WARNING: this post contains gluten. All you gluten free people out there proceed with caution. My wife and I spent last weekend camping in Asheville, NC where we had a gluten full Saturday. Donuts, pizza, tacos, a couple beers, and some kind of Nutella cinnamon fritter thing. The highlight of our gluten full day was the 2018 Asheville Bread Festival. I’m usually not one for overpriced festivals but this one was 100% free with free samples of every type of bread that you can think of. Needless to say, I ended up in the bread position at the end of the day: laying on my left side taking slow deep breaths. This is very similar to the post-Thanksgiving feeling. As I was lying in my bread-induced coma, I got to thinking about all of the bread references in the Bible. There are three distinct encounters that Jesus has with bread in the gospels. These must all be connected somehow.
Temptation of Jesus
We see Jesus’ first encounter with bread in His temptation in the desert. The Devil says to Jesus “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Mt 4:3). It is easy to see how this would be a personal temptation for Jesus who is fasting at the time. Jesus was surely hungry. However, the temptation must be more than just hunger. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI tells us that at the heart of each temptation is “the act of pushing God aside.” How is turning stones to bread “pushing God aside?”
Jesus responds to the devil “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). We see here that Jesus places God before his physical needs. The temptation is to put the things of the world before the things of God. To push God aside in favor of other things. Even more so, the temptation for Jesus as the Son of God is to provide everyone with their physical needs and worry about the spiritual later. Dostoevsky writes about this in The Grand Inquisitor where the Inquisitor tells the Christ figure that all people need and want in the world is physical abundance. The temptation says to Jesus ‘if you want to be praised, end world hunger.’ Jesus responds with “Man shall not live by bread alone.”
There are clearly more important things to God than physical needs/wants. If this were not the case, Jesus would’ve turned the desert into bread and the salt water fresh. Pope Benedict sarcastically poses the same question “Isn’t the problem of feeding the world—and, more generally, are not social problems—the primary, true yardstick by which redemption has to be measured?” Simply meeting the needs of humans first would draw away from the primacy of God and the spiritual life. Jesus clearly affirms this in His response to the devil. He refuses bread for the world. We see the kind of issues this temptation could cause in the next bread incident.
Feeding the Five Thousand
This is one of the most well-known miracles in the Bible and it just so happens to include bread! Jesus feeds over five thousand people with only 5 loaves and 2 fish. Your classic breaded fish. Everyone has his/her fill to the point where they still have leftovers. Additionally, the bread must have been some legit bread because after the meal “they were about to come and take him by force to make him king” (Jn 6:15). And that, of course, was the original king cake (token dad joke).
Jesus, in a way, is playing into the temptation of the devil here. Jesus clearly shows that he can feed not only the multitudes, but the entire world fairly easily. The people begin to worship Him and follow Him. The very next day they find Jesus in Capernaum. The people question Jesus so he replies “you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (Jn 6:26). Jesus knows that they are only following Him because He provided for their physical needs and they want more. He continues, “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you” (Jn 6:27). Jesus is telling them to seek the things of God because “Man shall not live by bread alone.” So how do they respond?
Jesus tells them of a different kind of bread: bread from heaven. Being the gluten lovers they are the people say they want that bread! Jesus continues to tell them that He is that bread. They start to murmur so Jesus doubles down, “the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn 6:51). This obviously causes some controversy among the crowd… the miracle worker is now speaking of cannibalism. Jesus, hearing the dissent, does not back down, “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (Jn 6:54).
Finally, the crowd can’t take it anymore. The day that began with excitement has ended with disappointment. The crowd was stoked for the 32 A.D. Capernaum Bread Fest, but left with no bread. Jesus promised them something greater, but they wanted to have nothing to do with it. Just give us bread! Jesus did not try to stop them from leaving because what he said was true, “For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (Jn 6:55). The people wanted God to fulfill their needs, but Jesus replied “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
The Last Supper
The last of Jesus’ bread encounters was, fittingly enough, at the Last Supper. Jesus breaks bread with His apostles and prepares them for what is to come over the next few days. It is not simply bread that they are eating. Jesus says “this is my body” (Mt 26:26). Jesus is fulfilling the promise that he gave after the feeding of the five thousand; He is giving His flesh as true food.
As Catholics, we partake in this last supper at every Mass. We believe that the bread we eat is the true bread come down from heaven that Jesus promised. It is truly His flesh and body that we consume and is our spiritual food. This bread is abundant but it is not meant to end world hunger. It is meant end spiritual hunger. It is more important than our physical needs which is why we fast before mass; to maintain the primacy of God. Jesus is the one who fills us and makes us whole. He is the Word of God that provides us life. It is in this that we see the true meaning of Jesus’ rebuke of the Devil, “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Jesus is the Word of God and it is in consuming Him that we have life.
“He himself has become bread for us, and this multiplication of the loaves endures to the end of time, without ever being depleted.” – Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
Credit: All Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI quotes were taken from his book Jesus of Nazareth. Analysis on the Temptation of Jesus was taken from this book.