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17th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Nourishing the soul

Today’s readings: 2 Kings 4, 42-44; Ephesians 4, 1-6; John 6, 1-15

The feeding of the 5,000 people in the gospel of John marks a crucial turn in the life and ministry of Jesus as seen by John. In our reading of this text we cannot stop merely at Jesus as the miracle-worker. The text closes saying that “seeing the sign that he had given, the people declared ‘This really is the prophet who is to come into the world’”. At this Jesus ran away. Their reasoning was wrong and Jesus could in no way afford to let them perpetuate their long-standing idea of God and his kingdom.

The temptation to put bread first, to turn the stones into bread, which in the other gospels comes from the devil in the wilderness, in John it comes from the crowds following him and impressed by his signs. It results that they were following him and were even believing in him for the wrong reasons.

This is practically the same temptation when Jesus was challenged to turn stones into bread and when he retorted that man lives not by bread alone. Dostoyevsky, the Russian author of The Brothers Karamazov, includes in the novel the famous legend of the Grand Inquisitor situated in 16th century Seville in Spain and narrating with vivid imagination the dialogue in a prison cell between Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor.

The Inquisitor is hitting back at Jesus’s own philosophy of life and at his teaching that man does not live by bread alone. He is seeking to make Jesus rethink his understanding of humanity. The philosophy of the Inquisitor and the way he perceives true leadership is rather “Feed them, and then ask virtue of them”. But first feed them. “Turn these stones into loaves”, was the devil’s temptation, “and mankind will go trotting after you like a flock, grateful and obedient”.

As Dostoyevsky puts it, Jesus rejected the offer because obedience cannot be purchased. This is the reason why Jesus ran away when they acclaimed him as really the prophet and were about “to take him by force and make him king”. The dynamics between bread and virtue will always continue to mark our daily life and to eventually determine the choices we make. It comes so easy and even natural for us to argue mainly and exclusively from the standpoint of our basic material needs in life, to seek first our own security.

The gospel wisdom though shows that putting bread before virtue is always a distortion, a disordering of priorities. It happens so often that we prefer prophets who feed to prophets who teach. Without ignoring or neglecting the basic need we all have for security in life, the wisdom of the gospel enlightens us to face these options from another perspective. In today’s gospel, Jesus escapes the wrong reasoning, he shuns the basic dynamic that so often drives us in whatever we struggle to achieve and which tends to reach out for what immediately provides security but which actually lacks the foresight that which in turn, makes us wise.

We will always be tempted to think that the bread comes first, that the needs of the soul come later or are much less important. “Feed them, and then ask virtue of them”, was the Grand Inquisitor’s philosophy of how to make people believe in you. We see this as a dominant philosophy of life today, in our way of living and thinking, it is the driving force in how we perceive life, in politics, in the family, in education, even in the way we provide formation to those in our care.

We tend to be utilitarian and to forget about what ultimately nourishes the soul. This goes not just for those who claim to be believers. Talk about the soul and its nourishment is not something that concerns only religion or belief. It concerns life from a purely human standpoint. There is a soul in everything we do and in whoever we are. Neglect of the soul can be terrible for our wholeness, for our sanity of mind, for a life that is worth living.

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