What do you hunger for? (second in a series on John chapter 6)

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Aug. 1-2, 2009
Exod 16:2-4, 12-15; Ps 78:3-4, 23-25, 54; Eph 4:17, 20-24; John 6:24-35

What do you hunger for? And what will you do to satisfy that hunger?

In our first reading, we see that hunger caused the whole Israelite community to grumble against Moses and Aaron. Of course, they found a lot of reasons to grumble during those years in the desert; but this time it was hunger. And in our Gospel reading, hunger caused the crowd that had been miraculously fed the day before to get into boats and cross the Sea of Galilee, looking for Jesus.

Yesterday morning, when I was working on this homily, I felt the need for a little creative energy boost; and so my hunger prompted me to go to our kitchen. I found some bread rolls, which seemed awfully appropriate for this homily. And I noticed that one of the rolls was just beginning to get a spot of mold, and I thought, “Aha, food that perishes, just like Jesus said.”

We know about hunger, and it might seem pretty obvious, pretty basic. But sometimes it is not as simple as it might first appear. The 12-step recovery programs use the acronym “HALT.” H-A-L-T: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. These four words name ways we feel when several needs are not met: hungry, when we need food; tired, when we need rest; lonely, when we need human companionship. And even anger is a sort of hunger, because it is often prompted when we or someone else has been treated unjustly: so anger is partly a hunger for justice.

The reason why the 12-step programs use this acronym is because too often we respond to these aching, empty feelings, not by seeking the things that we truly need—but by reaching for something else—for some addictive habit that we have grown accustomed to using to try to numb our pain and fill our emptiness—even though we know it doesn’t really heal, doesn’t really satisfy, and it actually leaves us worse off than before. It is easy to point to alcohol and illegal drugs as examples of addictions. But we could make a long list of all the different things and habits that we individually turn to as addictive substitutes—a long and very depressing list.

For that reason, one of my seminary professors would tell us that he had an addiction to Cheetos. You know Cheetos—those orange, crunchy, snack things, covered with fake cheese? He would tell us that he secretly stashed bags of Cheetos all over his room and his office; and that he always had orange-stained fingers from his addictive behavior; and that a clue that someone is a Cheetos-addict is that he is wearing gloves… to cover up his orange-stained fingers. And he made up this crazy story so that we could laugh at the idea of his Cheetos addiction, while recognizing in it the patterns of addictive behavior that shows up in others’ lives, or in our own—whatever it is that we keep reaching for.

And what if we don’t even know what it is that we are hungering for? What if we don’t know what we truly need?

In our Gospel reading today, we continue our five Sundays in the Gospel of John, chapter 6. Last week, we heard about how Jesus miraculously multiplied five barley loaves and two fish to feed 5000 men, plus women and children, so that they were satisfied and had more left over than they had when they started. And now it is the next day, and crowd has been moved by its hunger to cross the sea and find Jesus in Capernaum; and now a conversation begins between them and Jesus that will last through the end of the chapter. And it is a crazy conversation, like a ping-pong game that is not a neat volley back and forth between the players, but has every serve being whacked out of bounds, hitting walls and ceilings and bystanders. Sometimes the crowd doesn’t understand what Jesus says; and sometimes they just don’t care, because it is their own hungers that are driving what they say to him. And Jesus often will respond, not to the misguided questions they did ask, but to the question they should have asked.

It can help us to trace the conversation in terms of hungers. Sometimes the crowd is operating at a very basic level, simply hungering for food. The day before they had been fed by Jesus, and they want him to do it again. Jesus says to them, “you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” The reason why he performed this miraculous multiplication of the loaves was as a sign, not just for its own sake, but pointing to a message he wanted to convey. And so he asks them to move beyond their basic hunger for food.

And indeed we see that sometimes the crowd is getting that message, showing a hunger not just for food but for the Messiah and the Messianic Age. This is why, the day before, they had wanted to make Jesus king. They had recognized the clues that he was like Moses, their great leader and teacher. They remembered their history of those years in the desert when the Lord had fed the People of Israel by providing manna from heaven each day for them to eat—as we heard in the first reading. And they connected this to their hunger for the Messiah, who they expected to be not only a powerful military conqueror who would drive out the Roman Empire, but one who would regularly feed the people with a return of manna from heaven.

This is a hunger and an expectation that is partly on the right track. Jesus just needs to correct their expectations about how he, the Messiah, will be and what he will do. And he will also reveal to them something about their hunger that they don’t yet know.

So Jesus corrects them in two points. First, he tells them, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” They are expecting earthly food that will sustain their earthly life; but the food that he will give is for eternal life. Now, the crowd seems to grasp this point. At the time there was an expectation that the Messiah would be associated with the dead being raised to life—so the idea that the Messiah would give food for eternal life would not have been too strange.

But his second point is more difficult. The bread itself is different. It is not just manna all over again. Jesus gives them different hints:

  • It does not perish.
  • The Father himself gives it—present tense.
  • The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world—present tense.

The crowd isn’t getting it. Just a moment before, Jesus had spoken of the one God sent, and the crowd understood that Jesus meant himself. But they aren’t putting two and two together; and so Jesus just has to tell them: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Jesus is

  • The true bread from heaven
  • The bread of God … which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world
  • The bread of life

And so Jesus begins to reveal that they have a hunger for him. And that who he is and how he will satisfy their need, which is so amazing that the manna from heaven was only a shadow of it, and his own feeding of the 5000 was a sign pointing to it.

His explanation will continue next week. But we would do well right now to think about this final statement in today’s Gospel reading, and ask a couple questions of Jesus. Jesus calls himself “Bread,” but then he speaks of people coming to him and believing in him. When I went to my kitchen yesterday, did I “come to” bread and “believe in” bread? Well, yes, in a sense—but only as a preparation for eating it! Because eating is what we do with bread. So then, since Jesus has chosen to call himself “bread,” does that mean he going to say that somehow he gives himself to us to eat? We’ll find out next week.

But for now we should take note that Jesus has revealed that, in addition to our human need for things like food and water, clothing, shelter, and human love, we also have another need: a need for him. As St. Augustine wrote, near the beginning of his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” We were created in the Image of God, and our purpose is “to know, love, and serve God… in this world, and be happy with him forever in the next.” [Baltimore Catechism No. 3, Lesson 1] We have been made in such a way that nothing less than a relationship with the infinite, eternal, almighty Creator of the universe will satisfy us.

The 12-step programs warn us that, if we do not take care to meet our true needs, our hungers make us vulnerable to the temptation to reach again for the Cheetos, or whatever our own addictive habit is. If we do not take care to meet our need for a relationship with Jesus Christ, what will we reach for? How many of the addictive behaviors that we see in ourselves or others are attempts to fill that God-shaped hole in our hearts?

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

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Published in: on August 2, 2009 at 6:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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