Better the devil you know than the one you don’t know.” Such popular wisdom reflects the reluctance of most people to change, even when a current situation is difficult. It is easier to hang on to what is, using familiar coping mechanisms, than it is to risk something new that might result in even greater difficulties. Such is the complaint of the Israelites to Moses in the first reading. They would rather have stayed enslaved in Egypt, with all the suffering that entailed, than risk the freedom into which God was leading them, a freedom that brought a whole new set of challenges.
One challenge concerned food. For those who migrate from one land to another, one of the hardest changes is to eat the food of another culture. One longs for familiarity, the “comfort food” from home.
God is not indifferent to the plight of the Israelites. Morning and evening God provides plenty of manna and quail. But the manna is completely unfamiliar to the Israelites. “What is this?” they ask. Moses tells them, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” It may have filled them physically, but it does not seem to have satisfied them on other levels. God’s providence never fails, but it does not always come in the way we want or expect.
In the Gospel, Jesus invites the crowd to shift their expectations from outward signs to inner transformation. He has just fed a hungry crowd of 5,000 with five barley loaves and two fish, yet they ask him for a sign so they may see and believe. They are looking right at the very Bread of Life, but they do not see him as such. Jesus tells them that the same God who provided for their ancestors in the desert is the one who fed the crowd and who gives life to the world. To come to Jesus and believe in him requires letting go of familiar habits, like filling up on “food that perishes,” and allowing him to give “food that endures for eternal life.”
Grazing on junk food or trying to satisfy our spiritual hungers with constant noise and busyness are some contemporary “devils” we know. What would happen if we carved out an inner emptiness to let the Bread of Life satisfy our deepest hungers and thirsts?
Risking an unknown future, the Israelites crossed the desert and entered the land of freedom to which God led them through Moses. The crowd in the Gospel crossed the Sea of Galilee, opening themselves to the possibility of being filled forever by the one who would also entrust to them the “work of God” to feed others and give “life to the world.” This mission can take us into strange territory, where we risk the familiar and taste the “bread” or rice or tortillas of others. Step by step, we turn from looking for the external “signs” toward seeking to become one with the Bread of Life, who fills us to the full.