Near the German city of Munich is the small town of Dachau, where, in 1933, the Nazis established the first of their concentration camps after coming to power. After World War II it became possible for tourists to visit the camp, and one group which did so had as their guide one of the few men who survived being a long-term prisoner there. This man knew five languages and was thus useful to the Nazis as an interpreter; in return for his service, he received an extra piece of bread each day, which was just enough to enable him to keep up his strength and stay alive. As he led his tour group through the camp, the former prisoner saw the remains of a picnic lunch another group of tourists had eaten earlier that day. Picking up a discarded piece of bread from the roadway, the man said in a quaking voice, “Oh, how I hate to see even a crumb of bread wasted! Only one who is starving to death can truly know its value. This—this was the difference between life and death” (Msgr. Arthur Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 10, #19). We can easily see and understand why it’s sinful to waste physical nourishment, or food. However, the same thing can be even more true in a spiritual sense. God gives us many different blessings and graces, along with many opportunities to grow. We must not treat these gifts casually, for the Lord can only do as much in our lives as we allow. Jesus offers us spiritual nourishment leading to everlasting life; it’s our responsibility to accept it.
In his Letter to the Ephesians (4:17, 20-24), St. Paul instructs us not to live in a worldly manner, as do unbelievers. His warning refers to a hardness of heart, or a selfish spirit, which ignores God. This warning is necessary precisely because so many people make this mistake. We see examples of this in both the Book of Exodus (16:2-4, 12-15) and the Gospel of John (6:24-35). The Lord God had worked wonders and miracles in freeing His people from slavery in Egypt; He also protected them and provided for them in the desert, while forgiving their sins and not holding their grumblings against them. In spite of all this, the people continued to complain; they casually dismissed all the Lord had done for them, criticized Moses, and—in the height of ingratitude—spoke of their previous period of slavery in Egypt as preferable to their current situation. God, in His love, thereupon promised to provide them not only with daily bread, but also with meat—a luxury for most people. However, the one thing the Lord couldn’t do was to bend their stubborn hearts; they had to do that for themselves.
Jesus encountered a similar situation in John’s Gospel. Even though He had performed a miracle by multiplying the loaves and fish, the people weren’t ready to believe in Him. As Our Lord realized, they were more interested in perishable physical food than in the everlasting spiritual food He was offering. Jesus asked only one thing of them: that they accept Him as the One sent by God. However, the people refused to do this; even though He had just worked a miracle, they demanded a sign. Jesus offered Himself as the true bread from Heaven, but He could not force the people take Him seriously or accept Him.
A woman in-between flights at an airport bought a package of cookies at a snack counter. The only available seat was at a small table where a man was already sitting. She carried all her things over and sat down. A moment later, to her surprise and intense irritation, the man opened the package of cookies on the table and took one and ate it. She glared at him and grabbed one of the cookies herself; the man smiled at her and slid her the entire package, which she snatched up and held onto. A little while later, after the man said goodbye and left, the woman discovered to her great embarrassment that her package of cookies was still unopened and sitting on her carry-on bag; she had actually been eating from the other passenger’s cookies, which he generously shared with her.
As a blessing from God, food is supposed to help bring about unity and gratitude, not selfishness and division. We must not allow ourselves to be, in the words of St. Paul, “corrupted through deceitful desires.” If we treat important matters casually, we’re bound to be disappointed; if we stubbornly imagine we can always have everything our own way, we’re only fooling ourselves, and in the long run, also hurting ourselves. For instance, we might take lightly Our Lord’s command to forgive. This teaching, however, is extremely important; Jesus included it in the Our Father and told several parables or stories to illustrate it. We must be sure we don’t carry grudges against others or refuse to forgive those who’ve wronged us; these sins against unity will do us grave spiritual harm.
Another potential danger is to want nothing to do with others, or to be so self-centered that we care little about the needs of those around us. Jesus truly meant it when He instructed us to call God “Father”—and the inescapable conclusion is that other people are thus our brothers and sisters. If we fail to treat them as such, we’re actually denying our membership in God’s family.
Yet another spiritual danger is to grow casual about the sacraments—in particular, becoming indifferent about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and not showing sufficient reverence, awareness, and gratitude when receiving the Eucharist. Confession is a wonderful and necessary means of strengthening our spiritual lives, and shouldn’t be ignored; Holy Communion is a perfect source of spiritual nourishment and grace, and must not be received routinely or while in a state of serious sin. God has many graces in store for us, but we must first respond gratefully and sincerely to His call if we are to receive them. If we don’t bother to listen to God with openness and humility, we only end up hurting ourselves and wasting His life-giving gifts.
There are many social agencies, soup kitchens, and other groups and charities with noble and self-giving volunteers working to alleviate hunger in our nation—quite a few of them, in fact, sponsored by the Catholic Church; these all perform a wonderful and essential service. However, it’s even more important to address and alleviate the spiritual hunger so many people experience today, and, ultimately, this is something only Jesus Himself can do. The Lord offers us, through our relationship with Him and through our membership in His Church, every opportunity we need to satisfy the deepest hunger of our hearts—but allowing this blessing to happen must be our own choice.