Twelve baskets of leftovers. I wonder what they did with all the extra food. Actually, I don’t wonder. I’m sure they distributed it to any and all who had need. These were poor people. They couldn’t afford to waste a crumb.
That’s not the contemporary case. The USDA Economic Research Service estimates that in 2010, we Americans wasted 31 percent of our food supply. That came out to 133 billion (with a B) pounds and $161 billion (again with a B) worth of food.[i]
One third of our food supply that year went to landfills rather than into the mouths of hungry people. All the inputs of land, water, labor, and energy that produced that food were wasted. All the investments involved in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing, and disposing of that food were wasted.
That food didn’t even get the chance to become leftovers.
Some of that food spoiled, often due to improper storage, poor planning, and transportation delays. Some of that food was damaged by animals, insects, mold, or bacteria. Much of the waste comes from over-ordering and then culling the less-than-perfect specimens. That waste happens in warehouses, restaurants and grocery stores, and in our homes.
Only rich people can afford to waste food. When we do, we do that at the expense of the poor.
The day after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the crowd tracked Jesus down and asked for more. They weren’t stupid or greedy. They were poor.
When you’re poor, you never know when your next meal will show up. If you find some food, you get what you can and store it for the lean times. These folks, like all impoverished people, were experts at foraging, food preservation, stretching a little to make a lot.
They knew a good thing when they saw it. And they wanted more. Who could blame them?
Jesus didn’t blame them. But he did understand them. “Don’t settle for more bread,” he tells them. “Look for that which gives Life – Life that will last, life that will be…enough.”
“Fine,” they say. “What do we have to do to get our hands on this ‘enough’ thingy?” That’s when Jesus gets a bit weird on them. “If you want the Life that’s Enough, put your trust in me. God has sent me to you and to the world because in God’s economy, Enough is normal.”
Poor people rarely have enough. They learn to be suspicious of big talk like that. “We’ve heard this one before,” they say to Jesus. “Folks in the olden days ate manna and quail in the wilderness. God gave them enough for each day – no more, no less. Is that what you’re talking about, Jesus? Do we need to get our umbrellas out to protect our heads from falling food?”
We contemporary folks might think this is just stupid talk. But the same dialogue shows up in modern movies. In the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs franchise, we can have fun while we wonder about the meaning of “Enough.”
In the first installment, the script wrestles with our efforts to have controllable abundance. It turns out that humans aren’t smart enough, or good enough, to manage such power well. In the sequel, the question is one of ownership. Human attempts to own and control food resources make monsters of the food (and the humans).
We’re still asking ourselves, “What do we have to do to get our hands on this ‘enough’ thingy?”
The answer to the “enough” question isn’t “more.” The answer isn’t more stuff. The answer isn’t more control. The answer isn’t more power. The answer isn’t more “us.” Jesus says, “The answer is me.”
I don’t think Jesus is doing the “squirrel strategy” here in John 6. I’m sure most of you know about the squirrel joke regarding children’s sermons. But for those who don’t, here’s a quick replay.
A pastor uses squirrels in a children’s message for an object lesson on industry and preparation. “This thing lives in trees and eats nuts. It’s gray and has a long bushy tail. And it jumps from branch to branch and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited. Who can tell me what it is?” One little boy tentatively raised his hand. “Well,” said the boy, “it sounds like a squirrel, but I know the answer must be Jesus. It always is.”
That’s not Jesus’ strategy here. The Bread of Life dialogue and discourse is anchored to the twin signs that begin the chapter – the Feeding in the Wilderness and the Walking on Water. These signs point to him. He has provided reasons for the crowd to trust him. The gifts identify him as the Giver.
But Jesus doesn’t invite trust because he can do magic tricks. That’s not the point. Maybe you’ve noticed that the Gospel of John doesn’t use the world “miracles.” The things Jesus does in that gospel account – water into wine, multiplying loaves and fish, walking on water, healing the lame and the blind, raising the dead – these aren’t “unnatural” events.
Let me say that again. The things Jesus does in John aren’t unnatural events. They are signs – examples – of the world God intended from the beginning. Enough wine, water, bread, health, hope, love, peace, community – these aren’t unnatural realities. “Enough” is how God created the cosmos from the get-go.
Jesus comes because God wants to put things right. The signs in John’s gospel point to the way the world is supposed to be.
The purpose of John’s account is to put us in a place where we might come to and continue to trust that the Messiah, the Son of God is Jesus. In experiencing and embracing that trust, we might then continue to have life in his name.
As we come to the Eucharist, for example, could we be wondering – is Jesus really here with us now? How cool would that be! Am I ready to meet Jesus here and now in the bread and wine? He says he’s ready to meet me once again.
Am I willing to be changed by the bread of God’s word and the word of bread which is the sacrament – changed in ways I cannot anticipate or control? Am I willing once again to be transported from the “unnatural” world of sin, death, and evil to the “natural” (God-created and God-given) world of Abundant Life?
“This is the heart of the faith,” David Lose writes, “the faith we are privileged to proclaim: that the Eternal Word who was with God and is God from the beginning and participated in the creation of the heavens and the earth is the same Lord who cares so desperately for us that he gave his life for ours on the cross and gives himself still in the bread and wine.”[ii]
What’s “unnatural” is “not enough.” When there’s not enough, that’s a sign that there’s something very wrong with the system. That’s why I started with those thoughts about leftovers and food waste. When we waste one-third of our food supplies in America while thirty-five million people are hungry every day, there’s something very wrong with the system.
That’s unnatural. That’s a sign that some people have too much, and others have too little. That means that our economy is unnatural.
“The economy as it is currently structured,” William Cavanaugh writes, “would grind to a halt if we ever looked at our stuff and simply declared, ‘It is enough. I am happy with what I have.’”[iii]
But there is no danger of that happening, Cavanaugh observes. Our consumer culture forms us not only to desire more, to never believe we have enough. In addition, that culture forms us to experience that dissatisfaction as a positive good, a kind of emotional stimulant that gets us up and going. That’s really, really unnatural.
Christian formation leads us to see created things as pointers toward the goodness of God. “In the Christian tradition, detachment from material goods means using them as a means to a greater end, and the greater end is greater attachment to God and to our fellow human beings,” Cavanaugh argues. “In consumerism, detachment means standing back from all people, times, and places, and appropriating our choices for private use.”[iv]
The crowd gives the right response for the wrong reasons. “Lord, always give us this bread!” (John 6:34, my translation). They clearly don’t know what they’re asking. They keep talking about bread, but they don’t get past the dough. In the words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Perhaps this is as close as the writer of John’s gospel gets to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer – “give us this day our daily bread.” Lord, give us this bread always! It’s the right request. It’s the proper prayer. But when we pray it, do we know what we’re asking? The bread that fed the crowd was only possible because the Bread of Life was in their midst. So it is for us.
Lord, feed us with your life all the time and at all times. That’s the punchline for this passage. As the gospel writer enacted the story for the audience, verse 34 would end with a pregnant pause. Perhaps the listeners responded with cheers. Perhaps they shouted out, “Yes, Lord! Us too!”
Do you want to shout that as well? Yes, Lord, Us too! Give us this bread always! I hope so. But let’s be careful what we ask for. Next time, we’ll hear more about the Bread of Life that consumes us. Yes, that’s what I said – the Bread of Life that consumes us.
It’s something to chew on for a week…
[iii] William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, Kindle Locations 524-525.
[iv] Ibid., Kindle Locations 581-583.