I am the bread of life; anyone who comes to me shall not hunger, and anyone who believes in me shall never thirst.
John 6: 35
Today’s gospel invites the question: “For what do we most deeply hunger and thirst?” It is only, says the gospel, the gift of God in Jesus himself who can ultimately satisfy our hunger and slake our thirst. Yet, before a hunger can be satisfied and a thirst slaked, we must experience and recognize it.
Being fortunate enough to live among the most comfortable of our planet’s population, I recently experienced a significant weight gain. After, thanks to a reminder from my doctor, I began to attend to my eating habits, I realized that for some months, although I may have experienced the effects of overeating at times, I had never even once experienced hunger. I also noted that absent the experience of hunger, I had also lacked the real enjoyment that can come with the well prepared meal or the tasty piece of fruit that satisfies that hunger. We know the place of good wholesome food in our lives, we know the necessity of pure water out of the experience of hunger and thirst.
It is out of a “felt need” that we truly experience that we know and relish the gift of life that responds to that need. It is isolation and loneliness that allows us to receive and appreciate the gift of friendship and community. It is the fear of rejection and the absence of respect and appreciation that enables us to know gratitude for the kindness of others. It is suffering the pain of our deep lack and insufficiency and our need and longing for God that allows us to recognize the gift of grace.
We are familiar with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, self-actualization, and (which he added later) self-transcendence. For the most part, we take for granted the fact that for mature human development these needs must be met to an adequate degree. For those of us, however, who have had many of the most basic needs met from our very beginnings, we may fail to realize the importance of knowing and experiencing the needs themselves. If I never feel physical hunger and thirst, I do not realize the gift of food and water. If I never experience my own fragility and dependence, I may not recognize the gift of safety and love. If I never know my own fears of being an outsider and unacceptable, I can take belonging and esteem as that to which I am entitled. If I reduce my sense of call and vocation to economic security and never have to wrestle with the task or assignment that my life is meant to be for the good of the world, I can never appreciate my own limited capacity for self-actualization. Finally, if I don’t realize a hunger and thirst I have for a communion with all that is that transcends any sense of my personal identity, I shall never be available to the gift of himself which Jesus speaks of in the gospel.
In the beatitudes Jesus tells us: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5: 6). For a vessel to be filled, it must be emptied. As a middle class citizen of a relatively affluent and highly distracted culture, I do not typically “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” I may somewhat develop a social conscience that too often merely laments the position of those who have less than I do. But, as when I was overeating, I seldom feel the hunger. Without truly knowing the depth of my hunger for Jesus, I do not come to him, and so, he cannot fill me. Often, even when I pray, I do not do so as the beggar who is desperate for God’s love that I truly am.
To have the most basic needs readily met throughout our lives is a great gift. Yet, it can leave us with a sense of privilege and entitlement rather than longing and desire for the greater gifts. To have a passion for the poor of the earth requires that we truly experience our own poverty and lack. We must personally hunger for the gift that Jesus longs to give, not merely to ourselves but to all. We thus serve the world not from our strength, but from our weakness and lack. Ministry and mission are not merely philanthropy. They come from a common hunger and thirst, one that only Jesus can fill.
I am proposing that the West is giving up its legal and cultural democracy, leaving it open to, ceding it to, the oldest and worst temptations of unbridled power. Nowhere in all this is there a trace of respect for people in general—indeed, its energies seem to be fueled by contempt for them. Nowhere is there any hint of a better future foreseen for people in general than an economically coerced subordination to the treadmill of “competitiveness,” mitigated by the knowledge that at least no poor child expects a free lunch. This is repulsive on its face, destructive of every conception of value. And it proceeds by the destruction of safeguards that would protect us from consequences yet more repulsive. At this moment, world civilization is being wrenched into conformity with a new and primitive order that has minimal sympathy at best with thought and art, with humanity itself as an object of reverence. If we are to try to live up to the challenges of our time, as Bonhoeffer did to his, we owe it to him to acknowledge a bitter lesson he learned before us, that these challenges can be understood too late.
Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things, pp. 186-7