When I was growing up, sometimes we would ask Mom what was for dinner, and she would often reply, “I don’t know; it’s not three o’clock yet!” We were blessed, though. We could count on the fact that there would always be something for dinner and that it would be good. We just had to be a little bit patient and wait to find out what it was.
It seems like the Israelites might have benefitted from that lesson. They are out wandering in the desert and of course, they are hungry. I think we can understand that. But what is hard to understand is the content of their grumbling about it. They say that they would rather be back in Egypt, eating bread and the meat of the “fleshpots.” Why on earth did God have to drag them out into the desert only to kill them by hunger and let them die there? They would rather be in slavery in Egypt than be in the situation in which they find themselves. This is a complete rejection of God.
And it’s a shocking rejection, to be quite frank. The slavery they were subject to was not some kind of minor inconvenience. It’s not just that they were a little underpaid for their labor. No, they were beaten if they didn’t meet outrageous quotas, any kind of discontent would have cost them their lives. They lived in fear all the time, not knowing what new cruel joke their oppressors would subject them to. And so they cried out to God, who heard them, and delivered them.
And the deliverance wasn’t some tiny little act of mercy. God basically made a laughing stock of the pharaoh, who had made a laughing stock of the people Israel. He gave pharaoh a dose of what he had given the people. God made the plight of the Egyptians so bad that they were glad to be rid of the Israelites and basically helped them pack for the journey, giving them all of their gold and silver valuables to take with them. When the Israelites could not figure out the way they should go, God provided a column of cloud by day and fire by night so that they could see the right path. When the Egyptians pursued them and gained on them, God opened up the Red Sea for the Israelites to pass through, and then closed it back up over the Egyptians, swallowing up their armies, their horses and their chariots.
But now they’re a little hungry, so they’d like to return the gift, thank you. And when you think about it, this is really illogical. Is God, who was powerful enough to overthrow the Egyptians, and to deliver his people through the Red Sea, not powerful enough to feed them besides? Of course he is, and God will certainly feed his people when it’s time, and will not let them die of hunger and thirst in the desert.
Today’s Gospel provides a similar situation. The people have enjoyed the food that Jesus provided in last week’s Gospel, and they are looking for more of the same. He has retreated with his disciples, fearing they will try to make him a king, and they pursue him. When they catch up with him, Jesus engages them in dialogue. This dialogue is important for us to hear, because it unpacks the meaning of last week’s miracle. Jesus, of course, recognizes that they have pursued him not for any religious or spiritual reason, but because he fed them and they are looking for more of the same. But the real feeding he intends is not just barley loaves, but instead something a little more enduring.
They ask him how they can accomplish the works of God, which is a fair enough question. That’s really the purpose of our lives too. But they probably mean that they want to know how they can live the law, which is not nearly as deep as Jesus wishes to go. He tells them that the best way they can do God’s will is to believe in him – the one God sent. So they have the audacity to ask him what kind of sign he can do so that they can believe in him. Can you believe that ? He just finished feeding thousands of people with five loaves and two fish, and they want to see a sign? I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to think they wouldn’t recognize a sign from God if it came up and bit them in the nose!
Jesus, instead, would redefine hunger. Like I said, he wanted to go much deeper. Barley loaves and manna are nice, but they are nothing compared to what Jesus really longs to give them – and us, by the way. He makes a very bold claim at the end of today’s Gospel that tells us just exactly what he has in mind: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” They may have to toil very hard for physical bread, bread that will perish, bread that doesn’t last more than a day or so. But Jesus would have them work for bread that lasts for eternity, the bread of life. And all they have to do to work for it is to believe.
The question is not whether Jesus will feed them, the question is whether they can accept it. And in the next few weeks, we will explore that more closely. But what I think we see in today’s Liturgy of the Word is that we have to be clear about what it is we hunger for. And that question is very pressing on all of us today. Every one of us comes here hungering for something. Our hungers may be very physical: some here may be unemployed or underemployed, or perhaps our hunger is for physical healing of some kind. But perhaps our hungers are a bit deeper too: a relationship that is going badly, or a sense that we aren’t doing what we should be or want to be doing with our lives. Our hunger very well may be very spiritual as well: perhaps our relationship with God is not very developed or our prayer life has become stale. Whatever the hunger is, we need to be honest and name it right now, in the stillness of our hearts.
Naming that hunger, we then have to do what Jesus encouraged the crowds to do: believe. That is the work of God that we are called upon to do. Believe that God can feed our deepest hungers, heal our deepest wounds, bind up our brokenness and calm our restless hearts. Believe that Jesus is, in fact, the Bread of Life, the bread that will never go stale or perish, the bread that will never run out, or disappear like manna in the heat of the day. Jesus is the Bread that can feed more than our stomachs but also our hearts and souls. The Psalmist sings, “The Lord gave them bread from heaven.” And we know that bread is the most wonderful food of all, because it is the Body of Christ. Amen!