Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 5) 

God surprises us.

The Gospel passage for last Sunday was the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The great crowd had sought out Jesus. They were not looking for food but to hear him speak and to be with him. They were not thinking of what they were going to eat or where they were going to get food. Jesus surprised them all, including his disciples, when he provided more than they could eat from the five barley loaves and the two fish.

God’s activity is not limited by our expectations or desires. He provides for us and acts in ways we do not always expect.

The first reading for today’s liturgy comes from the Book of Exodus. It recalls the Israelites, now free from slavery in Egypt, in the Sinai desert. They grumble to Moses and Aaron that they do not have food. God heard their plea and provided for them. In the morning when they woke and the dew lifted, they found manna to eat and to be nourished. They were surprised by this strange sustenance and even had to ask Moses: “What is this?” Moses answered them, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

Throughout Scripture, God’s saving activity is not always what people expect. Yet when they allowed themselves to be surprised by it, their lives were changed for the better. It is like having their eyes opened and seeing for the first time; like the man born blind in a later part of the Gospel.

The Gospel passage today begins the Bread of Life discourse in St. John’s Gospel. It is a long discourse whereby Jesus invites his hearers to come to know him as the Bread of Life.

Jesus invites us to see him in a certain light. Some of the crowd that had been with him at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes have come after him. We might initially think this is a sign of faith, yet when Jesus speaks, we realize it is something different. He says to them: “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”

The signs Jesus is speaking about are the great miracles he has done, including the multiplication. The sign, however, is not just the miracle itself. It is a recognition of the One who is acting, who does the miracle – Jesus.

Recognizing the signs is recognizing that Jesus is sent from the Father to lead people to the Father through faith. So Jesus calls these people who are seeking him to have faith in him. When they ask Jesus, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” Jesus answers, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”

They then ask for a sign in reference to the manna Moses provided in the desert. Jesus points back to the matter of faith, saying that it was not Moses who provided the bread, but the Father in heaven who “gives … the true bread from heaven.” When they ask for this bread, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

Jesus surprises them with his response. He is the one sent from the Father; he is the one who nourishes them and feeds them for life. His very presence in this world is the source of life. The crowd has to allow themselves to be surprised by God’s saving activity and to open their eyes with faith to recognize Jesus and the One who sent Him. When the put their faith in him, they will be nourished by him whom they see and hear.

Jesus is the Bread of Life who feeds and nourishes us as well. We recognize this in the Eucharist, and later in the Bread of Life discourse, the eucharistic theme will be much more pronounced. At this point, however, we are encouraged to renew our faith in Jesus as the One sent from the Father.

We hear the stories of Jesus from the Gospel every Sunday when we go to Mass. Sometimes we know the stories by heart because we have heard them so often. Yet if we allow ourselves to be surprised, to be in awe, of God’s saving activity in Jesus — whether it is something he says or something he does – we can be led deeper into the mystery of life and love. Jesus calls us to an ever-deepening faith in him and the Father who sent him. We hear that invitation today.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.