Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time



First Reading: Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15; Response: Psalm 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54; Second Reading: Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; Gospel: John 6:24-35

Exodus is the second of the five great scrolls attributed to Moses as author. The five scrolls (or books) are known by the Hebrew word, the Torah, sometimes translated at the Law or the Teaching, or the Word. Christians usually call this quintet the Pentateuch. The latter is derived from the Greek words for five and scroll, or the five cases (tubes) in which the scrolls are stored. Exodus tells the story of the escape or exit of the Israelites from a minority status in Egypt that reduced them to slave-like labor. The family of Jacob, also known as Israel, emigrated to Egypt because of severe famine in the land of Canaan, later called Palestine. The time of the migration is around 1700 B.C. Genesis 15:3 notes that the descendants of Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather, would be slaves in a land not their own for four hundred years. 1 Kings tells us that Solomon began building the temple in Jerusalem in the 480th year after the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, about the year 960 B.C. These are all round numbers, so the beginning of the Exodus could be placed around 1400 B.C.

In narratives of the Old Testament, one should not expect accuracy in numbers. When we read of the 40 years of wandering from Egypt to the Promised Land, we should understand that for a few generations the Israelites led a nomadic existence from Sinai eastward and northward until they were able to infiltrate and establish themselves, sometimes with violence, in the land of the Canaanites. During these years, they faced a constant struggle to find food and water for their flocks and for themselves. When these were inadequate, they turned against their leadership centered on Moses. They accused him of craftily leading them into the wilderness to starve them. The Lord comes to the rescue. “I will now rain down bread from heaven . . . .” The Lord also knew that “man does not live by bread alone.” The Lord again: “In the evening, quail came up and covered the camp.” Now they had carbohydrates and protein. What brand of bread? In the morning, the people found flake-like stuff covering the ground like frost. In Hebrew they asked, “Man hu?” (What’s this?) A popular explanation of the word manna claims that it evolved from that question, “Man hu?” More likely the word is derived from a Greek word meaning powder. The key words manna and bread from heaven connect the first reading with today’s gospel.

Psalm 78 continues the theme of God feeding his people with manna, bread from heaven. The first reading was in narrative form. The psalm is a form of poetry. The people’s response, “The Lord gave them bread from heaven.” The second set of verses says it all. “He opened the doors of heaven and rained down manna upon them for food and gave them the bread from heaven.” The final set of verses presents us with a new name for the manna. “Man ate the bread of angels.” The name is well known, at least in the world of liturgical music in the Latin hymn, Ecce panis angelorum. (Behold, the bread of angels.) Though known as a hymn in itself, it is a stanza in the Sequence of the Mass for Corpus Christi. Author: St. Thomas Aquinas.

The second reading continues a series from Ephesians. A major theme of the letter is a call for unity between Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles. Paul speaks directly to the Gentile element, “You must no longer live as the heathens (Gentiles) do.” How did the heathens live? See Romans 12:12-13. Paul must have received a report that some of his converts clung to or returned to the vices of their former lives. The 2nd Letter of Peter 2:22 summarizes in a proverb, “The dog returns to his vomit. A washed sow returns to her mud hole.” Not a pretty picture!

In the introduction to the Bread of Life Discourse, John inserted two miracles. He calls them signs because they signify some identity of Jesus. In the story of feeding the five thousand, last Sunday’s gospel, John revealed Jesus as Messiah, (Christ), the Prophet like Moses or new Moses, and as a king. Our lectionary omits the second sign — Jesus walking on the sea. After feeding the multitude, Jesus withdrew to the hills to escape the enthusiastic crowd. The disciples got into their boat and headed home to Capernaum on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. A strong west wind blew against them, hindering their progress. Suddenly they saw Jesus approaching, walking on the sea. He calmed their fears, and said, “I AM. Do not be afraid.” What is John’s catechesis? In the Old Testament only, God walks on the sea. See Job 9:8; Psalm 38:16; Psalm 77:19; Isaiah 43:16. John has just confirmed what he proclaimed in the Prologue to his gospel, “And the Word was God.” If that fails to teach the divine identity of Jesus, he has a backup, when he depicts Jesus saying, “I AM,” a name God revealed as his personal name. See Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 4:10, 13. Jesus’ identity as God is the ultimate identity to be added to those already revealed in the feeding of the multitude.

Why all these identities of Jesus as introductory to the discourse? The discourse will teach new and difficult revelation. The point is this: if Jesus is everything the introduction claims, then what he teaches in the Bread of Life Discourse must be absolutely true. In today’s gospel, the crowd also arrived on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus accuses them of just wanting more food for their stomachs. He says, “Do not work for food that perishes, but for food that endures to eternal life.” They ask what works they can do to get this new food. He answers, “This is the work of God, to believe in the One he sent.” The crowd: “If that be the case, what is your proof, since Moses got us bread from heaven?” Jesus responds, “Moses did not give you bread from heaven, but my Father is giving you the true bread from heaven,” (right now in this discourse). The revelation that next follows in the discourse is that true bread from heaven. John confirms once again what he claimed in the Prologue to the gospel, “The Torah was given through Moses. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”