Sunday, August 2, 2015

Do not work for food that perishes

EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (B)

One difficulty many of us have is that our focus is on things that are too small.  By that I mean we often pay the most attention to things that matter least.  We fixate on the finite and temporal, when our focus should be on the infinite and eternal.

This temptation is understandable.  We are, after all, surrounded by a world which is finite and temporal.  Jesus reminds us of the existence of an eternal reality.  There is nothing in this world that will satisfy us forever; and so Jesus offers us nourishment that is, literally, out of this world.

Our first reading today (Ex 16:2-4, 12-15) opens with grumbling Israelites.  They say they would rather have died as well-fed slaves in Egypt than to be hungry in the desert with Moses.  How quickly the people turn from rejoicing at their freedom to ungrateful complaining about the rumbling in their bellies.  But the Lord hears their grumbling and provides manna from heaven.  Moses tells them, "This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat" (Ex 16:15).

One is reminded of Jesus' exhortation not to worry about the food we shall eat or how we clothe our bodies; God will take care of these needs as He provides for the birds and flowers (Mt 6:25-28).  Jesus also teaches us to ask God for "our daily bread" (Mt 6:11).  The manna was daily bread, raining down from heaven anew each day to sustain the people of God.  Just like those fed by the manna, we too must learn to trust in God for our daily needs.

Jesus was tending to the daily needs of His followers with the miraculous feeding of the five thousand we read about in last week's gospel.  But loaves and fishes can only sustain a person for so long.  The people grew hungry again and so in today's gospel reading they come to Jesus once more.

Rather than offer more to eat, Jesus tells them, "Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life..." (Jn 6:26).  Jesus calls Himself "the true bread from heaven" (Jn 6:32).  Those who ate manna hungered again, just as did those who ate the loaves and fishes.  Each is but a sign of the eternal bread Jesus offers us -- Himself.  "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger" (Jn 6:35).

Food perishes.  Money perishes.  Fame perishes.  Health perishes.  Any pursuit you make in this world is for something which perishes -- except for the pursuit of holiness.  This does not mean that you should quit your job or drop out of school to go live in a cave and eat locusts.  But it is a warning that temporal pursuits can serve to distract us from Christ, and we need to be on guard against that.  We can become so focused on the loaves and fishes that we forget to thank the One who provides them to us.

This is why the Church has always maintained the practice of periodic fasting.  Even Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days.  We fast not because food is bad.  We fast to remind ourselves that it is not the greatest good.  We do not work for food that perishes.

Bl. Alexandrina de Costa 
There have been saints who have endured long periods of fasting, surviving on daily reception of the Eucharist as their only nourishment.  The most recent example is Blessed Alexandrina de Costa (1904-1955) who lived for thirteen years consuming nothing but the Body and Blood of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

Fasting is not just about giving up sweets during Lent.  We can fast from Facebook, smart phones, watching TV, or any other luxury we enjoy, to remind ourselves that we don't really need these things because Jesus Christ is our greatest good.  One day a week we are to fast from our labors and enjoy a day of rest, again to remind ourselves that God is our greatest good.  It is a good practice to occasionally take a retreat, to fast from the world for a few days and remind yourself of what is eternal.

When you live your life focused on the greatest good, a marvelous thing happens.  Things won't bother you as much as they used to.  You won't get worked up over little things, or as they say, "sweat the small stuff."  Because suddenly you discover that it's all small stuff in comparison to the grace of Almighty God.  You begin to view the world from the perspective of faith, hope and love.  You begin to view this passing world from the perspective of eternity.

"I am the bread of life," Jesus says.  "Whoever comes to me will never hunger."

"Lord, give us this bread always" (Jn 6:34).


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