If all my stories seem to be about Peru at the moment, it is because our readings lately all remind me of incidents from our annual missions to that country. Peru is like most of the countries in South America, in that while a small minority garner all the wealth, the overwhelming majority struggle to get their “daily bread”. You only have to visit the shanty towns and note the absence of any modern facilities, such as water, hydro, washing facilities, or see the number of children making their way through lines of traffic, peddling their wares of fruit, water, candies, cigarettes, just to make some money with which they can feed their families that day. It is no wonder that only a few decades ago there was an attempt at an armed revolution from a guerrilla group called “Shining Path”, that claimed many innocent lives, until the leaders of that group were captured and imprisoned.
It was at one of the Camps of Faith and Prayer which we attended during our annual mission that we heard a talk from a former guerrilla. I say “former” because she had given up that life and went around preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ instead. Her testimony was truly inspiring. She told us that she had taken up the armed struggle against the government, because she was outraged by the way her people were struggling for bread, while the fat-cats wallowed in luxury. She joined Shining Path and admitted that she carried out murders and robbings and kidnappings, so that her original laudable aim to provide bread for her people was lost sight of along the way, along with her relationship with God.
One day, she came across a Bible and was just flipping through its pages when it fell open at the words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel: ”Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4: 4). If you remember that passage, it comes in the midst of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, being tempted by Satan. One of the devil’s first temptations was to suggest that Jesus command the stones around him to become loaves of bread, to feed himself with ,ashe was hungry. Subtly, Satan was also attempting to persuade Jesus that he could win people to his cause by miraculously providing food for them, since Jesus lived and ministered in the midst of a people who were struggling to feed themselves and their families, and pay the heavy burdens of taxation laid on them by their Roman overlords. When Jesus replies to Satan that ”man does not live by bread alone”, he is making the point that there are other, more urgent needs that people have. As well as feeding their bodies, we need also to feed our souls with spiritual teaching, which comes from the word of God, sacred Scripture.
Let’s be clear here, brothers and sisters. Jesus was not indifferent to the physical needs of the people he was ministering to. Not once, but twice, did he feed thousands of people – in fact, just before our gospel passage today, we read that Jesus feeds 5000 people with just a few loaves and fish. We know that he multiplies fish for Peter and his crew, so that they can have money to feed their extended families. He multiplies wine for the guests of a wedding he is attending in Cana. He sees to people’s other physical needs as well: healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons that are causing great physical harm to those they have possessed. God fed his people, Israel, throughout the forty years that they walked across the Sinai desert to the Promised Land, as we are shown in our first reading today. Jesus, during his time on earth, continued to manifest that same concern for God’s people.
No, Jesus does care, and care passionately, about us, about our lives, and wants to provide for us, as I was sharing in last Sunday’s homily. But he wants us never to simply stop there, as if all we need worry about in our lives, is to make sure that we have all we need for physical satisfaction and comfort. Feeding the poor, raising money for those caught up in famine, providing hospitals and schools and orphanages, all of this has been the lifelong work of hundreds of nuns, monks, priests and lay people, inspired by the words of Jesus “whatever you do to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do to me“ (Matthew 25:40). It is a thousand pities that none of this seems to be remembered these days, when the media and politicians and others are hell-bent on tearing down the Church for its perceived failures. And by the way, make sure that you, as Catholics, are well-informed on the recent so-called “unmarked residential school graves” scandal, so you get the full story and are able to show the other side to our accusers. It may take a bit of digging to get it, because, true to form, the media do not want to present the other side. They only care on presenting the official, mainstream narrative, and don’t want to hear from, or let us hear from, any alternative narrative, no matter how much credible evidence it can provide. This criticism, of course, applies to other current “hot button” issues as well.
A famous Brazilian bishop, Don Helder Camara, once wrote: ”When I give bread to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a communist.” It is part of the gospel call also to challenge the ruling elites who keep millions of their citizens in conditions of extreme poverty – Catholic clergy and lay alike have been doing that for decades in South America, ever since the Catholic Church in those countries made a public declaration of commitment to the rights and needs of the poor. But the danger has been, and this was pointed out by Pope St John Paul II, that the spiritual mission of the Church can get lost in political and social activity. When the former guerrilla-turned-evangelist, who I mentioned earlier, came to understand this, in light of Jesus’ words that “man does not live by bread alone”, she changed her life around. She gave up the armed struggle and became a Christian evangelist, preaching that people need to turn back to God and receive his word into their lives, a word that calls us to repent of simply focusing on our physical and material needs, and instead look to the sin in our lives that brings situations of injustice and abuse and intolerance into our world. For this, she is now hunted by her former colleagues from Shining Path, and has a death sentence pronounced on her.
The spiritual message of the gospel of Christ is that, in the words of our second reading today, we stop living “in the futility of our minds”, and “put aside our old self, corrupted by its lusts, and be renewed in our mindsets, so as to clothe ourselves with the New Humanity“ shown in Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and live henceforth “in true righteousness and holiness”. It is a comprehensive program for the renewal of our minds, hearts and spirits, and it is basically what Jesus is proclaiming to the crowds who pursue him in our gospel today, intent on only one thing: getting Jesus to keep producing bread to fill their stomachs. Jesus is reminding us that we are more than our bodies, more than our physical needs. Deep within us, we know we are meant for a greater life than simply satisfying our basic animal desires. The quest for holiness, for a life “according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” is what we find when we pause long enough to look inside of ourselves and identify our deepest desires. As St Paul affirms in our second reading today, focusing only on our basic human desires and needs, is “not the way we learned Christ”. St Augustine wrote, long ago: ”You have made us for yourselves, O Lord God, and we will know no rest until we come to rest in you”.
‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” That is our gospel acclamation today. It is what produced a spiritual conversion in the life of the former guerrilla who preached to us at the family camp in Peru. It is what challenges us , in the midst of a world that seems only concerned with improving our lives here on earth, with no regard to what matters in the life of the world to come, challenges us to be different, to live by different priorities. We are more than our bodies, we have to be concerned with our spiritual lives, with feeding our souls through the word of God, while still seeking to do all we can to challenge the injustices that lead to so many people in the world living below the poverty level. As we come to the altar, to receive the bread of life from Jesus’ hands, let us pray in the words of the people in today’s gospel: ”Lord, give us this bread always.“