Can man live on bread alone? Well, in Elijah’s case the answer might be, ‘yes’. He thinks he is no better than his ancestors but actually that is far from the truth; because we don’t find him complaining like them about the lack of food in the wilderness. Conscious of his own inadequacy as a prophet he entrusts his soul to God. It is a lovely irony that just because Elijah gives priority to the word of God he is able to survive on bread alone.
Perhaps ‘survive’ is not quite the right term here. Recent scientific research suggests that regular ‘fasting’, keeping down the number of calories we consume, is actually good for us. It gives the body an opportunity to repair damaged cells and can prevent the onset of cancers or diabetes. If Elijah managed to walk all the way to mount Horeb on a stone baked loaf (which sounds rather good!) and a jar of water that might indicate that he was used to a meagre diet. It would be quite fitting if, without knowing it, the prophet lived a longer and healthier life as a result of self-denial in the service of God.
The fact that an angelic being ministers to Elijah’s very human needs reminds us that there can also be spiritual dangers in self-denial. A failure to respect the body’s needs for food and drink may be a sign of depression or self-loathing. The material and spiritual dimensions of life are inseparable and it can be just as much a temptation to undervalue our bodily nature with its various needs as it is to overindulge it.
In the gospel today people are complaining –they are ‘murmuring’ just like the Israelites in the desert – but they are not complaining about a lack of food. They are complaining that Jesus seems too ordinary, too human perhaps? They know him, they know his family. The problem is not one of communication. Many of them would readily have understood the implications of what Jesus is saying. The giving of manna, the feeding of the chosen people with bread from heaven, was often associated in Jewish minds with the giving of divine teaching. In other words Jesus is clearly giving his teaching a unique status – he sees his own teaching as indispensable and as life-giving as our daily bread. In what he says we can hear an echo of those words from the book of Proverbs (9:5) –‘Come, eat of my bread’.
If the Israelites in the wilderness were sceptical about God’s ability to feed them, Jesus’ contemporaries are sceptical about something else – the possibility of finding divine wisdom in their own midst. It seems a not unreasonable position until we reflect that these are the very Galileans who have just seen Jesus feeding 5,000 people. According to John’s gospel, they had no doubts then that Jesus must be some kind of prophet. That is why they took the trouble to pursue him, hoping perhaps for a repeat performance. As with so many of us, their problem is really inconstancy. They are waverers, given to changing their minds, unwilling to accept the truth, unable to trust even their own judgment. As Jesus reminds them, those who come to Him must be drawn by the Father. It is not, then, just an inability to accept his authority but something more basic that is lacking, something that is missing in their relationship with the Father. And if they are unable to accept the divine wisdom in Christ’s teaching they will certainly baulk at the very idea that they must consume his flesh and blood in order to have life.
The brief extract from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians reminds us that we no longer suffer from this inability to relate to the Father or to His Son. The apostle assures us that because Christ has sacrificed himself for us we can now recognize that we are God’s children and even imitate the Father’s love. Liberated by the Spirit, our communities can truly become the models of harmony that God intends. We still have the task of preaching the word and we may still have very positive reasons to fast and exercise self-discipline; but we have no reason to complain, no reason to doubt God’s providence.