Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you; for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.
Here we learn that it is with a view to Jesus, the Son of Man and Risen Christ, that God the Father offers us a heavenly home and an eternal destiny. Because His only-begotten Son deigned to become one of us: humbly living among us and fully sharing our earthly experience, before finally and most dutifully dying for us on the Cross, God the Father wills that we be offered a share in His glorious Resurrection.
It has ever been so, for it was in view of the Son of Man, Jesus the Messiah, Who was to be born of the future People of God, that God decided to lead those chosen captives out of the slavery of Egypt to freedom in a land of their own , and guide them towards an endowment replete with sublime privileges:
To them pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the service of God, and the promises, of whom are the fathers, and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, Who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen. (Romans 9: 4-5)
Now, in the beginning, those slaves called out of Egypt did not, could not, truly appreciate or fully understand what God was doing with them or offering to them. Their sufferings under the Egyptians had made them truly hate their oppression, but only their experience of God’s power through His servant Moses had given them hope that freedom could be theirs. However, they also had to learn from experience that freedom did not come cheap or easy; and so, as the going got hard in the desert, they began to hanker after the fleeting moments of pleasure that had occasionally come their way in slavery: those few hours each day when they might be able to rest from their forced labours and enjoy a restricted allowance of Egyptian food. Fearing that their present journey through the desert might cost more than they had anticipated and forgetting their desire for freedom, they began to fantasize over those occasional bits of meat -- quail, was it -- they had been given in Egypt. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to taste the like again! Imaginations of that sort indulged in and shared with relatives and friends in private conversations soon led to public grumbling and ultimately confrontation with Moses and Aaron as we heard in our first reading:
The Israelites said, “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! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!”
The people were being led by God on ways unknown to them: freedom and food … these were longings God heartily approved of in His People, but these desert wanderers could only imagine eating something satisfying and tasty, appreciate something they could immediately be proud of!
The Lord said to Moses: I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them: In the evening twilight you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread, so that you may know that I, the Lord, am your God.
We can imagine with what eager anticipation and reckless abandonment many of them awaited and then embraced that evening hour of peace and relaxation as -- reconciling themselves to slavery once again -- they recklessly yielded to the enticement of cooked quail after weeks of difficult desert travelling on a daily allowance of unappetizing food:
But (as we are told in the book of Numbers 11:33) while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was aroused against the people.
The Lord God, with Jesus in view, was preparing a homeland of His choice for their good -- a land of milk and honey – a temporal sanctuary for them to be at ease with and grateful for, a motherland where they might live in freedom and gradually learn what freedom in its fullness could mean and demand.
In their desert trials they came to learn that freedom had to be fought for and could only be truly appreciated through a socially well-ordered and disciplined experience of it. That experience would bring with it -- in God’s Providence -- a further vision and a deeper calling to another, and supremely true, freedom: freedom from the slavery to sin with a view to an eternal and glorious destiny before God. For such a transcendent prospect, however, they would have to learn how to persevere in the ways of God and become holy before Him.
But now, by choosing to wallow in a pottage of pleasure, they were disposing themselves to go back to earthly slavery after the example of Esau who had despised his birthright for one miserable dish of pleasurable food:
Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, and Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils; then he ate and drank, arose, and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Genesis 25:33-34)
They were, accordingly, punished severely for doubting the goodness of their Maker and disdaining the dignity of their choice as God’s prospective People:
The Lord struck the people with a very great plague.
The only food suited for God’s people being led from earthly, freedom-sapping, delights, had to be -- as we learned last week -- a very special and supremely sustaining food-for-the-journey: wafer-thin manna, foreshadowing – even in its physical nature – the outward aspect of our saving Eucharist.
Dear People of God, let us just pause here in our considerations and learn from the mistakes of those Israelites, still largely slaves in their attitudes and expectations and for whom that God-given manna occasioned yet further grumbling. Let us learn from their failings and resolve here and now, as true disciples of Jesus, to ever dutifully and wholeheartedly give thanks to God for our ‘manna’ (our experience of God’s goodness and love in our lives to the present moment, our confidence in His Spirit’s guiding Providence over our future, and our hope for our eternal fulfilment in the heavenly home Jesus has gone before to prepare for us)… all of which can be summed up in our gratitude to God for our reception of the most precious Body and Blood of our dearest Lord and Saviour in the Eucharist, our sole and supreme sustenance for the Spirit-led journey to our heavenly Father’s home. We must, by faith, accustom ourselves to the fact that we – like those desert-wandering Israelites of old -- are being led to what is at present, though not unknown to us, nevertheless, vague and shadowy, and so far above our natural abilities and capacities that only by self-committing patience and humility, backed up by steadfast perseverance, can we learn to appreciate and rejoice in God’s plan of salvation as it gradually transfigures us for heavenly life. Here, the words of our Apostle Paul are typically direct and hard-hitting because they are so very pertinent for too many present-day Catholics wanting to be true Christians but yet trying to live it up with those around them enjoying what the world seems to offer them:
I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; that is not how you learned Christ. You should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.
As you heard in the Gospel reading, Jesus said to the Jews, the best living and most spiritually aware of people in the world of those days:
Do not work for food which perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.
People of God, just as human beings cannot find happiness living like animals for the immediate satisfactions of food and debauchery, likewise, one called to become a child of God cannot find authentic happiness and fulfilment by pursuing a merely human plan for life, be it mediated as a ‘pronouncement’ of the United Nations or filched directly from the European Union’s poisonous legacy of French Revolutionary ideas. Our Catholic and Christian calling demands that our lives be both human and divine in the likeness of Jesus Who, though God, became one of us, in order that we fallen human beings, might, in Him, be able to live a divine life of righteousness as adopted children of God in the power of His Spirit.
The great modern tragedy is that our Western societies have the power and the technology to make endless opportunities for people to enjoy the things of this world. After having imperfectly learned over the centuries something of God, many Christians are now despising their heritage of a heavenly calling, as did Esau and Israel of old: the imperfectly understood and little appreciated promises and teachings of Jesus and His Church seem ‘old hat’ in comparison with the always ‘new’ and immediately available pleasures of modern life, with the result that many are preferring to grab what they can for themselves now, rather than to rely on and commit themselves to the goodness of One Whom they cannot see, for blessings which seem – to faithless hearts and opaque eyes -- to be nothing better than empty promises of unverifiable things to come.
However, they should not forget what history has to teach us, for we have heard what happened to Israel in the desert. And, to the Jews of His time, likewise wanting ‘food’ for present pleasure and fulfilment, Jesus declared:
You seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.
They and their contemporaries wanted not the signs of the Messiah of God but what was tangible: ‘teaching’ subject to their own scrutiny and traditions, and ‘popularity’ bought by the food and plenty a victorious King and leader might bring them. Jesus however, offered them then, as He does us now, the teaching of the Only One Who has ever seen God the Father, the Only One ever sent by God the Father, and His own Eucharistic Flesh and Blood -- prefigured by the desert manna -- as the true Bread from Heaven and as Food for a long and difficult journey, indeed, the only ‘proper’ Food for those called to follow Him on pilgrimage from this world to their Father’s heavenly home:
I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Each of us, People of God, has to make this choice in our life, and it has indeed ever been so; for Moses warned the slaves escaping from Egypt:
I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him; for He is your (very) life and the length of your days. (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)
One greater than Moses speaks to us today; therefore let us learn from the Scriptures to hear His message, let us apply our minds to understand the teaching of His Church, finally, let us try to respond to His call with faith and follow His example with courage and perseverance.