Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 78:3-4, 23-25, 54
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 4:17, 20-24
Gospel: According to St. John 6:24-35
“Grumble! Grumble! Grumble!” Thirty high school freshmen, including myself, were chanting with full voice. “Grumble! Grumble! Grumble!” Fr. Jim Lewis, S.J., stood on top of his desk flailing his arms wildly, whipping his first period theology class into a frenzy. “Grumble! Grumble! Grumble!”
We were in the midst of going through the story of the Exodus experience of the Chosen People and Fr. Lewis wanted us to place ourselves in the story. He took the role of Moses while we, Homeroom 1B, played the disgruntled Israelite community. I doubt that this performance launched any careers in the theater, but it did draw each of us into the world of Ignatian contemplation – the method of prayer that allows God into our hearts through our entering the scene of various biblical stories.
As clueless freshmen we had no idea what Ignatian contemplation was. We just thought that Fr. Lewis had temporarily lost his mind – and who could blame us? At the front of the classroom was a Jesuit priest jumping up and down on the top of his desk and urging his students into a zealous revolt. But there was a method to his apparent madness, and in the mind of at least one of those boys this memory has embedded itself for the past 44 years.
Not only did Fr. Lewis succeed in his lesson because he allowed 14-year-old boys to do what 14-year-old boys love to do, but because the story itself hits at such a visceral level – a level that even has a wonderful neologism to describe it: hangry, that frightening world where hunger turns to anger. Anyone who has ever travelled with children, or been in a meeting that has gone on too long, knows what happens when people get hangry.
The Israelites were so hangry that they looked back upon their slavery in Egypt with wistful longing: “Would that we had died at the Lord's hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread!” That’s the apex of being hangry: a willingness to return to slavery and cruel mistreatment, to trade in one’s newfound freedom, so as to eat a decent meal. So God had pity on the Israelites and sent them food to quell their hanger.
Jesus tells those who had been fed by the multiplication of the loaves and fishes that they, like their ancestors during the Exodus, have been fed by “bread from heaven” – bread that came not from the toil of any human baker, but directly from the hand of God. The link between the Eucharist and the bread given in the desert and on the hillside would have been hidden from the minds of those in Jesus’ audience, but it is obvious to any modern reader who is paying attention.
The modern-day spiritual grumbling of those who hunger is there for all to hear and see. The search for inner peace takes many people in a number of political, ideological, and quasi-religious directions; while others simply give up the quest and settle for the in-the-moment satisfaction of the bread and circuses offered by those who control this world. It seems that the willingness to be slaves who are well-fed is not just a characteristic of those who lived millennia ago.
When the Israelites grumbled because they were physically starving, God acted and sent them food. They ate, they were amazed at the power and the love of God, and they were set physically free. Now the modern world grumbles because it is spiritually starving, God acts and sends His Son – the spiritual food of the Eucharist. To eat of this food is to be amazed at the power and the love of God and to be set spiritually free – and to hanger no more.