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Monday, August 24, 2015

Final thoughts 1—Bread of Life: Looking beyond the manna and the man

Buddhists talk of their teaching as a finger
pointing at the moon—we're meant to see
the goal, not the finger.
At the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, recorded in some form in all four gospels, there is a story about the John-baptized Jesus being driven into the wilderness for trial. In the more detailed narratives, the evangelists tell of dialogue between Jesus and Satan, who, in one case, tries to get Jesus to turn rocks into loaves of bread. In these lessons in “how to be a bad messiah,” Satan attempts to make Jesus into the very kind of messiah that people will actually want, will root for: one who can feed them when they get hungry, rule over their rulers, and manipulate God into answering whatever prayer might be on their lips at the time. In every case, Jesus not only rejects the suggestion of the tempter, but, using God’s own word, demonstrates that the kind of actions Satan suggests were never God’s idea in the first place. Satan, foiled in this attempt to divert Jesus from his calling and from his elevated status as God’s beloved, goes away to try again later. “Later,” we are to understand, is the darkness of the cross.


The cluster of sayings and dialogues gathered and redacted into the sixth chapter of John are dense and weighted with references to the feeding of the Hebrews wandering in the desert with manna, “bread from heaven.” What does “bread from heaven” mean? Is it like “pennies from heaven,” a kind of panis ex machina that is like winning the hunger lottery? I think to answer this question, we have to come to terms with what kind of God it is whom we worship. If “heaven” is the abode of God, or the sphere of divine influence, then the kind of God we worship will determine much about what heaven is like. For instance, if we believe in a God in the likeness of a human monarch, then heaven will be somehow like a castle, with royal attendants, rich fixtures, a throne, “golden crowns upon the glassy sea,” and so forth. But what if, as I have often been advocating here and in my music (not my own idea, but gleaned from other readings) that Jesus Christ “is the image of the invisible God,” and that our best glimpse of God, and therefore of heaven, is to consider Christ himself? Might not, in the end, this be something like what Jesus means when he says, in words laden with connotative references to the exodus narrative, “I AM the living bread which has come down from heaven”? In other words, My work is the work of the God of Exodus, the living God, the God of freedom and equality. Abba gives me to the world, as Abba gave the manna in the desert to your ancestors. To be fully alive is to take me inside of you, to take me to your heart, to become who I am. This, too, is the gift of Abba.”

Jesus keeps urging the crowd to “look beyond” Moses, and see that the wonder worker was doing the work of the One who led them out of Egypt. In the same way, he wants the crowd, along with both his disciples and detractors, to see that it is God who feeds them. And how did God accomplish this? Are we to believe that, after a miraculous multiplication of food in front of thousands of people, there would still be incredulity? Well, we are a tough crowd; I suppose it’s (barely) possible. But what kind of God would be revealed in such a miracle, a god who feeds this crowd, today, and another one? Not a hungrier one, for instance, of which there are plenty. Wouldn’t such a miracle reveal a god who breaks all the rules set up at creation for a moment of glory? Being this kind of messiah, wouldn’t Jesus just be doing what Satan had tempted him to do in the desert, when he reprimanded the Divider by saying, “People don’t live on bread alone”? Is it more likely, as some have imagined, that the preaching of Jesus about the empire of God, about an alternative to greed, gain-centered labor, war and competitiveness in the invitation to live in agape, might have moved the crowd to open its burses and pockets, stimulated by the sight of a boy surrendering his five loaves and two fishes, to share their food with one another?


What kind of bread, from what kind of “heaven”, might that be? What God might dwell in a heaven that is other people, that is a spirit of shared life, that is about acknowledged mutual value and equality as children of one family? Wouldn’t that kind of bread feed more than just the belly; yes, the belly, but also the heart and soul? 


The paschal mystery of God demands that kind of bread. It is not bread that changes our life like a winning lottery ticket, but it’s bread that changes our life like spring rain and sunlight, spread over the whole earth so that the earth itself brings forth enough for everyone. It’s bread that changes everyone’s life. The God whom we worship as a community of persons in eternal mutual surrender and service is revealed by a messiah who turns a crowd of hungry seekers into a table of plenty.


In the Buddhist parable, the seeker is warned not to miss the moon’s beauty by concentrating on the finger pointing at the moon. Jesus’s message to the crowds is much the same: it’s not the food that is so important, and it’s not even the one who brings it to the table. What’s important is the God who sends the bread from heaven. Knowing that God, knowing the divine economy of abundance that shines out when we stop coveting and hoarding and praying for a miracle and start opening our picnic baskets and sharing, that might be the important thing. Looking beyond the gift to the giver, sharing the bread from that heaven, we begin, in St. Augustine’s beautiful words, to become what we eat, not through any work of our own, but because the Holy Spirit fills the bread of agape with the very life of God.

Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. (Jn 6:26)