Confusion reigns in today’s gospel. Firstly, the people who were miraculously fed by Jesus – as we heard last Sunday – are confused by his sudden disappearance as well as that of his companions. Some of those people make an educated guess that Jesus might have gone to the fishing town of Capernaum, his Galilean base. So they sail across the lake and their guess is rewarded by finding Jesus in the local synagogue. They initiate a conversation with him, but the further they go, the more confused they get. They ask him questions, but his answers seem only to deepen their confusion. For them, as Israelites brought up in a culture where every aspect of life was regulated in fine detail by the religious law, Jesus’ ‘vagueness’ is confusing. And, let’s be honest, two thousand years later, Jesus’ speech is no less confusing to many of us, sitting in our local church. So, let’s try to chop up today’s gospel reading into small, digestible pieces and – hopefully – by the end of my speech confusion will have left this place.
‘You are not looking for me because you have seen the signs but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat.’ To the people who have made a lot of effort to come that far following Jesus, his opening sentence must sound quite harsh. There is no appreciation for or acknowledgement of their effort, just a stern diagnosis of their motivation. ‘The charming Jesus’ is gone, replaced by ‘the stern Jesus’, and they don’t like it.
‘Do not work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life, the kind of food the Son of Man (Jesus) is offering you.’ Here’s where the confusion really starts. Essentially we do work to earn money to put bread on the table. But on the face of it, Jesus basically tells us to neglect such work and instead to concentrate on food that endures to eternal life. Excuse me? The confusion comes from the misinterpretation of the word ‘to work’. Jesus’ use of this verb refers to the efforts made by the people following him. Such efforts make sense only when their aim is to find eternal life, not digestibles.
‘What must we do if we are to do the works that God wants?’ Jesus’ audience, confused as they are, respond with a question. Seemingly they are willing to accept Jesus’ demands in the same way that they were brought up, namely by doing things. As I mentioned earlier on, the Jewish law regulated every aspect of life in fine detail. Fulfilling the obligations, duties and requirements of the Law was effectively the only way to gain God’s approval. Now those people who followed Jesus ask him what they must do. His response couldn’t be further away from their current understanding: ‘This is working for God: you must believe in the one he has sent’ – namely, Jesus himself. He tries to turn their understanding of faith in God upside down: eternal life is a gift from God, offered through his Son Jesus; it is not a payment for the diligent, literal fulfilment of religious rules.
Jesus’ attempt isn’t successful. His audience demands a miracle that would confirm his credentials, but what they are actually trying to do is to trick him into becoming a ‘free-meal provider’ by recalling their nation’s glamorised glorious past: ‘What sign will you give to show us that we should believe in you? Our fathers had manna to eat in the desert.’ Their attempt evokes a scene from Jesus’ fasting in the desert when Satan tempted him to turn stones into loaves of bread. Jesus denounced Satan by saying that ‘it is not just bread that keeps people alive. Their lives depend on what God says.’ And, basically, it’s the same answer that Jesus gives his audience. His mission is to satisfy a much greater craving than a physical one: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.’ (Matthew 5:6)
The word righteousness here doesn’t mean any form of arrogant and self-applauding, self-declared holiness. Righteousness describes the desire for fairness, goodness, integrity, decency, honesty and rectitude in one’s life. Such longing can find its fulfilment only in Jesus – that’s what he tries to teach us in today’s gospel. Short-term earthly prosperity – symbolised here by ‘bread’ – isn’t Jesus’ priority. He wants his followers to find a significantly deeper meaning to their lives. And when it’s found, everything falls into place, into the right place. So, at the end of the day Jesus does care about our daily bread, but in connection with the equally important food of our higher needs.