Brief synopsis of the readings: In the Book of Exodus we find the newly freed slaves from Egypt in the wilderness. Instead of gratitude to Moses for freeing them from bondage they are instead complaining: “Why did we not die at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt when we were able to sit down to pans of meat and could eat bread to our heart’s content? As it is, you have brought us to this wilderness to starve this whole company to death!” God then told Moses that he “will rain down bread from the heavens.” The next morning there was coating dew. When the dew lifted there “was a thing delicate, powdery, as fine as hoarfrost on the ground.” When they asked what it was Moses told them it was bread from the Lord. In John’s Gospel we see people seeking out Jesus shortly after last week’s passage about the loaves and fishes. Jesus acknowledged that they had eaten their fill but encouraged them not to look for food that will not last but instead for “the kind of food the Son of Man is offering you, for on him the Son of Man is offering you.” He reminded them that in Exodus the bread came not from Moses but from God. He then tells them: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst.”
I can only imagine Moses rolling his eyes when his followers accused him of dragging them out of Egypt against their will only to die in the wilderness. When they told him that they “were able to sit down to pans of meat and could eat bread to our heart’s content” he must have wondered what they were talking about. Slaves down through the ages never ate that well; enslaving somebody requires that they never be comfortable and well fed. We don’t know just how much they had but that level of ingratitude should stun us.
If we get our picture of this scene from Hollywood (and particularly the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments) we see them fleeing Egypt with little more than the rags on their back and Moses’ staff that parts the Red Sea. On the other hand we read in the 32nd chapter of Exodus that they had enough gold to melt it down and fashion a golden calf.
Regardless, nearly within sight of the Red Sea they feared starvation and conjured an idea that Egypt was the land of milk and honey and they were there against their will. Had I been Moses I would have started negotiation with God to abandon them and find another, better “chosen people.”
If we’re honest we can think of people we’ve lived with, worked with, or known who are like this. The minute something goes wrong they begin to lament their plight and blame everyone else, especially their leaders, for their woes. They inflate what they left and deflate what they have. I had a coworker who referred to them as “Gloomy Guses.” I’m also reminded of a quotation from Albert Einstein who once said that we should “stay away from negative people. They have a problem for every solution.”
But God, in his mercy, ignored the advice of both Albert Einstein and me. Instead God sent what we now refer to as manna and it gave them the nourishment they needed to reach the Promised Land. Since then the phrase “manna from heaven” has become a metaphor for receiving the things that we need when we need them.
And this metaphor continues in today’s Gospel from John. Jesus’ followers must have been amazed at the multiplication of loaves and fishes and it’s not hard to imagine that they wished to continue to follow Jesus.
But they likely followed in the hopes of finding out how they could continue to receive “magic bread.” Instead Jesus offered them, and us, so much more. An unlimited supply of bread will keep us alive for the rest of our natural life, but Jesus promises us bread that will keep us alive forever.
In fairness the idea of magic bread sounds pretty good. We can survive a few weeks or even months without food but we can’t survive forever. No matter how much we eat we will eventually get hungry again. And as a matter of fact, eating too much causes us pain and perhaps some guilt.
It’s not in this reading but later in Exodus God gives strict instructions on manna. It will appear every morning and it must be consumed that day. Do not attempt to save it for the next day because it will not last. Attempting to save it only shows a fear that it will not appear tomorrow.
This should shock nobody but all this talk about manna foretells our understanding of Eucharist. We attend mass and receive Eucharist weekly (or sometimes daily) and we receive a small wafer instead of a whole loaf and a bag to carry home the leftovers. We don’t even think about this because we know that our ability to receive this will not end. God will never stop feeding us what we need to live forever.
We live in a time where fear has become fashionable, where we think we need to hoard in case we run out of what we need. But let us see Eucharist as a sign that no matter what happens, God will not abandon us.
In the wilderness God promised more than his people deserved, or even imagined. In John Jesus promised more than his followers wanted or even imagined.
Let us not be “Gloomy Guses” because that causes us to turn away from God’s love. Let us instead fully recognize that God’s promise to us will never end, no matter what we think.