Homily of His Eminence Charles Cardinal Maung Bo SDB, Catholic Archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Readings: Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15; Psalm 77 (78): 3-4, 23-25, 54; Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; John 6:24-35
“I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:24-35)
1 August 2021
Food insecurity has been steadily declining over the past 25 years. But there is no guarantee that this trend will continue or that it is irreversible.
Indicators of world hunger have been rising since 2016. The latest figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are alarming. In 2020, one out of every seven persons went at least one full day without food.
Africa is the most affected. Two thirds of its inhabitants are not sure they will have enough to eat. South America is also experiencing a spectacular and dramatic reversal. Brazil is now classified as an “emerging hunger hotspot” by the NGO Oxfam. On closer inspection, this situation is aberrant. It is the result of artificially high prices. Some countries are building up reserves in a completely unreasonable manner. China alone is storing half of the world’s unprocessed agricultural materials for fear of being unable to feed its population. This is one of the factors behind the dizzying rise in the price of a ton of wheat, which has doubled in five years. The most dependent countries find themselves trapped. The cost of food security for some is paid for with insecurity for others. In other words, the source of this inflation is the fear of running out. We rightly emphasise the role of conflicts, epidemics and climate change in major food crises. But this should not make us forget that one of the main causes of the current imbalances is found in the selfishness of certain nations.
It is quite difficult for as Europeans or Americans, to understand the importance of bread unless we turn on the TV and watch what is going on in so many parts of the world today. When there is no staff of life there is suffering and famine. A simple loaf of bread: Something, which we do not give a second thought, but in certain parts of the world it means life itself.
It is only as we comprehend that situation that we really begin to understand the importance of bread not only now but also in the time of Jesus. Just think for a moment how so many significant theological events in the Bible revolve around the subject of bread. The most important event in the Old Testament of course, was the Exodus event – the trip from Egypt to the Promised Land. But what caused the Hebrews to be in Egypt in the first place? It was for want of bread you will recall. The wheat crop had failed due to draught, and the Hebrews had migrated to the land of the Pharaoh because there was a surplus in storage there “Go to Joseph”. It was bread, or the lack of it, that initiated this whole chain of events.
Later, when the Jews were on their way to the Promised Land, and they were facing starvation in the bleak wilderness, God rained down bread from heaven, as it was called, in the form of manna.
When Jesus began his ministry, he went into the desert where he was tempted. As the hot sun braced down upon him, he looked out with sweaty eyes at the round white rocks, and we are told that they took on the appearance of loaves of bread. Satan was tempting Jesus to give bread to the people and end the suffering of world hunger. Yet, Jesus spurned that temptation because, he said, that man cannot live by bread alone.
One day Jesus was praying by the roadside when the disciples walked up and saw him. They were so impressed by the genuineness of his prayer that they implored him: Master, teach us how to pray. It was in the midst of the Master’s prayer that he reminds us of the importance of the staff of life. He prayed: Give us this day our daily bread.
Perhaps supremely we remember bread, because it was on the night that Jesus was betrayed that he met with his disciples in that event that we now call the Last Supper. As he did so, he took a loaf of bread and broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: This is my body, which is broken for you. You simply cannot escape the significance of bread throughout the length and breadth of our Judeo-Christian heritage.
Which brings us to the story. It begins with that event known as the feeding of the 5000. A small boy is brought to Jesus with five barely loaves and from that meagre supply of bread Jesus is able to feed the vast multitude that had assembled. After this event Jesus goes into his teaching but there is an issue. His miracle has generated controversy.
Quite impressed with what they have seen, a group of scribes approach Jesus and say, in effect, if you are the Messiah prove it. They pointed out that when the Hebrews were in the wilderness Moses was able to bring bread from heaven (6:30). Since that time there had been a strong rabbinic belief that when the Messiah comes he, too, would bring manna from heaven. This had been the superman act of Moses and surely, they reasoned, the Messiah could surpass that. In other words, the Jews were challenging Jesus to substantiate his claim of Messiahship by raining bread from heaven.
Some might immediately say, well, was not the feeding of the 5000 a miracle in their eyes? Yes and no. They were impressed – no doubt about that – but, you see, Jesus’ critics argue that he merely fed 5000 whereas Moses had fed a nation. Jesus, they said, you have fed these people for one day but Moses did it for 40 years. What you have done is multiply a few earthly loaves of bread and fish but Moses made it appear from out of nowhere.
The Messiah, it was thought at the time, would outperform the signs of Moses. He who was to come would do the superior work.
Jesus meets these expectations by saying that they had misinterpreted the Moses event. First of all, he reminded them that the bread had not come from Moses but from God. They were putting the emphasis in the wrong place. Moses was the facilitator, but not the originator. Secondly, said Jesus, they failed to see that the real bread from heaven was not manna at all. That was only meant to be a symbol of the true bread. The real bread from heaven comes down and feeds not only man’s physical needs but also his spiritual hunger as well. It was at this point, and don’t miss the significance of this, Jesus said: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall never hunger and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”
Bread is central to the major stories of the bible and plays a significant role in life but we must understand first that to satisfy our hunger for heaven we cannot eat the bread of earth. I think that it is obvious. Jesus was saying that they were putting too much emphasis on physical bread. That is not to say that it is insignificant. Don’t misunderstand him. Supplying physical needs is important.
What Jesus is saying here is—there is a deeper aspect to this whole issue? Let’s take a look: 200 years before Jesus arrived on the scene, the Roman Emperor Aurelian initiated something called the “bread dole.” This meant that grain could be supplied to the poor for half price. The dole quickly became a political tool to be used by tribunes to buy voters, what is now happening in Communist countries. If Jesus were not careful, this whole thing of giving bread could quickly degenerate into a tool to win friends and influence people. He would become as just another demagogue—just another politician.
The point here is this: Bread can be used as a weapon. In the past, there are those in our own government, decorate and republican, that have advocated that very thing. If nations withhold oil from us, then we withhold bread from them. On the surface feeding the world’s hungry sounds like such an ideal thing, but when this whole issue is examined it becomes much more complex.
We have always thought that the temptation to give bread to the world was the greatest that Jesus ever experienced, because I am certain that his great compassionate heart melted at the sight of those who were hungry, so many of whom were children. With the snap of a finger it could have been done. But Jesus understood the ramifications of this and did what he had to do by refusing to fall into that tempting trap.
Yes, bread plays a significant role in every country and in every life but we must understand second that to satisfy our hunger for heaven we must eat the bread of heaven. Jesus was saying: While life in its most elementary form depends upon bread, bread only sustains life, it does not make life what God intended it to be.
Bread has power but in the end its power will fail. Bread can buy you land but not love; it can buy you bonds but not brotherhood; gold but not gladness; silver but not sincerity; hospitals but not health; houses but not homes. You can trade bread for commodities but not happiness, real estate but not righteousness, hotels but not heaven.
To satisfy your hunger for heaven you cannot eat the bread of earth, you must eat the bread of God. That bread is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
The crowd said to Jesus: Give us the bread from heaven. Do what Moses did and we will be satisfied. But Jesus is saying: I am the bread from heaven. He who comes after me will never hunger. As bread nourishes us physically, so Jesus nourishes us spiritually.
Any proud father of an 8-year-old daughter and a 1-year old son, will provide them with all the physical needs that they should have. Feed them, cloth them, give them warm bed, become fairly proficient in changing diapers. But more and more they discover that their needs go so much deeper than those physical needs. She wants to be loved and held. He wants to play. She has a desire for knowledge. He hungers after new experiences. In short, they desire quality of life and not mere existence. That is what Jesus Christ ultimately provides for us – quality of life – a way to get beyond ourselves and mere existence and experience life and an intensity of life that we have never before experienced.
Our Help Comes from Above
Looking out during the fall especially in Europe, we noticed the leaves falling while the tree branches remained stretching heavenward – not only did they remain that way after the leaves were gone, but when the snows came and the often brutal winds seemed to bend them into submission. But in the spring the trees seemed to speak to me saying, “Notice that we kept our branches lifted towards where our help comes from.” To me it seemed that they praised God with or without leaves, as if they knew that keeping their branches up was a means of patient waiting faith, and it was in the spring when the buds appeared on their branches that those trees seemed to say to me, “We told you. We told you that our help comes from above.”
So not only does this text tell us that God provides through Jesus not what we want but what we need and that God’s promise can sustain us through all times, but, finally, the text tells us God’s presence through Jesus allows us room to grow in grace.
What Would You Like Written?
Somewhere I recall reading of a newspaperman whose job it was to edit the obituary page. One day, things were right slow on the job – nobody died – so he searched around for something to do. As he sat staring at the keys on his typewriter, he began to think about what his OWN obituary might look like if suddenly it became necessary to publish one. As he thought about it, he realized that there would not be very much to say beyond place of birth, job, family, and so on. So he began to compose the kind of obituary for himself that he would LIKE to have written. In it he included all sorts of church activities and community service, involvement with young people, his community, support for the various educational institutions, help with the United Way – one worthwhile activity after another. When the obituary was finished, he was most impressed, but at the same time, most discouraged. Because he realized that what he had written was a big lie. It became a challenge to him, and for the rest of his life, that man made the effort to live up to that glowing obituary he had written. It worked. He DID become involved in his church and community more than ever before, and the result finally was that the fanciful obituary he had written on one slow day proved to become a roadmap for his life. What kind of obituary would you like to have written about you?
In one of her books, Mother Teresa wrote: “The spiritual poverty of the Western world is much greater than the physical poverty of [Third World] people. You in the West have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. They feel unwanted and unloved … These people are not hungry in a physical sense but they are in another way. They know they need something more than money, yet they don’t know what it is. What they are missing really is a living relationship with God.”
(Excerpts from esermons.com and La Croix Magazine)
Reproduced with permission from Cardinal Charles Bo SDB and the Catholic Archdiocese of Yangon, Myanmar.