (probably mostly Gentile converts), living in a very Gentile city (Ephesus), to “no longer live as the Gentiles do.” Their way of life was devoid of the truth; they lived in the “futility of their minds.” In other words, they remained in the darkness caused by the Fall. Adam and Eve fell victim to “deceitful desires,” to lives of self-serving rather than self-sacrifice. The air we breathe in our culture today allows this same deceit to seep into us, too, joining forces with our own bent towards sin. St. Paul says to “put away the old self,” or to mortify it, in language more familiar to Catholics. We are now to be “renewed in the spirit of [our] minds”—we are to actively learn, through Scripture and Tradition, how God originally intended us to live. Then, we are to “put on the new self, created in … righteousness and holiness of truth.” This is the goal of our sacramental life. By the dispensation of graces in the sacraments, with our intention and proper disposition, we can choose life in Christ every day. The transformation that takes place in us is God’s work—gloriously gracious. Our part is to turn away from the old, take up our Cross, and follow hard after Jesus, to glory. No wonder we need Bread from Heaven as our strength for this journey.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, every day my “old self” thinks it’s in charge. When I follow it, I’m miserable. Help me instead choose the new self today.