Sometimes it’s just too easy to pick on the people who surround Jesus. We’re told in the Gospels that wherever he went, by his preaching and his reputation as a faith healer, that he drew a crowd. And time and again—no matter what mysteries Jesus reveals to them, or even what miraculous things he does in their presence—they continue to completely miss the point.
Today’s reading is no different. We find Jesus having crossed the lake, and this group of people who were just fed by the loaves and fish are coming to find him. At first glance we may think that these people were honestly interested in Jesus’ mission. But it’s soon pointed out by Jesus that what they’re really after is more bread.
It’s even a little harsh the way that things go down. Jesus not only calls them out for only being interested in more bread—but he goes on to tell them that they’re missing the point—that it’s a faithful relationship with God that is necessary, and that the ‘bread’ that they should be seeking is an eternal thing.
While they may not have gotten what Jesus was saying, they are clever enough to bring up Moses and the manna that fed Israel in the wilderness. They even quote Scripture, apparently. But here again, Jesus has to remind them that not only was it not about the bread (even heavenly bread), it was about a faithful relationship with God.
Now, I don’t know whether or not metaphor as a literary device was completely lost on these people—or if they really were so hard-headed as to miss the eternal gift that Jesus was offering. Either way, it makes me feel a little bad for them…and then I suppose picking on them is a bit like punching a sad clown—right? I mean, if you punch a sad clown—he’s already sad—what good does it do?
Well, not much, actually, as it turns out. In fact, the more that I try to dig into these fools, the more I begin to realize what it would be like to be in their position. I don’t have to try too hard and before I know it, I’m just as confounded by Jesus as any one of them—and I’m sure I’m not alone.
Because even as people who know the end of the story, we still get it all muddled. And in some ways, just like these people in Jesus’ time—we start to think that it’s all about the bread.
It’s kind of ironic. After all, we have a couple thousand years of studying and understanding all of this stuff. And even though we have some concept of what Jesus means by Love God, love your neighbor; take care of the widow and orphan; don’t swim right after you eat—we’re still apparently not all that great at it.
It kind of makes me wonder what it would be like if our places were reversed with these nameless crowds that we find in the Gospels; If somehow they were reading an account of us and our struggle to figure out Jesus in our own lives.
Maybe they’d say something like, what’s wrong with these people? How can these people have the gift of the Holy Spirit and still be at war? How can they have an understanding of what it means to be a light to the world when their cities are full of violence and poverty? How could they claim to understand the temporal nature of things, yet still abide in such an inequitable system?
One answer is that we’ve allowed metaphor as a literary device to be completely lost on us. And another is that we keep thinking that it’s about the bread.
Because for many of us our politics are about sound bites and clever Facebook postings about tax returns and long form birth certificates. For some a public profession of faith is about waiting two hours to buy a chicken sandwich… All the while we’re being duped into dividing, self-selecting and infuriating one another at the whim of politicians and corporations. So that sometimes even when we think we’re not acting like it’s about the bread, that we’re really rooted in what is true—we’re actually acting like it’s about the bread.
And somehow our reason and our identity as the redeemed, beloved of the Risen Christ goes up in a cloud of media smoke.
But y’know, the best news about all of this is that the answer to all of our issues is very simple. It’s about loving, faithful relationship with God—but that’s only the start. Because once we begin to really work on that, we find that we’re inevitably drawn to faithful loving relationship with those around us.
I know what you’re probably thinking: Matt you’re beating a dead horse—you’ve used this relationship with God thing before. And you’d be right, but as long as we need to be reminded of it, I’ll keep preaching it.
Because as I watch the civility of our country begin to crumble and any number of people slipping through the cracks: the poor, the middle class, and anyone else along the spectrum; it makes me realize that a lot of us are just a little lost. We’ve just forgotten what it means to be family—to be children in the family of God, sharing the blood of the Risen Christ as our common relation. We’ve forgotten that in casting our slings, arrows and political views at one another that they are hitting and harming our own family—Christ’s own beloved. And that should bother us, I think.
Right before Jesus goes out to the garden to pray, and then be arrested and finally crucified; he leaves his disciples with a final command. Jesus says,“ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” It’s from this command that we get the name for Maundy Thursday in Holy Week (obviously). And it’s the time when we’re taught to wash one another’s feet.
But this command to love one another is just that—it’s a commandment just like the ten that were given to Moses on Sinai. So in the same way, it’s meant to guide us as God’s people. More importantly, it’s by this love that we’re to be known as Christ’s disciples.
Like I said before, it’s not about the bread, it’s about loving relationship. Understandably it’s a tougher thing than it sounds. But for the sake of our community, our country and our world, I hope we don’t miss the point, and more importantly, I hope we’re not too hard-headed to miss the eternal gift that Jesus offers.