(Note… I must have written about the text … even if the text were not used this year because of a Feast Day landing on Sunday… gosh… I must have had a lot of time on my hands to write so much! FC Feb 2017)
18th Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle B
Ex. 16:2-4, 12-15
“WOULD THAT WE HAVE DIED AT THE LORD’S HAND IN THE LAND OF EGYPT, AS WE SAT BY OUR FLESHPOTS AND ATE OUR FILL OF BREAD! BUT YOU HAD TO LEAD US INTO THIS DESERT TO MAKE THE WHOLE COMMUNITY DIE OF FAMINE!” Ex 16:3
This week’s Old Testament text, the second week of a five week series on the Gospel of John’s Bread of Life sixth chapter, takes us to another mass feeding story in Israel’s history. Yet it is a very different circumstance than last week’s story about the Prophet Elisha. This week’s text from Exodus puts us at the beginning of the Israelites 40 year sojourn in the desert, on their way to the Holy Land. God had just liberated them from slavery in Egypt. They are being led by Moses and Aaron. They are 30 days out of Egypt and the people have run out of all the food they had taken with them for the journey. They are very hungry and facing possible starvation.
This week’s story is about a different kind of hunger than the hunger we were dealing with last week. Last week’s story was about a famine induced hunger, a situation that was brought on the people of Israel by nature and out of their control. This week’s hunger is self-inflicted, something the people brought on themselves in order to be free from slavery in Egypt, a price for freedom they did not bargain for. As we discover in this week’s text the Israelites are not happy about their situation.
They complain to Moses and Aaron, blaming them for their dire situation. They ask them why they led them into the desert to die of starvation. It would have been better, they say, to have died at God’s hands in slavery in Egypt. At least in Egypt they had food to eat.
The Israelites are at the beginning of a 40 year learning curve regarding the price of freedom. When a people throws off the shackles of slavery and oppression, it comes at a price. Every true movement of liberation begins with the relinquishments of the comforts and securities that come with the systems of slavery and oppression, such as they are. In a very real sense the account of Israel’s liberation from Egypt’s slavery in the book of Exodus is done backwards. It begins with God’s divine intervention that did the hard work of actually freeing the Israelites from the chains of slavery in Egypt and that is followed by a 40 year journey in the desert with the Israelites trying to figure out what being free is all about. The old saying rings true, “It took the Israelites one day to leave Egypt and it took them 40 years to get Egypt out of them.”
The name Steve Biko comes to mind when I think of liberation struggles that begin with the internal liberation of the enslaved first and then move on to the actual liberation from the systems and structures of oppression. Steve was a black South African anti-apartheid activist in the 70s. He understood what it meant to measure the cost of freedom and the price needed to be paid up front before the actual physical chains and oppressive structures and systems of the racist apartheid government could be eliminated. His gift to his black brothers and sisters in the struggle was the whole idea of “black consciousness.” It was the awareness that blacks in South Africa must first free themselves of the ideas and beliefs within themselves that allowed the racist apartheid system to exist. Once Biko’s Black Consciousness movement took hold in the black population, especially in the youth, it made it inevitable that the apartheid system would come down. After Biko, it was not a matter of whether or not the racist government would ever change but a matter of when it would come down. It did come down in the 1990s after tens of thousands of black South Africans were killed in the struggle. Steve Biko himself was beaten to death by white South African police while in their custody.
THEN THE LORD SAID TO MOSES, “I WILL NOW RAIN DOWN BREAD FROM HEAVEN FOR YOU.”
After the dust settled from the people’s complaining the Israelites discovered the food they needed to survive in the desert, but one does not know whether it was through natural means (as some bible scholars maintain) or by direct divine intervention as the story reads. The text tells us that a bread-like substance called manna was available in the mornings and quail meat in the evenings. It was a day to day, subsistence diet. It was perishable food and there was no way to horde extra portions beyond a single day. Except the text says on the sixth day of each week the Israelites could gather two day’s supply of food so that they could eat on the Sabbath without breaking the rule to rest and do no work. (Ex 16:5) Whether this food was from natural means or given directly by God, it was all God provided and all food from heaven which kept them alive for 40 years!
A daily diet of manna and quail meat, seven days a week, year in and year out is not a rich diet. This is not a story about abundance. It is a story about subsistence food, just enough to survive from day to day in a struggle for freedom and liberation. It was this experience in the desert that formed the Jewish people into a nation.
Freedom always comes at a price whether it is political or spiritual. This week’s text from Exodus is a good text leading to this week’s gospel from John where Jesus begins to instruct the crowd about the deeper meaning of human hunger, food that lasts forever and a faith that will lead to eternal life.
WATER WALK SKIPPED
Right after John’s mass feeding is an account of Jesus walking on the water. This is one of three accounts of him walking on the water. The other two are in Matthew 14:22-33 and Mark 6:45-52. Each of these three accounts follows a mass feeding account. Next to the Passion account Jesus’ mass feeding and water walk in John 6 are the largest continuous sections that follow Mark’s narrative. Since the lectionary focus for this five week series is on the Bread of Life John’s account of Jesus’ walking on the water is skipped. We pick up the story in this week’s gospel where the crowd catches up with Jesus and his disciples in Capernaum.
“RABBI, WHEN DID YOU GET HERE?” John 6:25
When the crowd does catch up with Jesus they ask him when he arrived in Capernaum. None of them saw him leave the mountain side after the mass feeding and they were trying to find him. It is a perfectly legitimate question to ask Jesus. They called him “Rabbi” out of respect.
I’m wondering how a crowd can ask a question. Did they all speak as a choir? Or did one person speak for them all? Actually this is a literary device. This week’s exchange is between Jesus and the crowd. It will shift next week.
“DO NOT WORK FOR FOOD THAT PERISHES BUT FOR FOOD THAT ENDURES FOR ETERNAL LIFE WHICH THE SON OF MAN WILL GIVE YOU.” John 6:27
Jesus ignores the crowd’s question and he tells them they are looking for him because he fed them and filled their stomachs. He tells them they did not understand the ‘sign’ value of the mass feeding. They should work for the food that leads to eternal life, the food that the Son of Man will bring them. Here Jesus is doing with bread what he did with water for the woman at the well (Jn 4:7-15).
In this response Jesus is transitioning from the physical plane of food that feeds the body to the spiritual plane of food which is no less physical yet much much more, for spiritual food is the food that feeds the human soul. His mentioning of the Son of Man brings to the text the apocalyptic character found in the Book of Daniel, the heavenly being who represents all of humanity as the human one who rides a cloud to the throne of God in heaven at the final judgment (Daniel 7:13-14). Of all the titles attributed to Jesus in the gospels, the Son of Man is the one title Jesus is most comfortable using for himself.
“WHAT CAN WE DO TO ACCOMPLISH THE WORKS OF GOD?” John 6:20
The crowd is made up of working class people who know what it means to work for their daily food. They are asking Jesus what they must do to earn what Jesus says God is offering them.
“THAT YOU BELIEVE IN THE ONE HE SENT.” John 6:29
Jesus tells the crowd that to do the works of God is to believe in him. The works of God are a matter of having faith in him.
“WHAT SIGN CAN YOU DO THAT WE MAY SEE AND BELIEVE IN YOU?” John 6:30
The crowd doesn’t get it. They are blind. They ask Jesus to show them a sign so that they can believe in him. One wonders if they were the same people fed the day before, 5000 strong. What more of a sign do they need? Yet the blindness of the crowd goes much deeper than their missing the meaning of the prior day’s mass feeding. A crowd will never understand a higher spiritual truth. Only individual, free human beings can grasp the spiritual truth that Jesus is offering.
The crowd reminds Jesus that God gave their ancestors manna – “bread from heaven to eat” in the desert actually quoting this week’s first reading from Exodus 16:4-15.
“SIR, GIVE US THIS BREAD ALWAYS.” John 6:34
The crowd overlooks Jesus’ comment about Moses and hears the more important truth that Jesus is sharing and they ask Jesus point blank, “give us this bread always.”
“I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE: WHOEVER COMES TO ME WILL NEVER HUNGER AND WHOEVER BELIEVES IN ME WILL NEVER THIRST.” John 6:35
This is the punch line for this week’s gospel. Jesus has made the transition in his conversation with the crowd from talking about food that feeds the physical body to food that feeds the human soul. Then transitioning further, he shifts from the person who feeds a hungry crowd to becoming himself the bread that gives eternal life. At the heart of this transition is having faith in Jesus. The whole thing hinges on our having faith in Jesus.