18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached August 5, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Today’s readings invite us to compare the manna that was given to the Israelites as food in the desert with Jesus Christ who is revealed to us as the Bread of Life.
The first comparison is between two journeys, the journey of the Israelites in the desert and the journey of those who believe in Jesus Christ.
God sent Moses to free the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt and to lead them through the desert to the fulfillment of his promise in the land of Israel, a land described as flowing with milk and honey, the good life. The Christian journey is a journey from slavery to sin and death, through the desert of this life, to the fulfillment in the land of the resurrection and eternal life.
Today’s 2nd reading, speaks about this same Christian journey through a different perspective, but the meaning has become a bit confused on account of a defective translation.
In the actual reading we hear a contrast between the old self and the new self. A more correct translation would read, concerning your former way of life, put away the old man, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new man, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.
The difference between old man and new man, old self and new self, might seem trivial, but the use of the word ‘self’, apparently because the word ‘man’ would seem ‘exclusive’ and ‘sexist’, loses the richness of scriptural meaning and radically shifts the emphasis. The word ‘self’ puts the focus on what belongs to me, because I am a unique individual, the word ‘man’ puts the focus on what belongs to me because I share in the reality of human nature and possess a common inheritance with all men.
The contrast between ‘old self’ and ‘new self’ puts the focus on changing my personal way of life; the contrast between ‘old man’ and ‘new man’ actually involves rejecting a corrupt inheritance, which I have in common with every human being who is born into this world, in order to receive a blessed inheritance that I share in common with everyone who has been reborn in Christ.
The old man actually has a name, he is ‘Adam’ (and the name Adam is actually the same as the Hebrew word that means ‘man’), and the new man also has a name, he is Jesus Christ. I must then learn to reject the corrupt inheritance that I have received from Adam, the first father of humanity, so as to embrace the grace and blessing that is promised me in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of Man and father of a regenerated humanity.
The Christian journey, then can be seen as being freed from the slavery of sin and death, and passing through the desert of this life, so as to arrive at the promise of eternal life and the resurrection of the dead. The slavery of sin and death is the inheritance that we have received from the old Adam, who made himself subject to Satan. It is an inheritance that we must actively renounce, just as in our baptismal vows we renounced Satan, his works, his empty show, and all his empty promises. The goal and promise of eternal life and the resurrection will consist in a complete transformation according to the likeness of Jesus Christ, the new Man, the new Adam. This transformation according to the likeness of Christ, this renewal of the spirit of our minds, is what must take place here and now in the desert of this life.
The desert, a place of hardship and trial, is not a place where we make our home, but a place we pass through on the way to our goal. We must not forget the goal, but keep it always before our minds.
Venial sins are those things we choose that are not actually contrary to the goal of eternal life, but neither to they help us on the way; they are, as it were, willful distractions from our goal. A little selfishness does not move us forward, but neither does it actually move us off the path, but if I am moving slowly to the side of the road I might end up driving over the cliff. Mortal sins are those things we choose that are actually contrary to the goal.
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel made a physical journey, passing through a physical desert, a place of hardship and trial, going from one place to another, from Egypt to Israel, the land of promise. Their physical journey also involved a journey from slavery to freedom, in which they were led by God, through his servant Moses. Their physical life and strength was sustained during that journey by a miraculous physical bread, the manna.
God gave the people the manna in response to a crisis of faith. We can grasp this crisis of faith a bit better if we consider that while variety is the spice of life, stability and regularity are, as it were, the bread of life. We only like the spice of variety when we feel secure with respect to the necessities.
It would be very hard for a family to wake up each morning without having any clue as to where their food for the day would come from; even if they lived that way for days, or weeks, or months, and found that God had provided, in a different way, each day for their needs, the constant insecurity would be a constant trial of their faith. That is where the people of Israel found themselves in today’s 1st reading, without food in the desert.
God is not pleased with their complaint and rebellion, but he does accommodate their weakness by giving them the manna, not just once, but as their daily bread. He provided for them by means of a regular, stable, daily miracle.
Still, he requires faith. The people must show their faith anew each day by waiting for the miracle, by following the Lord’s instructions, and by accepting the food he provides.
Even then the people end up failing the test. Over time they grow weary of the miraculous food and begin to complain. More immediately, they will disobey the instructions. They were told not to keep the manna from one day to the next, but sure enough some people would try to store the manna only to find that it got infested with worms. There is an exception, though, they are told that on Friday they will receive sufficient manna for two days, so they will not need to go out and collect it on the Sabbath. Sure enough, some people go looking for the manna on the Sabbath, and it is not there.
So how does this apply to our journey of transformation in Christ? This is not a physical journey, but it takes place during our life in this physical world. God could have asked us to rely on a pure, interior faith, without any visible supports, without any clue from one day to the next as to what to expect. Then we would have found ourselves tested like the Israelites in the 1st reading and we would have failed the test. Because of our weakness we would have begun demanding signs; we would not reflect on God’s past activity in our life, any more than the men in today’s Gospel reflected on Jesus’ past miracle of the loaves. Instead we would say, like them, What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?
Just as in the Old Testament God accommodated the weakness of the people, so Jesus provides for our weakness. He actually does give us a visible sign, a daily miracle, but a sign and a miracle that still puts us to the test. He reveals himself as the Bread of Life and he gives us this bread, which is his Body, hidden beneath the appearances of bread.
We must believe in him and follow his instructions and accept the food he gives us if we are to complete our desert journey of transformation in Christ – this is truly the work of God in us – we must believe in him and follow his instructions if we are to put off the old man and put on the new, if we are to renounce the inheritance of Adam, and receive in its place the inheritance of Christ.
The instructions are no longer given to us through Moses, but through the Church.
The instructions are given to us in the ritual of the Mass, which we are to follow faithfully, rather than make up on our own.
We must follow the instructions not only outwardly, but inwardly. That means that we must pray the ‘Our Father’ in spirit and truth, putting God’s kingdom as our first priority and forgiving from the heart those who have offended us.
The instructions are given to us in the precepts of the Church, which require us to attend Mass faithfully on Sundays and Holy Days, to confess our sins at least once a year, to receive communion at least during the Easter Season, to keep the assigned days of fast and abstinence, and to contribute from the material blessings we have received from God to support the work of the Church.
The instructions are given to us in the requirement to fast completely from food for at least one hour before receiving communion. The instructions are given to us in the requirement that we refrain from receiving communion in a state of unconfessed mortal sin. The instructions are given to us in the requirement to marry only according to the laws of the Church.
The instructions are given to us in the requirement that we receive the sacrament with faith and devotion, saying ‘Amen’ to the reality the Body and Blood of Christ that is given to us, making an worthy gesture of adoration before receiving communion and a fitting thanksgiving afterwards. The instructions tell us the proper fashion to receive either by extending our tongue slightly, waiting to be fed with the simplicity and trust of a little child, or by receiving with awe the fragile gift entrusted to our hands, held forth to make a throne for the King of kings.
We show our faith not in any old way, but by following the instructions the Lord has given us through his Church. When the Israelites disobeyed and tried to keep the manna for the next day, they found the worms of corruption in the bread that was meant for life. When we violate the loving trust of the Lord and disobey the instructions he has given us, then the Bread of Life will become for us a cause of condemnation, rather than salvation, of death, rather than life.
The choice is ours. Through the Psalmist the Lord tells us: I am the Lord, you God … open wide your mouth and I will fill it. But my people did not listen to my words; Israel did not obey me. … But even now if my people would listen, if Israel would walk in my paths, in a moment I would subdue their foes … I would feed them with the finest wheat, satisfy them with honey from the rock. (Ps 81:11-12;14,17)