Overnight there has been something of a game of cat and mouse. Jesus had slipped away from the crowd , who earlier in the day he had fed miraculously from five barley loaves and and two fish. The crowd had been so impressed with what they had seen Jesus do that they were determined to make him their king. So he had slipped away from them into the the hills. Meanwhile, during the night, the disciples had crossed the lake in their boat. And whilst they were out on the water, struggling against the wind, much to their alarm Jesus had walked out onto the lake and join them in the boat. Now, the next day, the crowd have caught up with Jesus again, on the other side of the lake. When they arrive Jesus says one of the most cutting things he says to anybody during the whole of his ministry:
“Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
This is harsh. These people are not his opponents. These are not the Pharisees. They are not the scribes, nor are they the priests nor the Herodians. These are not the people, who when John writes this story, lumps together as “the Jews.” Nor are they the Romans, the representatives of the power of this world, they are nowhere to be seen here. These people are the ones who have become genuinely excited by what they have been witness to in Jesus. They are, you would imagine, some of his most ardent followers. They followed him out into the countryside to listen to what he has to say, they had sat long enough at his feed to have become very hungry, and then spent the night looking for him when he got away from them. Their enthusiasm may be misdirected, and their commitment to Jesus may have very shallow roots. And at this moment they are sure that Jesus has something that they need. But Jesus accuses them of something very serious. Later Paul will make the same accusation against those in Philippi who he describes as “the enemies of the cross,” those most opposed to the gospel which he preaches. Paul says of them:
“Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” (Philippians 3:19)
What people want is the problem. And it is too easy for them, or us, to become focussed on the most immediate need. And having become focussed on the need, it is tempting to become focussed on the most immediate, the quickest, simplest, cheapest means of satisfying that need. And it is too easy to lose sight of whether our longings are appropriate, and to miss the negative consequences of the means we take to reach our ends.
The theologian Paul Tillich, when he was writing about faith, wrote about something he called “ultimate concern” by which he meant God. But he gave this a double meaning, it has an objective and a subjective sense. The objective sense is what we might call God, with a big-G. That is the thing, indeed the person, who really is ultimate. The subjective sense is what we might call god, with a small-g. That is the thing which is ultimate in people’s lives, the thing that actually makes them who they are, the thing that drives them and shapes their decisions and actions. Tillich says this can be all manner of things. It ay indeed be someone’s “belly.” The thing that drives many people is nothing more than the attempt to satisfy some appetite or another which may be more or less natural in any of us. But it may also be some counterfeit for God with a large-G. Tillich was German and had lived through the Nazi period, so he was a position to recognise the way in which the “nation” might become the ultimate concern for many people. He could see that the nation, among other things, transcends the individual, is bigger than any individual desires or aspirations, and so he recognises the way that such things can easily become a kind of imposter-god. He also recognises the bitterness of the inevitable disappointment when such gods fail, as they must. What Tillich wanted people to see is that is critically important to make sure that our ultimate concern in the subjective sense is the same thing as the ultimate concern in the objective sense. That is, we need to be sure the thing which we take to be our god small-g is really God with a large-G. In a sense the question is: what is it that you really need? What is it that you are making god for yourself? What is your ultimate concern? And is that the real God? Determining the answer to that question is critically important. And from a Christian perspective, the perspective which Jesus is trying to give to his disciples, to the crowd and to us, the answer lies in our response to him Because the answer which we arrive at will determine everything else. The nature of the crowd’s, and our relationship with Jesus, whether we realise it or not will determine in relationship to everything else. Whether the crowd and we know what we really want hinges on our response to Jesus.
Yesterday, the crowd’s need had been immediate and obvious. Their need was such that it crowded out everything else from their consideration. They were hungry. They had spent the day in the middle of nowhere listening to what Jesus had to tell them. Most, nearly all of them, had been ill prepared for that day. They had come out after Jesus not realising and not expecting where Jesus would lead them or how long it would take. They had come out without food to sustain them in their following of Jesus, and he had taken them to a place where they couldn’t answer that need for themselves. They were hungry. But Jesus answers that need almost before they are able to articulate it and demand that they are fed. And he does so in a most spectacular fashion. He transformed a single packed lunch, five small barley loaves and two fish, into sufficient to feed the thousands who had gathered in the countryside, not far from the lake but too far from the shops. Of course once their immediate need had been answered, their other longings came back to their minds. They recognised that if Jesus could do this for them what else might he be capable of? What they see in Jesus is power, power to remake the substance of the world, here loaves and fishes, in a way that answers their needs. The answer to all their problems, they realise, is power. So the question of what they want is refocussed on where power is most obvious to them, the nation. Their hunger now becomes the desire to throw off the power of the foreign Empire and to have king of their own. May be Jesus is the one to overthrow that Empire, maybe Jesus should be their king. Jesus had sense that growing hunger in the crowd, which is where the overnight game of cat and mouse had begun.
Here the next day, the truth is the crowd don’t quite know what it is they want, but they, like most people realise that they want something. But they have already taken an important next step, they recognise that Jesus as the answer to their problem. At this stage their desires are still mixed up, incoherent and misdirected, but at least they have reached the point where Jesus can begin to reshape and redirect their longing. And it is at this point which the crowd make a comparison between Jesus and Moses. They recall something that is written down in a book called the Wisdom of Solomon. (We have it in that middle bit that’s in some of our Bibles which we hardly ever look at, called the Apocrypha.) In the Wisdom of Solomon it says: “. . .you gave your people the food of angels and without their toil you supplied them from heaven with bread read to eat.” (Wisdom 16:20) They know what those verses are referring to, they know this is an allusion to the time their ancestors spent in the wilderness, where they were formed as a nation under the leadership of Moses. And they challenge Jesus to show them who he is and what he can do. Is he the a new Moses? They say to him:
“What sign are you going to give us so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
The crowd Jesus to show them that he is at least as important to them as Moses. Which to me seems rather ironic since what has prompted all of this was Jesus providing exactly the sign which they are referring to: he had fed them in the wilderness. Which perhaps just goes to show how very very difficult it is for anyone to really know what they need or to actually identify the answer to that need!
Jesus acknowledges their association of him with Moses when he replies to them:
“Very truly I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven.”
Actually they may have forgotten, but he hasn’t. It was Jesus himself who originally raised the comparison with Moses. Not so very long ago he had said: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” (5:46) The comparison is there to be made. Up to now what they have had to guide them to an understanding of what they should really want, and how they should get it has been what Moses gave to them, Torah. In a way what fed them in the wilderness was not so much the manna that the ate, but the law which was given to them and which had guided and shaped them as a people ever since. Jesus draws attention to this by feeding them in a wilderness whilst at the same time teaching them. He is trying to reshape their understanding of what they want, and how it is that they and we are going to satisfy that longing. And he makes the decisive point. It was not Moses who gave them the manna which they ate in the wilderness, any more than it was Moses himself who provided them with the law. Jesus reminds them that the one who it is who provides all of those things:
“. . . but it is my father in heaven who gives you the true bread from heaven.”
Jesus reminds them that their truly ultimate concern should not be their hunger for bread and how they are going to satisfy it. Nor for that matter should that ultimate concern be their people, the nation and its power and independence. Indeed that ultimate concern should not even be their religion, their willingness to accept what Moses handed to them. But rather their ultimate concern should be the one who really is ultimate. For he is the one who feeds them, who gives them a sense of identity as individuals and as a people and who leads them into a relationship with himself which will give them a life which satisfies all of their longings. Their, and our attention should be directed towards God the father. Jesus finally arrives where he has be leading the crowd, and us, on this merry dance, in this game of cat and mouse. He shows us what we really want and how we are going to get it. He discloses himself:
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
I am the Bread of Life by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0