wants & needs, food & faith
“The Hand of the Lord feeds us
he answers all our needs”
For the past couple of weeks the gospel readings at Sunday Mass have presented Mark’s account of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Today the Lectionary jumps us into John chapter 6 where we will spend the next month of Sundays before returning to Mark.
The verses of John 6 that we hear in today’s gospel, (v.1-15) present the account of Jesus feeding the multitude. We know that there is an important message here, since this is one of the very few passages that is recorded in all four gospels.
It is important that we read these fifteen verses in the context of the entire sixth chapter. The chapter begins well for Jesus. People are attracted to Jesus. They follow him wherever he goes. They listen to his teaching. They are hungry and Jesus feeds them abundantly. They are so appreciative that they want to make him their king. (v.15).
A homily on these few verses might well carry a ‘feel good’ message. We are all hungry. We all like a good feed. Jesus caters generously. The people like Jesus and follow him because he heals their sick (v.2) and satisfies their hunger (v.11). Today’s reading finishes here – and we are left feeling great.
But let’s not ignore the rest of the chapter. In verse 16 the disciples head out onto the lake. They go without Jesus, and a storm blows up. Jesus comes to them across the water. Initially their fear overwhelms them and Jesus speaks to them: “It is I, do not be afraid.” They take him into their boat and together they safely reach the shore.
The crowds catch up with Jesus again. Once again they are hungry. Jesus knows that another ‘loaves and fishes’ miracle will now do little more than temporarily fill their stomachs and satisfy their curiosity for a few more hours. So instead, now that he has their attention, he begins to give them what they really need. Jesus teaches them: “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you”. (v.27)
At this point I imagine the crowds would be losing interest fast. All they want is another free lunch, perhaps another healing. But Jesus continues: “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them”. (vs.55-56) Jesus is reminding the that people cannot live on bread (or fish) alone. Something more is needed.
Let’s take a moment to consider the implications of what Jesus is teaching here. He is telling us that food, drink, material possessions, financial security, entertainments and even relationships do not have the power to satisfy the desires of the human heart. It’s not that these things are bad. Just that they are not the fundamentals of a happy human life. This is because (as St. Augustine put it so well in the fifth century): ‘you have made us for yourself O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you’.
Now at this point in Jesus’ teaching, not only are many of his ‘followers’ losing interest, but they are beginning to grumble. (v.41). Jesus challenges them: “stop grumbling among yourselves” (v.43) and he continues to teach them about real food from the hand of God, that will answer all their needs.
Jesus is no longer offering a temporary solution to life’s wants. He is offering real food – his own presence. He is inviting them to complete fulfillment of every desire through present and eternal participation in the life of God. Now Jesus is speaking about the Eucharist. The people respond saying “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (v.60) And “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him”.
OK, that gives us the overview of the gospel passages for these next few weeks. This context is necessary if we are to understand who Jesus is, and how he understood his mission. It is clear that satisfying the physical hunger of people was important for him. Christians today follow Jesus in this mission to the hungry of the world. But for Jesus there was more. It is evident that Jesus will calm the storms in our life. So too we do this for others when we provide our care and comfort to those who are troubled. But for Jesus there is more.
Jesus’ mission is to help us to know that the fulness of God dwells among us, and that therefore we have nothing to fear. Yes it is necessary to have food and comfort, but these necessities of human life are insufficient without God.
This is the challenge for a person of faith today. It is all too easy to allow our desire for a life of comfort with family and friends to prevent us from living and proclaiming the fulness of the teaching of Jesus. Comfort can never bring salvation. Jesus presented ‘hard teaching’ and some were unable to accept this. They even grumbled and walked away. It would not have been easy for Jesus to watch them go, but he did not compromise his father’s mission in order to win friends or to attract people.
We usually fail to see beyond our simple wants. Too often we ignore our ultimate needs. We also fail our friends and family when we quietly compromise our beliefs in order to ‘keep the peace.’ Perhaps we do this because we wrongly think that the peace and comfort that we seek is our own achievement? We forget that all we really seek is given to us by God. It is God who provides the bread for our tables. It is God who calms the storms of our lives.
The life of a follower of Jesus must never be reduced to the work of a social worker who guides people through life’s conflicts and tensions. Nor can we reduce our mission to the activity of a soup kitchen providing food for the hungry. These are good and essential works, but many people who are not Christian are very effective in these roles. Christians must serve their neighbours in these areas, but for believers there is something else that comes first. Something, no (let me be more precise) …someONE greater: Jesus who feeds us, Jesus who inspires us and Jesus who motivates us.
And this is where the chapter 6 ends. “You do not want to leave too, do you? Jesus asked the Twelve”. It is Peter who responds on behalf of us all: “Lord, to whom shall we go, You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”