Rev. Fr. Thomas Ninan, South Africa
Gospel Reading: John 6 : 35 – 46
This passage narrative following the feeding of the 5000 by Jesus has profound significance for our daily lives, both at a personal level as well as towards discerning the role of the Church in this world. The unique significance of this passage, dealt only by St. John’s Gospel among the four gospels, is that it forms the core message of the Eucharistic or Sacramental theology in the Bible. In simple terms, what this means is that, it bears the purpose and the background of the Holy Eucharist that the Church celebrates today, as the centre of Christian spirituality or specifically Orthodox spirituality. This implies that Holy Qurbana becomes the centre of our life or in other words, Holy Qurbana becomes the means or the lens by which our whole life progresses in this world. This is not just at a personal level, where we discern Holy Qurbana to be the life giving bread which becomes an answer to our hunger and the life giving water, which becomes an answer to our thirst, but it also has implications on the political, social structures or systems that exist within the Church and in the world, to be according to the kingship of God/Christ and not of the world.
When we recognize this passage as foundational to the Holy Eucharist, it also becomes in many ways the climax of what the Old Testament Bible, i.e. the Law, the Prophets and the Wise have been saying about the characteristics of God’s reign on earth. Signs of such characteristics are visible among the early Israelites in Judges during the era of Prophet Samuel and in the early Church when the early believers gathered together as a koinonia. The key feature noticeable in both examples cited is the divine attitude of the people of God to share their resources with each other, to specifically recognize the weak, the poor and share their resources with them. Whenever the people of Israel moved away from such a system, the prophets in different times warned them to be moving away from the character and will of God or rather from God’s justice. Whenever the motives of the people of Israel was to gather a surplus for themselves at the cost of the poor, the warning was pretty clear from the prophets and the Bible is clear in calling this as sin, “hamartia,” “missing the mark,” moving away from the will of God.
The background of this passage reflects a gathering of 5000 people around Jesus, a big number indeed for that region, who were people mostly suffering from extreme poverty, amidst other problems like illnesses (long term and short term), disabilities etc. is a grave indicator to the vast difference between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots of that time. To limit this background to just a charity event, such as that dealt within all the other three gospels with their short narratives of the “feeding passage” is to miss the long term implications which St. John here beautifully narrates in chapter 6.
The question of Jesus in Jn. 6:5,
“Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” lays the context to the whole chapter of Jesus’ discourse about the “bread of life.” As we notice, it is not because Christ didn’t know the answer to this question but rather, He implied a human participation and response to this challenge. Poverty brings with itself many other problems of human suffering, just to name a few here – hunger, abuse, low self esteem, conflict, stealing etc. If we notice, beginning from the sermon on the Mount, the crowd which followed Jesus closely have been the poor. Hence, one needs to bring the Beatitudes as well here to really understand what Christ implied by the question in vs.5 and by calling himself “the bread of life.”
The use of “we” in the question implies to Christ and his disciples who were placed amidst a crowd facing extreme poverty, with their numerous problems and questions. Christ is not implying how much money do they have in their pocket to feed these, for even if they had the money to feed the crowd, can money really satisfy or restore healing to the problems the people faced? Rather He is asking the question, what do we really have to feed these? He is not implying whether we have something extra, or a 10% to spare or even do a onetime charity as the word “where” is directed to the core of one’s heart or even an attitude to share what we have, our time, our life, our resources, to find an answer to the everyday problems of these people and this needs to be translated in terms of the following :-
i. How closely do we see the pain and suffering of the poor around us?
ii. What can we do to give the poor a sustainable livelihood, a life of dignity and restore their self esteem?
iii. Are we able to bring to His table, what we really have, our resources, our whole being?
All the above questions need to be reflected both at a personal level and at a parish level especially in the context of large scale poverty that prevails in a world where one fourth of its population have as much resources as three fourth of the population. Poverty is not just not having money, as the following definition captures :-
“Poverty is not knowing where your next meal is to come from, and always wondering when the council is going to put your furniture out and always praying that your husband must not lose his job.” (Mrs. Witbooi, quoted in Wilson & Ramphele 1989:14)
It is in this context that Christ says,
“I am the bread of life. Those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty.” Jn.6:35
The implication for those who followed Him, after carrying the left over twelve extra baskets of bread after the feeding miracle, is more serious in sharing the life giving bread to the world suffering in hunger. Those twelve baskets of leftovers come to us through the Holy Qurbana we partake in. For me and you, who partake of this bread of life, the following questions (as asked by Jerry Folk in Doing Theology doing Justice, 1991:67) are worth reflecting :-
1. Who is Jesus Christ for us today and what light does he shed on our total life experience in the world?
2. How does our understanding of God, the world and ourselves, to which Jesus leads us, transform our relationships, attitudes, priorities, commitments and engagements in the world?
3. In the light of the above, what is our calling as Christians and the mission of the Church in today’s world?
Much is possible when Christ is at the centre of our life, which we strive to experience through the Holy Qurbana. In order to bring others to Christ, we ourselves need to come to Christ first, daily committing ourself to the One who gives life, life giving bread and water. It is only by this synergy that we can truly endeavor to relish the answers we try to give for the above questions.
It is important to note here that those who came to Christ were empowered, not financially, but they were filled and satisfied, with strength to continue in their difficult world. We may not have all the solutions to the problems of this world, but we are asked to be in the centre of it. Christ, the life giver calls us, not to run away from problems, our own and those around us, but to feed on Him, to lean on Him. The community that came to Christ were challenged to love and care like Christ, to relish the beauty of sharing the little they had, to lean on Him for their uncertain future. The transformation at hand was indeed too challenging, that is why many of His followers in Jn.6: 60 felt,
“This teaching is too hard. Who can listen to it?”
As the early believers later found out, that the Risen Lord, the Life giving Spirit and the sacramental participation of the sharing of the bread of life had a unique meaning to their daily life, we are called towards this mystic reality of transformation, personally and as a community, through the Holy Qurbana.
May the Holy Spirit continue to guide us towards relishing this reality.
Bread of Life by Jose Kurian Puliyeril
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