by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life…I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” John 6, 24-35
I find John’s Gospel challenging at the best of times. I struggle to grasp the meaning of some of his metaphors, to uncover the implications of his message and to depth some of his theology. Having said that, I dare to suggest that today’s gospel-reading and, indeed, the whole of Chapter 6 of his Gospel make the point that happy, wholesome, meaningful living is not provided by the material resources we have and work to accumulate but by adopting the values on which Jesus built his life. Jesus could see that the crowds were flocking around him, following the miracle of his feeding the five thousand, because they had concluded that he could be a source of supply to meet their immediate needs. It seems to me that, consciously or unconsciously, they saw in Jesus the possibility of a “quick-fix” to all their problems and wants. That’s a human characteristic we can all recognise. Who among us hasn’t, at some time or other, longed for instant gratification of a want we have turned into a need? It seems that the crowds who witnessed or heard about the miracle of the loaves and fish wanted Jesus to do a repeat performance.
Are we any different? We commemorate our heroes because memories of them make us feel good. We watch replays of the victories of our favourite sporting teams because they, too, lift our spirits and leave us with good feelings. We take tickets in sweepstakes, the Pools or Lotto in the hope of a windfall, convincing ourselves that, if we win, more will be better. So, John shows us how Jesus reads the mindset of the crowd in front of him. Instead of answering the busy-body question of one of their number – “Rabbi, when did you come here?” – Jesus launches into an assertion about the crowd’s motivation in coming after him: “I assure you, you are not looking for me because you have seen signs but because you have eaten your fill of the loaves. You should not be working for perishable food but for food that nourishes your lasting life, food with which the Son of Man will provide you; it is on him that God the Father has set his seal” (of approval and authenticity) John 6, 26-27. That’s John’s way of saying that the values that Jesus proclaims and embodies in his living are guaranteed by God to nourish them (the crowd) and us for living meaningful, wholesome and happy lives.
The words attributed to Jesus by John – “You are not looking for me because you have seen signs” pick up not only a feature of John’s Gospel but also allude to the blindness of the crowd to whom Jesus was speaking and their deafness to his message. All four Gospels were attempts by their authors to demonstrate to their communities just who Jesus really was and what his coming as a human being meant for the future of humanity. The first three Gospels pointed to who Jesus was by variously putting the focus on his miracles or on what he meant by “the kingdom of God” or on his reaching out to the poor and disadvantaged or on his healing and miracles. To point to who Jesus was, John carefully set down what he calls seven “signs” to illustrate that Jesus could only have come from God, that Jesus really was God’s beloved son. Briefly, those seven signs are: changing water into wine in Cana, healing from a distance the royal official’s son in Capernaum, curing the paralytic at the pool in Bethsaida, feeding the 5000, walking on the water in the storm, healing the man who was blind from birth, raising Lazarus from the grave. In the process, John uses many images and metaphors from the Old or First Testament. As today’s gospel-reading unfolds, we can see that it has some parallels with the first reading from Exodus. John, echoing the incident of God raining down manna in the desert to satisfy the hunger of the grumbling Israelites, effectively states that Jesus is the new manna, sent from heaven by God to feed and nourish the world. Moreover, he reprimands the crowd for wanting a repeat of the miracle of the loaves and fish instead of opening their eyes to take in the real significance of the Jesus who stands in front of them. And so that the crowd does not miss the point, John quotes Jesus as saying explicitly: “I myself am the bread of life” (John 6, 35).
John is a good theologian who gives an explanation to his community of who Jesus is and how they can grow to appreciate that he is the “new manna”, God’s gift of nourishment for them and the world. However, I dare to suggest that in his eagerness to give a sound theological basis to the point he wants to make, John sells Jesus short as a teacher. One doesn’t encourage others to change their life directions by telling them that they are wrong or by making categorical assertions. John attributes to Jesus a statement to the crowd telling them that Moses, one of their great ancestors in faith, did not provide the manna in the desert, noting that Moses was only God’s instrument in bringing satisfaction to the grumbling Israelites he was leading. A little later in the exchange between Jesus and the crowd, John has Jesus assert: “I myself am the bread of life.” There are two points worthy of our consideration here. People rarely come to put their faith in anyone who makes bold assertions of grandeur about himself/herself. Maybe Donald Trump was an exception. But he turned off more than he attracted. Change of attitude and allegiance, conversion of mind and heart normally come about gradually through engagement with others that develops into relationship, and certainly not by being subjected to criticism and categorical statements. I am inclined to think that Jesus would have been more respectful of people in the crowd, even when they were unable to see the goodness of God right in front of them and all around them.
It is also worth noting that the Jews of Jesus’ time were familiar with the metaphor of “bread from heaven” being used to describe the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures so dear to every faithful Jew. For Jesus simply to say, without qualification: “I am the bread of heaven” would have been earth-shattering and soul-shaking. Maybe John, for the sake of brevity, has just given his audience the headlines of what occurred in the exchange between Jesus and the crowd.
What, then, is something we, who believe in a God who loved us into life and continues to hold us dear, can take from today’s readings? If our faith in God and in Jesus really consists of an ongoing, developing relationship with them, then we can expect it to grow and change from one day to the next. We will have to live with the realisation that there will be days when our prayer and reflection give us a real spiritual and emotional uplift, and other days when there are struggles with that relationship. We also may need to learn that God’s gifts are all around us, if we can only pause to take them in. Moreover, it’s important to use the gifts we receive from God each day, rather than try to store them up. After all, the Hebrews of the Exodus learned that they could not keep some of today’s manna for tomorrow. It dried up and became spoiled when it wasn’t used. Relationship with God and Jesus is not about accumulating merit points, preserving a past or building a tradition. That’s the sort of thing that takes the life out of relationship and militates again change, growth and new possibilities. Living faith looks forward to a future full of hope and new life.