(thanks to Ps Luke Bouman for some of these thoughts)
There’s something about a freebie that’s attractive. If it’s big enough and plentiful enough, that’s even better. Whether it’s a BBQ with free champers and OJ in King George Square or a ride on a bus, I have a hard time keeping away.
Sometimes the freebie is genuinely gracious and fulfilling but mostly it’s not. “Something for nothing” ain’t all what it’s cracked up to be. I wonder why my avarice takes over and accepts so easily?
The crowds on that Galilean seaside were prepared to cross the water just to get whatever was on offer, for there was something about Jesus that kept drawing people to him.
It wasn’t just that the offer of free bread was attracting them, like we might get from the Day-Old counter at Brumbies. The bread he was giving out wasn’t simply free. This bread actually came out of nowhere and it came right in the middle of nowhere.
The people had been in the wilderness, they had been the people of God on the move again and, like once before, they received this bread.
Now they wanted more: “Give us this bread always.” Like sceptics all over the world, they’re not any different from us: they wanted a repeat performance because they just couldn’t grasp what they saw the first time. Miracles don’t always lead people to faith. People just say ‘do it again, only slower this time.’
This scenario, captured in today’s Gospel reading, is exactly that and, yes, it’s slower. What’s disconcerting is something I’ve already alluded to: that we’re not much better than those seaside wanderers. We’re still on the search for more – more bread, more something that will satisfy us. And we’re in a wilderness too, most of us, a wilderness more of our own making than not.
The world in which we live is made up of two whacking great bits. One part contains people who eat as much as they like and still bring leftovers for lunch. Yet these are curiously unfilled, unsatisfied.
The other part contains those who are desperate for any morsel that falls, any crust that remains. Here they wait, with protruding ribs and painful stomachs.
The one says to the others: “How can you still be like this? There’s more than enough to go around.” The others say “How can you be hungry? You have so much already.”
There’s something about this Gospel that has a challenge for us. It’s found in the middle of the Reading, in a part that often slips us by: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.“
Even in the midst of global financial anxieties and failures, we in the west have a hard time with those words because they fly in the face of the things we most treasure. My financial advisor would agree: shouldn’t we be building wealth?
However, the lessons from the wilderness about food were as important for the people of Israel as they are for us. They learned that Yahweh would give them the things they needed. They also learned not to hoard their bread but to share it with those who could not get it for themselves, otherwise it went bad.
In his helping them to understand, Jesus identifies himself with Yahweh, The Big Fellah. “I AM the bread of Life …” he says. Here is the One who satisfies; here is the Bread of Life – and this in stark contrast to the kind of bread that feeds but doesn’t fill.
This kind of Life-bread opens up a Pandora’s Box of other needs, of other hungers that Jesus satisfies; peace or justice or loving kindness or simply a humble walk. These hungers will never leave us no matter how many times we come for sustenance at his Table.
We become the bread we eat, reshaped into His Body, not by putting up our hand and letting avarice take over but by giving as he gave. We come hungry for life and leave hungry to give it. That’s the Jesus way.
The Rev. Ian McAlister is the Ministry Development Officer in the Diocese of Queensland and blogs at Reflections from the HIll