This Sunday’s Gospel (John 6:24-35) continues the Gospel that was read last Sunday (John 6:1-15), in which Jesus miraculously fed the crowd with bread and fish but slipped away when the crowd wanted to Him king.
Today’s Gospel takes place on the following morning. The people are trying to figure out where Jesus went. Finally they conclude that He must have crossed the Sea of Galilee. They commandeer some boats to find Him.
St. Thomas Aquinas recognizes that, in itself, their search for Jesus is “praiseworthy,” recalling the words of Isaiah: ““Search for the Lord while He can be found” (Is 55:6). Yet when they find Jesus, He asks them to probe the reasons they searched for Him.
Jesus understands that the people were pleased when He multiplied the bread. However, He explains that their reason for wanting Him to be their king was that He could provide their needs. He warns them not to work for “food that perishes” but to work for “food that endures to eternal life” (Jn 6:26)
Thomas recognizes that Jesus’ warning could be misinterpreted to mean that we should not take care of our physical needs or the needs of those who depend upon us: “We should direct our work, i.e., our main interest and intention, to seeking the food that leads to eternal life, that is, spiritual goods. Temporal goods should not be our principal aim but a subordinate one, that is, they are to be acquired only because of our mortal body, which has to be nourished” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel pf John, 896).
In our time, the attitudes of the consumer society, which give priority to accumulating things, have become pervasive. Nevertheless, making God our priority does not mean that we fail to provide for our needs. Thomas notes Paul’s advice when some of the Christians of Thessalonica stopped doing their daily work: “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thes 3:10).
The people’s interest in Jesus proves to be fickle. The day before, they tried to make Him king. Now, when He instructs them to go beyond seeing Him as a wonder worker, they demand more signs. Moses provided manna, the “bread from heaven,” during the time that their ancestors were in the desert. What signs will He give them? What works does He do?
Thomas reflects that their inconsistency lies in following their emotions, “Things that we plan according to our emotions do not last; but matters that we arrange by our reason last longer” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 891).
We should not overlook the fact that, in his Summa Theologiae, Thomas takes the emotions or “passions” more seriously than most other theologians or philosophers do. For Thomas, the emotions are good when they are appropriate for a situation and are directed by reason. In this situation, the people are letting their emotions take over their own reason. In particular situations, we may act according to our emotions rather than through reason or faith.
When the people ask Jesus how they can do the “work” of God, Jesus instructs them that this “work” is not an exterior work but an interior work, which is “to believe in the one whom He [the Father] has sent.” Thomas notes that usually we understand “work” as actions we do that are exterior to ourselves. There are other “works” that are interior, within the soul, which, Thomas informs us, are known by “the wise and those converted in heart” (Commentary on the Gospel pf John, 901).
Jesus challenges the people not to live primarily for material bread for their bodies. Thomas reflects that just as the body is sustained by food so the soul is also sustained by spiritual food. The food that sustains the body becomes the body: “… but the food that sustains the spirit is not perishable because it is not converted into one’s spirit; rather one’s spirit is converted into its food” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 895). When we eat spiritual food, we become what we eat.
Thomas explains: “This food is God Himself, insofar as He is the Truth, which is to be contemplated and the Goodness which is to be loved, which nourish the spirit. Bodily things perish, while spiritual things, especially God, are eternal” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 895). When we contemplate the Truth of God, we take truth into ourselves. When we love the goodness of God, we take goodness into ourselves
Jesus says that this work is to “believe in” the one whom God has sent. Thomas observes that we may believe that a person is trustworthy or we may believe what a person says but a further way of faith is to believe “in” someone. We might intellectually accept that Jesus is trustworthy or that what Jesus says is true but the further act of faith is to surrender ourselves to Him.
Since God is not only good but goodness itself, we believe in Him and the One whom He sent, by entrusting ourselves to His goodness. As we believe in Him, we are led to love His goodness. Thomas explains: “Only God can be the end of faith, for our mind is directed to God alone as its end. Now the end, since it has the character of a good, is the object of love. Thus, to believe in God (in Deum) as in an end is proper to faith living through the love of charity. Faith, living in this way, is the principle of all our good works; and in this sense to believe is said to be a work of God” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 901).
Believing in God and the one whom He has sent is “faith living through the love of charity.’ This form of faith which is a response of love becomes the source of our own good actions. Faith, living in this way, is the principle of all our good works.
Jesus describes our believing as “the work of God.” We may ask whether our believing is our “work” or God’s “work”? Thomas explains that our believing is the effect of God working within us. He recalls the words of Isaiah: “You have accomplished all our works for us” (Isaiah 26:12).
Thomas reflects: “For the fact that we believe, and any good we do, is from God. As Paul says, ‘It is God working in us, both to will and to accomplish’ (Phil 2:13). Thus Jesus explicitly says that to believe is a work of God to show us that faith is a gift of God, as Ephesians maintains ‘For by grace you have been saved by faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God’ Eph 2:8” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 902).
The “bread” that Moses gave symbolically came from “heaven,” in that it was provided by God. Christ is “the true bread… which descends from heaven because … Christ, who is the true bread, gives life to whom He wills: ‘I came that they may have life’ (Jn 10:10). He also descended from heaven: ‘No one has gone up to heaven except the One who came down from heaven’” (Jn 3:13) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 910).
According to Thomas, “Christ, the true bread, gives life to the world by reason of His divinity; and He descends from heaven by reason of His human nature…He came down from heaven by assuming human nature: ‘He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant’ (Phil 2:7)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 910).
Thomas notices the contrast between physical bread that sustains a person, who already has life, for a period of time compared to “spiritual bread”: “Spiritual bread actually gives life, for the soul begins to live because it adheres to the word of God: ‘For with You is the fountain of life,’ (Ps. 35:10)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 914).
In one way, Jesus feeds us this life-giving bread through His words of wisdom: “Since every word of wisdom is derived from the Only Begotten Word of God… this word of God is especially called the bread of life. Thus Christ says, ‘I am the bread of life’” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 914).
In addition to nourishing our minds with intellectual understanding, Jesus actually feeds us Himself: “And because the flesh of Christ is united to the Word of God, it is also life-giving” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 914). As we continue this sixth chapter of John during the next three Sundays, we will see that Jesus’ emphasis on consuming not just His teachings but His very “flesh” will shock His listeners.
This reception of Christ’s flesh takes place in the sacrament: “His body, sacramentally received, is life-giving: for Christ gives life to the world through the mysteries which He accomplished in His flesh” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 914). The “mysteries” of Christ are principally His Passion, death, Resurrection and Ascension but all of Christ’s human actions are also grace-giving “mysteries.”
Jesus links our eternal life with eating His “flesh.” Thomas comments: “The flesh of Christ, because of the Word of the Lord, is not the bread of ordinary life, but of that life which does not die…” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 914).
Jesus affirms: “Whoever comes to Me shall not hunger and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (Jn 6:35). Thomas agrees with Augustine that “to come” to Jesus and “to believe” in Jesus is the same: “… for we do not come to God with bodily steps, but with those of the mind, the first of which is faith” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 915).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, Part I, trans. James A. Weisheipl, O.P. and Fabian Larcher, O.P. (Albany, NY: Magi Books, Inc., 1980). The Commentary is also available on the web page of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/