I have been reading off and on Fr. Thomas Hopko’s The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture. Chapter 30, “The Bread of Life”, got me thinking a little beyond the text. Fr. Hopko writes:
“The Jews at that time believed that, when God’s Kingdom came, there would be no more hunger. This is a classical teaching of the Old Testament: God opens the eyes of the blind; God takes care of the widow and the orphan; God sets the prisoners free; God feeds those who are hungry. In this world are many hungering people who do not know the truth, but it is the Christian conviction that these things will be fulfilled in the age to come. In this life, we have a foretaste of the coming Kingdom in what Christ did when He was on earth. Those who belong to Christ are those who care for the poor, the orphans, and the widows. They do it because God does this for all of us, and He will do it in the age to come. In imitation of Christ, we have to feed those who are hungry when we can.” (Kindle Location 3460-3465)
My thought building upon what he writes is that it is the actions of the members of the church which can give others (the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the lost, sinners, the sick…) some hope in something beyond this world. We may meet people’s needs in this world, but we do so because we want to share our hope with others who may be without hope, without faith, without any reason to believe in or trust in God (and thus doubt the value of any life beyond the grave). When we give charity of all kinds (including sharing the Good News), we are not just trying to help the needy in this world (though we are doing that), for we are also endeavoring to gear them toward the future life in which we hope. We willingly share our blessings from this world because we know these blessings are temporary, belonging to this world. We share from our blessings to help others experience the blessings as well, but also to help orient them (and ourselves!) to the world to come. The blessings in this world are needed and important, but are of relative value. It is their consummation in the world to come for which we really live and share our life in this world.
And, though popular wisdom says “you can’t take it with you” when you die, as noted in other of my blogs, the Fathers frequently commented that when we give of our possessions to the poor in this world, it is actually the Lord Jesus Christ who receives that charity as an offering and who blesses us in the world to come with the same generosity with which we helped others.
Some of the needy feel abandoned or forgotten by God in this world. Some may feel it is their own fault, others may feel it is because God is harsh or doesn’t exist at all. Our feeding the hungry, the poor, the needy, the homeless, the immigrant, is our way of sharing the blessings of this world with them so that they too can believe God is merciful and forgiving, and so that they can rejoice in and hope in the God of love.
It is also true that in parish community, we share with one another the sacraments as well as the blessings of this world in shared meals and fellowship hours. We prepare the food and share it with those with whom we also hope to share the blessings in the world to come. Our generosity to others in this world, our giving in charity to those in need, is a witness to our faith in God’s own mercy and goodness toward us.
The next day, the people who remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat and that Jesus had not entered the boat when His disciples went away. Then it says, “However, boats from Tiberias came near the place where they ate the bread after the Lord had given thanks” (v. 23). This is a eucharistic overtone. In the Divine Liturgy, in a dialogue with the congregation prior to Holy Communion, the priest says, “Let us lift up our hearts, let us give thanks unto the Lord.” It is the Eucharist, eucharistia, “thanks.” (Kindle Location 3492-3496)
We know in this Gospel lesson that the people are looking for Christ for more bread in this world, but Christ constantly attempts to get those around Him to look beyond this world to the Kingdom not of this world. As Christ’s followers, we too are to be looking for things beyond this world – not just what satisfies on earth, for which we can give thanks, but to seek that which makes us look beyond this life, to hope in something greater than this world, even the world at its very best. Christ was not just trying to make people satisfied with life on earth. He was aiming us at the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom not of this world. We do have to minister in this world, and to people who have needs in this world. We share from our blessings, because we hope in life in the world to come. We want others to do the same.
The greatest problem is not feeding the masses, for this can be accomplished in love. The greater problems is helping people to understand that charity in this world is a sign of the kingdom to come. Our goal is not to create paradise on earth, but to give all hope that paradise is real and yet to be.
And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” (Matt. 4:3–4) (Thomas Hopko, The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 3548-3550)
There is a temptation for Christ to change the things of this world into that which would make us want more of this world. Christ, however, reminds us that there is something wrong with this world, even when there are things in this world which we love and for which we are thankful. The temptation for Christ and Christians is to imagine this world is all there is and to live for this world alone. We do that when we constantly pursue the things of the world. We need food, shelter, clean water, clothes and human dignity, among other things. But just as Jesus is being tempted to live in and for this world alone, we too can be so tempted. When we share what we have – what we have been given, been blessed with or even earned – we show that we really do live for the kingdom which is to come. We don’t deny our needs in this world, nor the needs of others. We share from our blessings to give others a foretaste of what we believe in – so that they actually see and experience our hope and faith, so that they too will orient themselves with hope in Jesus Christ and His coming Kingdom.