“In the biblical story of creation,” Alexander Schmemann observes in For the Life of the World, “man [sic] is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food” (Kindle Location 83). Alongside the command to be fruitful and multiply, Schmemann suggests, the command to eat (fruits and grains) is given at the dawn of Creation. The human being “is indeed that which eats,” Schmemann argues, “and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table” for human beings (Kindle Location 87). This image of the cosmic banquet continues throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, he suggests, and is both the origin and fulfillment of life as God has intended.
In a gospel launched with the words, “In the beginning,” attention to the dynamics of the Creation stories is always a necessary element of interpretation. Schmemann’s meditation on the Eucharist is an excellent way to be grounded in this dimension of the Bread of Life discourse.
“In the Bible the food that man [sic] eats,” Schmemann continues, “the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God” (Kindle Location 132). This dimension of the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John is amplified throughout the Bread of Life discourse. However, it is made clearest in the Walking on Water text, where Jesus declares “I am!”. Thus, the texts must be held together.
All of life is intended to be communion with God. That is the “natural” state of things, the way God created the cosmos to be. Abundance, therefore, is the default condition of Creation according to God’s intention, not the exception to a hard and hungry rule. Schmemann puts it this way (apologies for the non-inclusive language):
“All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation…” (Kindle Location 135).
In a cosmos in bondage to sin, death, and evil, scarcity is the order of the day, not abundance. But we should be clear that this is not how the Creator intends things. The feeding miracles in the gospels are not exceptional one-offs or mere magic tricks. Instead, these feeding miracles are signs of the way in which the Creator intends for us to live. They are not the exceptions. They are the rule – God’s rule.
The same can be said for the miracles of healing and the exorcisms. The absence of illness, enslavement, and death is what God intended from the beginning. The miracles in the gospels, therefore, are signs of the fulfillment of Creation as it was intended to be. There’s a sense in which the crowds get it right with Jesus. He is “The Bread King.” But that’s not all he is. And bread is more than something to hold peanut butter and jelly.
Scarcity is a management tool for the powerful. The golden rule in this world, as Mr. T. observed, is that the one with the gold rules. The one(s) who controls access to resources controls the levers of power. If One comes bringing abundance, then the power of scarcity is threatened. Those who control access to resources, access to life, will do anything to maintain a monopoly on money and meals.
Hunger is a physical symptom of the need and desire for food. This text is an opportunity to examine and celebrate our desires. “Behind all the hunger of our life is God,” Schmemann writes. “All desire is finally a desire for Him [sic]” (Kindle Location 138). This may sound odd to ears to tuned by our Puritan history to regard all human desire as sinful.
In fact, it is not desire that is the problem. It is, rather (to quote St. Augustine), disordered desire. The problem is desiring the means as ends in themselves. Desiring bread is a good thing, not a bad thing. But desiring bread as an end in itself rather than as a sign of God’s grace and love – that is the problem. Desiring God is the purpose for which we were made. When our subsidiary desires lead us to that Real Desire, they are doing their proper work. When our subsidiary desires become “dead ends,” then Creation itself goes off the track.
Sarah Coakley, in her excellent book entitled God, Sexuality, and the Self, seeks to reposition human desire as an appropriate and positive subject for theological reflection. She suggests that our desires are rooted in the Desire which is fundamental to the Trinity – the interpenetrating and infinitely loving Desire of Father for Son, Son for Spirit, Spirit for Father, and all the combinations and permutations thereof.
Coakley notes that Sigmund Freud did much to get our theology backwards, inside out, and upside down when it comes to desire – especially, but not exclusively, sexual desire. “First, Freud must be – as it were – turned on his head,” she writes. “It is not that physical ‘sex’ is basic and ‘God’ ephemeral; rather, it is God who is basic, and ‘desire’ the precious clue that ever tugs at the heart, reminding the human soul – however dimly – of its created source” (p. 10). The same argument could be made, I would argue, about physical hunger.
The difference between Divine desire and our (now broken) human desire is that our desire arises from a sense of scarcity. There is, however, no scarcity in the Trinity, only abundance. She argues, “in God, ‘desire’ of course signifies no lack – as it manifestly does in humans. Rather, it connotes that plenitude of longing love that God has for God’s own creation and for its full and ecstatic participation in the divine, trinitarian, life” (p. 10).
We can see how John’s account works with these differing desires. Jesus himself, in John’s account, knows what he’s going to do. He knows that Abundance is ontologically basic, not scarcity. The disciples live in a world, they think, where scarcity is the prior reality, the default setting. There’s not enough money, not enough bread, not enough fish, not enough disciples.
Jesus restores abundance to its proper place. There’s lots of green grass. There’s plenty of room for seating. He can get the food distributed all by himself, thank you very much. The people could eat as much as they wanted. The fragments fill twelve backets, the leftovers of all who had eaten their fill. This is what Creation is supposed to look like – filled to overflowing with the loving presence and power of God, offered to people without price or limit.
I can’t help but think about the oracle in Isaiah 55 at this moment. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1, NRSV). It’s no accident that the section title in the NRSV is “An Invitation to Abundant Life.” The editors got that one right.
The conversation in Isaiah 55:2 moves immediately from the proper object of desire to the temptation to make bad investments in subsidiary ends. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” The rich food to which the oracle points is clearly something more than free wine and milk. It is rather the proclamation of God’s word of abundant life – the gift to which all other gifts point. This is the proper object of our desires.
The oracle concludes with the promise that the Word will produce. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11, NRSV).
Coakley argues that this is the only way to judge and therefore order human desires in the way that gives abundant life. God is the final point of reference for desires properly ordered. The question to be addressed is how to put the desire for God above all other desires and to judge human desires only in that light (p. 10).
“The world is a fallen world,” Schmemann argues, “because it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. The accumulation of this disregard for God is the original sin that blights the world” (Kindle Location 168). This argument can allow us to connect our text with the ongoing discussion in Ephesians on the role of Creation in expressing Divine love, grace, and mercy for a tragically disordered and de-centered cosmos.
“When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value,” Schmemann continues, “because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the “sacrament” of God’s presence” (Kindle Location 178). The commodification of everything and everyone as the basis of neoliberal late-stage capitalism is perhaps the parade example of human desire disordered almost beyond repair.
Abundance is the default, not scarcity. We are created hungry – but hungry first and foremost for relationship with God. We reach out for other objects to satisfy that desire, but those other things have no life in themselves. “[T]he ‘original’ sin is not primarily that man has ‘disobeyed’ God,” Schmemann argues, “the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God” (Kindle Location 194).
Jesus comes to restore the cosmos to the path of Abundant Life — to the sacrament of communion with God.
References and Resources
Fredrickson, David E., “Eucharistic Symbolism in the Gospel of John” (1997). Faculty Publications. 85. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/85
Johnson, Bryce. “The Bread of Life.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 382-388.
Judge, Rebecca, and Taliaferro, Charles. “Companionable Bread.” World and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pp. 367-372).
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Molina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.