This Sunday, we read about two different groups — the Israelites in the desert, and Jesus’ followers in Capernaum — who show little loyalty to God.
In the first case, it’s right after God has freed the Israelites from Egypt. There are the ten plagues, the Passover, the parting of the Red Sea, and the Israelites are loving it! Their slave-owners are humiliated and then vanquished, and their set free from Egypt, on their way to the Promised Land!
Only problem is, this journey from slavery to freedom is a lot harder than they expected, and they start to pine for the days of slavery, when at least their material needs were met. Halfway into their second month of travelling (a journey that will ultimately take forty years), they’re ready to give up. They complain to Moses and Aaron, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3). They’re willing to accept comfortable slavery over the struggle for freedom, even though they know that this slavery will impede their ability to worship God. It’s here that God provides the people with Manna from Heaven: meeting their material needs in such a way as to encourage them to remember from where these blessing come.
In John 6, we see a passage that’s reminiscent of this scene. Jesus has just performed the miracle of the multiplication of loaves, and His followers are loving it! He took five loaves and two fish, and miraculously fed a crowd of five thousand, with twelve baskets of leftovers (As an aside, I suppose that this means that Jesus basically invented bottomless breadsticks). The people respond, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” (John 6:14). Surprisingly, Jesus isn’t thrilled with this response: “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the hills by himself” (John 6:15). And why isn’t He thrilled? Because He realizes that they’re after free food, not the Truth, not a saving relationship with Him.
This becomes painfully clear the next day (John 6:26-31):
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing 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, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
So even as Jesus is encouraging them to go from an obsession with their material needs to faith in Him, the people derail the conversation back to free breadsticks. Reading these passages, it’s easy to shake our heads, and say, “You dummies, don’t you get it? It’s not about the free food!”
But before we do that, maybe we should look at our own lives a little closer. How would you feel if the parish announced Coffee and Doughnuts after Mass, and then had a Bible study instead? Would you feel ripped off to feed on the Word, rather than donuts?
So much of our days are spent chasing material things, rather than praising (or even being cognizant of) God. And so much of our time praising God is spent thanking Him for the material things. Neither of those things, of themselves are bad, but neither was the Jews’ desire to have bread when they were hungry. The danger comes when our wants and needs lead us to treat God as our Divine butler or Heavenly vending machine.
A good remedy to this is the prophet Habakkuk’s prayer (Hab. 3:17-19), in which he praises God when things are going terribly:
Though the fig tree do not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like hinds’ feet,
he makes me tread upon my high places.
That’s a lot harder than typing “Amen” to a Facebook post asking if God has blessed you today. But it’s the kind of devotion to which we’re being called.
More than this, we’re called to praise God not just when nothing is going our well, but when we can’t feel His presence. Sometimes, God feels very close, and it’s easy to pray. Other times, He seems distant, and prayer can be a real struggle. Maybe this is our own fault: our sins and inattention are damaging that relationship; but other times, it’s part of a sort of purification of the soul. In these moments, God is inviting us to love Him for Him, and not for the good spiritual feelings He can produce in our souls. It exposes the most subtle way that we do what those Israelites did, wanting a relationship God for His good effects rather than Himself.
Here, I’d invite you to a few things.
- Practice loving God in Himself, rather than just appreciating His usefulness. Watch your own motives, and when necessary, do better.
- Pray and read Scripture more. These are great ways of encountering the living God, of learning to speak to Him, and learning to listen to Him.
- If you don’t go to Mass regularly, do so. If you have the chance to go every day, go every day. It’s your chance to receive the New Manna from Heaven, the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. If you’re currently unable to receive the Eucharist for some reason — you’re not a member of the Catholic Church, or some sin is keeping you from receiving — do whatever it takes to fix your situation. What could possibly be so important as to justify not receiving the Eucharist? (Answer: nothing.)