25 years ago communism collapsed in Europe, brought down by the masses – masses acting similarly to those who had come together to establish it as a political system at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time communism seemed to address the widespread social injustice and exploitation of capitalism, and offered a vision of equal rights, justice and liberty for all. It created an illusion of utopia, while in practical terms it stayed in power by wielding terror, persecution and oppression. The fundamental rights of millions of people were trampled underfoot, many were murdered, or starved to death or sent to die in inhumane labour camps by those who claimed to be their defenders. Eventually communism in Europe was dismantled and buried. Here, in the West, we tend to perceive that outcome as the triumph of democracy and capitalism over communism. We are mistaken. Most of the protests were sparked by rises in the cost of living. People protested because they were hungry; political demands were either added to the economic ones or perceived as the way of achieving the latter. I’d risk saying that most of the revolutions in the past, including the Arab Spring four years ago, were driven by desperate living conditions, regardless of the political glue used to consolidate the particular movement.
In the first of today’s readings we heard about the people of Israel being led by Moses and Aaron out of Egypt and towards the Promised Land which they believed to be a country flowing with milk and honey. They had believed in a great idea, but the reality for them in the desert was anything but. Short of food and water, they complained and moaned and accused their leaders of misleading them. Moses and Aaron quickly learnt that no army can march on an empty stomach, and that any great political project can fail if its proponents aren’t fed in the literal sense. God’s response to their complaints was the announcement that there would be food, and enough of it for everyone. However, in the small print it stated that: ‘each day people are to go out and gather the day’s portion.’ There would be enough food for one day, and for one day only. Some of the Israelites learnt very quickly that gathering excess amounts of the stuff to tide them over for several days was pointless, as it spoiled and became wormy and therefore inedible. The only exception allowed for the observation of the Sabbath, when the food miraculously lasted for two days. God made his point through such an arrangement: ‘I propose to test them in this way to see whether they will follow my law or not.’ The Israelites were to rely entirely on God and his Providence; they were to trust that God would provide for tomorrow as he did for today.
In the gospel the crowds, fed by Jesus on the banks of the Lake of Galilee, follow him to the town of Capernaum. When they find him, they chat him up: ‘When did you come here?’ Jesus’ response is very direct, even slightly sharp: ‘you are looking for me not because you have seen the signs but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat.’ He remembered that a day earlier they planned to proclaim him king as a result of providing food in a miraculous way – hardly the result Jesus expected from that event. So now he’s making things crystal clear: he’s not the one to offer free food on a daily basis. The multiplication of food – as we heard about last Sunday – was to point them to God who cares for them. As in the first reading today, food is provided to keep them going in pursuit of higher, spiritual things.
However out of touch it might sound, these spiritual things are part and parcel of our very own existence. We are desperate to make sense of our lives, we are desperate to love and to be loved, we long to be noticed and appreciated. Although food is necessary to achieve all these aspirations, food simply cannot fulfil them. Some people either comfort themselves with food for their failures or deprive themselves of food in order to achieve their misplaced goals. Either way, the final result can be fatal. Jesus calls his followers, among them ourselves, ‘to work for food that endures to eternal life’ and he adds ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry.’ Jesus really can fulfil your needs and desires; then you’ll need your daily bread to follow him.