So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 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. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:24-35 – NRSV)
John’s account of the miracle of the loaves and fishes concludes with the following: “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (6:15). This is a sure sign that the people have little or no understanding of who Jesus is and what his mission is about. Today’s Gospel text begins with a similar expression of their ignorance: “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (6:24). This ignorance – and, more importantly, disbelief – is a feature of John’s Gospel. Some of Jesus sternest words are directed at “the Jews” who will not believe he is who he says he is – eg John 8:42-47: “Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God’.”
Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel needs to be studied as a single text. See the commentary on last Sunday’s text (Seventeenth Sunday) – John 6:1-15 – and next three Sunday’s texts – Nineteenth Sunday (John 6:41-51), Twentieth Sunday (6:51-58) and Twenty First Sunday (6:60-69). On the Twenty Second Sunday we return to the Mark’s Gospel.
“What must we do to perform the works of God?”: This question is also a sign that the people do not understand. They are looking for some strategy or technique or sure-fire process whereby they can be faithful to the Covenant. Francis Moloney writes: “The crowd attempts to bypass the promise of the Son of Man, asking: “What must we do to be devoting ourselves to the works of God (hina ergazōmetha ta erga theou)” (v. 28). The question depends on the Jewish belief that the Law, given through Moses, allows direct access to God. Doing the works of the Law means doing things that please God (cf. CD 2:14–15). Jesus’ response indicates that the way to God by means of the works of the Law is but a shadow of the possibility he offers them. Access to God is only through the Son who makes God known (cf. 1:18). The only way to do the work of God (ton ergon tou theou) is to believe in the one whom God has sent (v. 29).” (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998, 209.)
What John Dominic Crossan writes of the parables of Jesus, applies here: “The parables of Jesus seek to draw one into the Kingdom, and they challenge us to act and to live from the gift which is experienced therein. But we do not want parables. We want precepts and we want programs. We want good precepts and we want sensible programs. We are frightened by the lonely silences within the parables.” (John Dominic Crossan, In Parables – The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Harper and Row, 1973,, 82.)
The lesson “the Jews” had to learn – and we all have to learn – is that “Jesus is the way” (John 14:6). Or, to put it another way, Jesus is “the bread of life” (6:35).
Jesus is at the centre of the Gospels, their heart and soul. He teaches, he reaches out to the poor, he performs miracles, he suffers and dies. People gather around him, the religious authorities conflict with him. The Gospels clearly manifest a truth: Jesus was at the centre of the lives, the heart and soul, of those who chose to believe in him and follow him. And that is the truth for each of us – if we so choose.
We do not have the physical presence of Jesus to deal with. We can however safely assume that Jesus is there in each person, event and moment of every day. Given the forces at play in our culture, this presents us with a challenge and a responsibility.
Pope Francis reminds us of a certain “isolation” that “can find expression in a false autonomy which has no place for God” (Evangelii Gaudium, 89). We should not assume that being overtly religious preserves us from this: “In the realm of religion it can also take the form of a spiritual consumerism tailored to one’s own unhealthy individualism. The return to the sacred and the quest for spirituality which mark our own time are ambiguous phenomena. Today, our challenge is not so much atheism as the need to respond adequately to many people’s thirst for God, lest they try to satisfy it with alienating solutions or with a disembodied Jesus who demands nothing of us with regard to others” (Ibid).
Pope Francis goes on to warn us: “Unless these people find in the Church a spirituality which can offer healing and liberation, and fill them with life and peace, while at the same time summoning them to fraternal communion and missionary fruitfulness, they will end up by being taken in by solutions which neither make life truly human nor give glory to God” (Ibid).
“One important challenge,” Pope Francis therefore says, “is to show that the solution will never be found in fleeing from a personal and committed relationship with God which at the same time commits us to serving others. This happens frequently nowadays, as believers seek to hide or keep apart from others, or quietly flit from one place to another or from one task to another, without creating deep and stable bonds….. This is a false remedy which cripples the heart and at times the body as well. We need to help others to realize that the only way is to learn how to encounter others with the right attitude, which is to accept and esteem them as companions along the way, without interior resistance. Better yet, it means learning to find Jesus in the faces of others, in their voices, in their pleas” (Evangelii Gaudium, 91).
The Jesus who healed the sick and multiplied the loaves is living next door to you, he walks past you every day on the street and rides with you on the bus. Can you see him with the eyes of your soul?