Now I’m not talking here about something in the back of the fridge that you forgot to check for the past two weeks. Neither was Jesus, for his words always have a profound meaning and wide application.
In his famous “Bread of Life” discourse (Jn 6:25-58), Jesus said: “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (v 27). There is a contrast here between any earthly food (for all food eventually perishes), and the heavenly bread of the Eucharist, which He would give: “the bread which I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world” (v 51). This heavenly bread does not perish, for it is the Body of Christ Himself, who is the eternal Son of the living God. There’s a parallel here with Jesus’ discourse on living water with the Samaritan woman: “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:13-14). Earthly food perishes, earthly water satisfies only temporarily. The Bread from Heaven and the Living Water “endure to eternal life.”
I think, however, that Jesus was not only speaking about the ephemeral nature of ordinary food and drink and the lasting nature of heavenly gifts. Everything in this world is going to pass away; nothing lasts forever except the Kingdom of Heaven (well, Hell does, too, but let’s focus on the bright side for now). We will last forever as well, since our souls are immortal and our bodies will eventually be resurrected. The challenge for us is to live in such a way that we know what lasts and what doesn’t, and to make the former our priority.
I’ve recently embarked upon a long overdue re-reading of The Imitation of Christ. There you get the clear sense that “the world with all its seductions is passing away, but he who does the will of God abides forever” (1Jn 2:17). Many forgotten or ignored truths of the spiritual life are presented in this classic book—many that some people would like deliberately to forget or ignore today. The shortness of life and the length of eternity, the foolishness of pride and the blessings of humility, the punishments for heedlessness and the rewards for virtue and fidelity to Christ, the value of spiritual enlightenment and the vanity of carnal pleasures and worldly pursuits—in short, the fundamentals of spiritual life and the way to inner peace. Thomas à Kempis was one who did not labor for perishable things but rather looked to that which endures—like St Paul, who counsels us to look not to the seen, which is transient, but to the unseen, which is eternal (2Cor 4:18).
In a literal sense, we do have to labor for food that perishes, for we have to earn our daily bread and whatever we truly need for bodily survival. But in Jesus’ saying, “labor” has a wider meaning: don’t focus on, don’t become obsessed with, don’t give all your time and energy to what perishes, even if you need it for this present life. This life is passing away, and if all you did was feed, clothe, and amuse yourself, then your life has been wasted. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The Bread from Heaven, the Living Water, the divine words that will not pass away, and our relationship with God—which is the only thing we will take with us when we die—must be where our most focused and sustained attention abide, the goal of our best efforts.
Perhaps it is time to return to the basics, the tried and true path to spiritual growth, to peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, to “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Let what is perishable perish; let what endures endure. And seek the wisdom to choose what leads to the imperishable Kingdom.