Bread and Circuses? A Reflection on John 6.24-35

In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus fed a crowd of thousands with just a small amount of food. In my reflection on the passage, I asked why this story was so important to the first Christians that it recurs six times in the four canonical Gospels. I suggested that it was because it manifests the Kingdom of God in a very full way, revealing it to be a Kingdom that is, by grace, for everyone who chooses to show up, which invites us to be active participants, that cares about genuine human need, that is abundant, and in which nothing good goes to waste. But that is not how those whom Jesus fed interpreted it. They rushed to Jesus intending on proclaiming him their king, and he is forced to flee. Today’s Gospel picks up where that story leaves off. The crowds find him on the other side of the lake. The interaction Jesus has with them there shows just how much distance separates him from them and their concerns. And that’s what I’d like to reflect on today.

The scene begins with the crowds asking Jesus why he had escaped them. He answers:

Very truly, I tell you, you are not looking for me because you saw signs, but because you’re full of bread. Don’t work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. (John 6.26f)

They ask him what he means by this, he replies: This is the word of God: that you have faith in the one whom God has sent. (Remember: faith in the New Testament isn’t about intellectual assent, but about living into a relationship of rights and responsibilities with someone.) But as is typical in the Gospels (and today), the crowds don’t get it and prove his point by going back to talking about miracles and food:

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.’

Jesus is talking about faith; the masses are talking about food. Again, it’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about their physical needs — he has just fed them, after all — but that their concerns are only about their appetites. They, like the Roman citizens Juvenal satirized a couple decades later, are happy to trade the fullness of their humanity for “bread and circuses.” They show by their words that all they really want out of life is entertainment and a full stomach. If Juvenal was was calling his fellow Romans to stand up and become active citizens once again, here Jesus is calling those who would follow him not to be passive recipients of the Kingdom of God, but active participants in it. Full stomachs are good and important, but not if they make us complacent and uncaring for anything else. We might say that our basic physical needs are the beginning, not the end, of what is important.

This is reminiscent of Paul’s complaint in 1 Corinthians 1 that the religious only want to be amazed by miracles, which are in and of themselves powerless to create the lasting change we need, and can only serve to create a desire for more miracles. Already here the crowd, which has so recently witnessed a miracle, is demanding another sign. After all, they argue, Moses fed their ancestors daily in the desert with manna. Jesus rebukes them: It was not Moses that did this, but God. He’s not going to enter into a wonder-working competition with Moses. Nothing could be further from what’s really important.

Jesus cuts off this way of thinking by twisting the narrative completely. It wasn’t the miraculous loaves that are the sign, but him.I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever has faith in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus himself is the sign, symbol, and seal of God’s Kingdom. He is what nourishes. He is what quenches our thirsty hearts. But notice that these are not passive ideas. We are told to come to him and to be faithful to him. This is no passive spirituality, but a call to an active life of participation.

The desire for an easy and passive religion is always a temptation. Clearly it was for the crowds who received the miraculous feast Jesus provided in the wilderness. And it still is today. Far too many Christians understand their faith as something passive, a gift to be received, rather than a life to be lived. What I mean is, it is a gift to be received, but that gift is to be opened, integrated, and lived into. Life is meant to be so much more than signs and wonders, food and entertainment, bread and circuses. May we never be satisfied with what is passing and ephemeral, but work for what is lasting and essential.

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