There is a fine line between having what we need to sustain our physical existence and feeling we just do not have enough. Or is that line the one where we want more and more? Once we cross that line, as individuals and as societies, to where our most notable identification is as a consumer, it can be difficult to cross back. Once this takes place, the most surprising of things begins to happen: Our own sense of worth and value can be tied up in things we own and things we buy. Even sadder, though this is sad enough, we begin to see other people as valuable on the basis of their power to buy things and accumulate “stuff.” Poor people themselves become less valuable, and all kinds of ways are concocted to explain how they are responsible for being poor and the architects of their own fate.
For many of us in the West, myself included, food is something we consume too much and waste too often, while many others suffer with too little. Part of having more than enough is being thankful for the abundance and properly stewarding what is left over. The Israelites knew what it was to be bereft and called out to God to supply their needs. God did it, but it was also a test, to see “whether they will follow my instruction or not.” God provided for their physical needs; “He rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven. Mortals ate of the bread of angels; he sent them food in abundance.” But the test was a spiritual one, and it is one that each wealthy nation and person must take today: How are we handling our abundance?
Jesus challenged those who followed him after the multiplication of loaves and fishes to take the same test. He asked the crowds, who continued to follow him, if “you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Because the human needs are so real and genuine, it can be easy to focus on them when they are met and to see that as the end of life. Jesus asks his followers to look beyond and not to “work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” It is only the spiritual food that will satisfy our deepest needs.
It is a properly ordered life that assigns to all human needs their right place. The author of Ephesians, traditionally understood to be the Apostle Paul, challenges us to take this test and not to abandon ourselves “to licentiousness (aselgeia), greedy to practice every kind of impurity (akatharsia).... You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts (epithymia), and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds.” The prominent concern in this passage is with sexual licentiousness, but sexual lust is not the only desire that can lead us astray. Unbridled passions can consume every area of our lives, corrupting and deluding us.
Aselgeia, akatharsia and epithymia can also reflect other disordered desires, whether for food, bigger houses or more cars. Social sins, of course, can be the hardest to see, because the way a society lives can come to seem the normal, the best, even the only way to live. While we might ask how people lived justifying the evils of slavery, we must ask ourselves how we live justifying the evils of overconsumption. How do we justify overuse of food and other natural resources, throwing away tons of food daily, while others go without basic needs being met?
Ephesians asks us “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds.” This is not a renewal of ideological purity, of the right or the left, of this political party or that, but a renewal in the spirit of God’s word, the word made flesh. This renewal criticizes every human vanity and every form of human impurity; it strips excuses away and leaves us hungry for the truth alone.
This is the hunger that compels us to demand, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus tells us: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” It is this bread that orders all our appetites and allows us to turn away from the desires of selfishness and indifference so that we can clothe ourselves “with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”