Bread of Life

From the perspective of what “should have been”, the Jewish people were within days of entering the promised land. Had they remained focused on their mission as the chosen people they would have avoided the punishment of the 38 additional years in the desert. How is it that the closer they came to attaining their goals and ideals the more obsessed they became with their physical and material needs? Had they not witnessed the grandeur of the parting of the sea, the awesome majesty of revelation, and the constancy of God’s caring and love in miraculously providing them with shelter and sustenance? Why did they begin to loose faith and trust in God so near to the promised goal?



Message August 2

Preparation for this message requires the reading of the whole of the 16th Chapter of Exodus.

 

In the desert the children of Israel struggled with the realities of their experience, attempting to balance faith with practical concerns for survival. Their concern for food and water in their wilderness experience was over whelming and Moses promised them quail and manna.     These providential acts of God were introduced to them as evidence of God’s love and care.  The rabbis connected these gifts of God to the much older stories in their salvation history such as an important event in Abraham’s life, and the eternal battle between Esau and Jacob. 

Tradition has it that not a day passed that Abraham was not preoccupied with the need to offer hospitality.  It was a most oppressive hot day and the most painful day after his self circumcision in which no guests had come to his door. Abraham was anguished that there was no one to host because his objective of hospitality was only to espouse monotheism. On that day God sent three angels in human form to be hosted by him.  Despite his self inflicted infirmity and the unbearable heat of the day, he urged them to receive his hospitality.  He was unaware that they were in fact angels.  In his pain and discomfort he offered them water to wash their feet, the shade of his tree under which to rest, as well as bread and meat.  Tradition has it that it was because of Abraham’s chesed or righteousness that the Jewish people merited special gifts in the future.  It was these gifts which sustained and protected them throughout their forty year trek in the desert.  Because of Abraham’s offer of water to the angels that the Jewish people received the wellspring of Miriam which traveled with them.  Because of his offer of the shade of his tree they received the protections and benefits of the heavenly clouds.  For the bread offered the angels they were given manna which had special value and sustained them physically for forty years.  And it was in response to Abraham’s offer of meat the wandering Jews were given quail.

Rabbi Rav Hirsch wrote that in our text, “We are led down into the midst of the camp of the nation to see how much training and maturation this nation still required in order to fulfill the lofty aims that had been set for it.” (8:1)  What we find is the nation complaining:  “The Manna isn’t sufficient for us. We miss the fish, melons, squashes and vegetables that we ate in Egypt! The legal restrictions, especially in the arena of family law and sexuality are too limiting! “Oy vey! Woe to us!”

In his personal frustration and disappointment at the attitudes and complaints of his people Moses turned to God for guidance. God authorized Moses to guarantee that the nation of Israel would be given enough meat to satisfy their physical cravings. The episode of the quail culminates in a plague that punished the nation for lack of appreciation and trust in God.

From the perspective of what “should have been”, the Jewish people were within days of entering the promised land. Had they remained focused on their mission as the chosen people they would have avoided the punishment of the 38 additional years in the desert. How is it that the closer they came to attaining their goals and ideals the more obsessed they became with their physical and material needs? Had they not witnessed the grandeur of the parting of the sea, the awesome majesty of revelation, and the constancy of God’s caring and love in miraculously providing them with shelter and sustenance? Why did they begin to loose faith and trust in God so near to the promised goal?

The time spent in the desert was to provide the time and training necessary for the nation to integrate their physicality with their spirituality. From the beginning of time this has been humanity’s greatest challenge.  We are spiritual creatures inhabiting a physical body.  And all too often that which satisfies our body may be poison for the soul.  The reading from II Samuel for today, the conclusion of the story of David and Bathsheba, illustrates that reality. That which satisfies our soul is often rejected by our body. Obviously, had God wished for us not to be physical he would have made us into angels; therefore, our physicality is God’s intention and God’s intention cannot be intrinsically evil. Our physicality is not evil however, we know from experience that dealing with our physical needs is a challenge. Regardless of experiences and awareness, teachings and ideals, the integration of the physical in service to the spiritual is up to all of us and each of us. Food and relationships, natural and necessary for the human provide the two greatest conflicts in our attempt to integrate the physical in service to the spiritual.

Surrounded as they were by the manifestation of God’s generosity it was impossible for the children of Israel to deny the obvious. Their physical existence, as is ours, is completely dependent upon God. However, as they neared the Promised Land, as they prepared to live a physical life of luxury and wealth in a land flowing with milk and honey, as they readied themselves to live a physical existence in service and subjugation to God the components of Israel, as witnessed by Esau and Jacob, engaged each other in battle.

It was never supposed to be easy.

 

Our Gospel reading for today  is John 6:24-35

 

26Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. The people asked: “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

In the Gospel story of the loaves and fishes and its aftermath, the crowd sees Jesus as someone who will satisfy their material needs.  Jesus is trying to liberate people from their obsession with their physical. They want to make him king. Jesus calls them to a deeper understanding because it is only in faith that they can grasp how he gives himself to them as food for eternal life. The manna given to the Israelites in the desert became spoiled after one day, but what he gives does not perish. Faith is first of all an openness to hear and receive and respond to the word. In order to receive the gift of life it is necessary to let go of our fearful grasping .  The word that is heard needs to be assimilated so that the values of the kingdom are appropriated and made part of us. Ultimately, faith means letting Christ make his home in us, so that we can be transformed in a permanent way. It means making space within for Christ to not only dwell there but also to let the attitudes and values of the kingdom influence our way of life. While the we hunger for living bread

Christ hungers to live in us,  to be a bread that is assimilated into us.

Many of us, like the children of Israel are obsessed by our physical needs. We are caught up in our wanting. Responding to the call of Christ is to go beyond wanting. Our ordinary life needs cannot be ignored, they must be accepted and dealt with and then transcended. All to often after a need is satisfied we rush greedily to satisfy it again and again.

In feeding the multitudes Jesus attended to their basic needs but then he challenged them to something higher, to let him become their food, to let him become the source of their attitudes and values. Were they ready and able to hear this message?  To allow Jesus to become for them the bread of life?  Do our patterns of prayer resemble the complaints and demands of the desert wanderers? Prayer of petition and presentation of concerns to the Lord is very legitimate. It is asking God “to be Our God” to be caring and liberating but it often fails to include the prayer that, “we become God’s people” who live according to the values of the kingdom. Such a prayer leaves us open to the challenge to our attitudes and values that is given to us as Christ’s presence is acknowledged in us.

 

 

 

 

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