John 6:24-35, 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
My dear friends, have you ever had an itch that you just can’t seem to scratch? Do you know what it feels like? It can be quite frustrating. No matter how hard or how often I may drag my fingernails across that spot on my body, where I think the itch is located, I get no relief. I may even scratch so hard that my skin gets broken and infected. But the itch remains. And it may be because the sensation I’m feeling is not actually found on my skin, but somewhere else. I don’t know where. In my nerves perhaps. Or even in my mind. The itch may be neurological or psychological. So that it can’t be relieved in a superficial way. But only by going deeper.
Strange as it may sound, sisters and brothers, I believe we find something similar in our Mass readings today. People experiencing a deep itch, and trying to scratch it in a superficial way. Both in the first reading and the gospel, people are feeling hungry. And, quite naturally, they assume that their hunger can be satisfied by filling their mouths with food, their bellies with bread. In the first reading, the whole community of Israelites complain to Moses and Aaron that they have no food. And, in the gospel, crowds of people follow Jesus across the Lake of Galilee, because he had earlier given them all the bread they wanted to eat. With just five barley loaves and two fish, he had fed five thousand.
Both in the first reading and the Gospel, people are anxious to scratch an itch. And yet, all the scratching in the world, all the food on this earth, can bring them no permanent relief. For the sensation they are feeling is not something that can be removed by meat and bread alone. Theirs is not really a hunger for food, but a yearning for meaning. A deep desire for a life that has a definite direction. A life filled with true purpose. Something that has the power to gather up all the broken disconnected pieces of one’s existence, and to unify them into an inspiring story, a beautiful work of art.
How do we know this? We see it in the way in which God responds to the peoples’ complaint. Notice how, in the first reading, although God provides meat and manna to fill the Israelites’ bellies, God does this in a very particular way. God gives detailed instructions for how the food is to be gathered, distributed, and consumed. By doing this, God provides the people not just with nourishment, but also with a precious opportunity to practice obedience. To learn how to live a life that is not just centred on one’s own selfish interests, but that revolves around God’s loving and merciful will instead. I propose to test them in this way, God tells Moses, to see whether they will follow my law or not. Scripture scholars tell us that the sending of manna from heaven actually points to the precious gift of the Law, through which God provides the people with the guidance that they need to live a meaningful and purposeful life in the Promised Land.
Isn’t this also what Jesus is trying to do in the Gospel? He encourages the people to work not for food that cannot last, but for food that endures to eternal life. And to do this by believing in him, the one God has sent. For Jesus himself is the true bread… which comes down from heaven. He alone is the living embodiment of the Law. Those who come to him, those who truly believe in him, those who allow their lives to be moulded according to his example, they are the ones who will never be hungry. They are the ones who will never thirst. They are the ones whose itch God will help them to scratch.
All of which may help us connect better with our Mass readings today. We who live in a place like Singapore. Blessed as we are to have such an abundant variety of tasty food to eat. Let’s face it, many of us here are rich enough, such that we have to worry less about getting enough to eat than about choosing which particular delicacies to enjoy at any given meal. And yet, isn’t it true that, both as individuals and as a society, we continue to experience a hunger for meaning and purpose and direction? Don’t many of us try to satisfy this deep yearning in superficial and less than helpful ways? Isn’t this why, for many of us, life is characterised by compulsive consumption? Not just in matters of food and drink, or handbags and watches, or cars and entertainment. But also in the way we relate to work, and even to religion. Could this also be the reason why we have to obsessively check the screens of our mobile devices every few seconds? Not so much because there is an urgent message for us to read. But to scratch an itch that simple refuses to go away.
If this is true, then perhaps it is important for us to heed the message in the second reading. Which reminds us not to go on living the aimless kind of life that pagans live. The kind of life that dissipates itself in so many different directions, because it is focused only on the satisfaction of illusory desires. On superficially scratching an itch which refuses to go away. Instead, we are called to put on a new self, to live a new life in Christ, created in God’s way, in the goodness and holiness of the truth. The truth that life is not about food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rm 14:7). Isn’t this why we take the time to gather here this evening? To allow our loving and merciful Lord to feed us with the bread from heaven. The true nourishment that fills our lives with deeper meaning.
My dear sisters and brothers, whether we realise it or not, we all have within us an itch that we cannot scratch. A yearning that we cannot satisfy. At least not on our own. No matter how hard we may try. For it has been placed in us by God. What must we do, you and I, to allow God to scratch our itch today?
*from Breaking the Word