Gospel for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (1 August 2021)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus 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. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?
What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then 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. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus 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 (John 6:24-35 – NRSV).
John’s account of the miracle of the loaves and fishes concludes with the following: “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (6:15). This is a sure sign that the people have little or no understanding of who Jesus is and what his mission is about. Today’s Gospel text begins with a similar expression of their ignorance: “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (6:24). This ignorance – and, more importantly, disbelief – is a feature of John’s Gospel. Some of Jesus sternest words are directed at “the Jews” who will not believe he is who he says he is – eg John 8:42-47: “Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God’.”
Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel needs to be studied as a single text. See the commentary on last Sunday’s text (Seventeenth Sunday) – John 6:1-15 – and next three Sunday’s texts – Nineteenth Sunday (John 6:41-51), Twentieth Sunday (6:51-58) and Twenty First Sunday (6:60-69). On the Twenty Second Sunday we return to the Mark’s Gospel.
“What must we do to perform the works of God?”: This question is also a sign that the people do not understand. They are looking for some strategy or technique or sure-fire process whereby they can be faithful to the Covenant. Francis Moloney writes: “The crowd attempts to bypass the promise of the Son of Man, asking: ‘What must we do to be devoting ourselves to the works of God (hina ergazōmetha ta erga theou)’ (v. 28). The question depends on the Jewish belief that the Law, given through Moses, allows direct access to God. Doing the works of the Law means doing things that please God (cf. CD 2:14–15). Jesus’ response indicates that the way to God by means of the works of the Law is but a shadow of the possibility he offers them. Access to God is only through the Son who makes God known (cf. 1:18). The only way to do the work of God (ton ergon tou theou) is to believe in the one whom God has sent (v. 29)” (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998, 209).
What John Dominic Crossan writes of the parables of Jesus, applies here: “The parables of Jesus seek to draw one into the Kingdom, and they challenge us to act and to live from the gift which is experienced therein. But we do not want parables. We want precepts and we want programs. We want good precepts and we want sensible programs. We are frightened by the lonely silences within the parables.” (John Dominic Crossan, In Parables - The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Harper and Row, 1973,, 82.)
The lesson “the Jews” had to learn – and we all have to learn – is that “Jesus is the way” (John 14:6). Or, to put it another way, Jesus is “the bread of life” (6:35).
One of the truly great biographies, is Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London: Faber & Faber, 1967). Chapter 15 begins: “A decade elapsed between Augustine’s first works after his conversion and the writing of his best-known masterpiece, the Confessions. In this decade, Augustine moved imperceptibly into a new world” (146). The chapter is entitled, “The Lost Future”. Brown notes that Augustine had thought of himself as becoming “a sapiens, a wise man, living a life of contemplation, determined ‘to grow godlike’ in (his) retirement”. During those years following his conversion in 386, Augustine became increasingly aware of a fundamental truth. Brown quotes him: “Whoever thinks that in this mortal life a man may so disperse the mists of bodily and carnal imaginings as to possess the unclouded light of changeless truth, and to cleave to it with the unswerving constancy of a spirit wholly estranged from the common ways of life – he understands neither What he seeks, nor who he is who seeks it" (147). Brown reflects: “A new image will make its appearance: that of a long highway …. The moments of clear vision of truth that the mind gains in this life, are of infinite value; but they are now the consolations of a traveller on a long journey” (152).
In today’s Gospel – John 6:24-35 – we are told that the people are “looking for Jesus”. What do they want? What do they expect? Jesus says to them: “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves”. Still, they do not understand what he is pointing out to them. So they ask for a program, a sort of moral schedule that will ensure that they will be able to please God: “What must we do to perform the works of God?”
The people are unaware of their own deepest need, what they really want. They are also unaware of what is on offer in Jesus. Their most fundamental desire and what Jesus is offering, go together. He is what they want. Recall that moment recorded near the beginning of John’s Gospel when the two disciples of John the Baptist walk after Jesus. “Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see’. They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day” (1:38-39). The English words “staying” and “remained” translate the Greek verb meno. That word may also be translated as “abide” or “make your home”. John develops it more fully in the parable of the vine – see 15:1-11. The disciples will come to know that discipleship is a journey, a learning to “remain” with him, to “abide” in his love.
Life never turns out as we expect it. The “lost future” can be one of life’s most precious – if painful – gifts. It can make available a deepening awareness of what it is we want – what we really want. Let Augustine’s words find a place in your heart: “Not to be more certain of You, but to be more steadfast in You” (St Augustine, Confessions, Bk 8, 1:1).