A Reflection on John 6:24-35, OT B 18
Jesus’ miracles are called signs (Greek: semeia) in the Gospel of John. Since signs point to something outside of themselves, these miracles are meant to lead people towards him that they may believe in him and have life (cf. Jn 20:31). All too often, however, people focus on the signs and fail to see what they signify. Jesus in the Gospel reading tells those who were present at the miraculous feeding of the 5000 (see Jn 6:1-15) that they follow him mainly because their hunger was satisfied (v. 26). He engages them in dialogue in the hope that they will go beyond “the food that perishes [the sign] and focus on the food that endures for eternal life [the signified]” (v. 27). This food is no other than the Lord Jesus himself who declares at the end of the Gospel: “I am the bread of life” (v. 35a).
Only the Lord—the bread of life—can truly satisfy our deepest longing. Saint Augustine puts it well: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee” (Conf. 1.1). Like Augustine, however, we get stuck all too easily with worldly goods and ignore the Lord—the source of these goods. Like the witnesses to the miraculous feeding, we tend to mistake the “perishables” in our life with the food that endures. This enduring food includes the rest and joy which the Lord offers us. Jesus in the Gospel spells out how we should respond properly to his offer: We should do the work of God by believing in the Son of God (vv. 29-30).
In the Gospel of John, believing in the Lord entails not so much holding fast to his teachings as abiding in him. What this abiding involves is perhaps best captured in John 15:1-8, in which the Greek word for abide (meno) appears no less than seven times. In this passage, the Lord equates his relationship with his disciples to that of the vine with its branches. Just as the branches are able to bear fruits only when they abide in the vine (15:1-3), so the disciples are exhorted to abide in Jesus as he abides in them (15:4). Otherwise, they will become like branches severed from the vine—which are gathered, thrown and burned (15:6). Just as no branch remains fruitful forever, so the period within which we may be fruitful in our various endeavours as disciples of the Lord is limited. The Lord waits patiently for us to respond to his offer of food that endures, but he can only wait for so long. The time will come when he will make us account for our life.
A seemingly insignificant detail in the miraculous feeding of the 5000 offers a helpful hint on how we can make the most of the limited time allotted for us to bear fruit. Among the four evangelists, only John specifies that the five loaves are made of barley and that these loaves as well as the two fish are from a boy. Reacting to the readily available food—a poor man’s bread from a child who in an honour-shame society of the first century Palestine was of low status—Andrew asks: “What are they among so many people?” (6:9). Andrew’s question appears to be very commonsensical. But as the story unfolds, it actually represents our often pessimistic response in making the most of our very limited resource in the face of critical situations. If nothing else, the feeding of the 5000 out of five loaves and two fish should teach us that however meagre our fruitfulness may be, if we only abide in the Lord and share it wholeheartedly with others, the Lord will bless it. Its the Lord’s blessing that will enable it to make a difference far beyond our human expectation.
Saint Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897) died of tuberculosis at the age of 24, but she was declared doctor of the church and patron saint of the missions not because she contributed a lot to the development of Christian doctrines and the missions but because she has put extraordinary love on her ordinary activities. It must be remembered that what the Lord requires of us is not to bear fruit but to abide in him. What matters is not our fruitfulness but the love we put in abiding in the Lord. By wholeheartedly abiding in the Lord, we hope that—in Saint Augustine’s words—we may find rest in the Lord who leaves us with a comforting assurance at the end of the Gospel: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (v. 35b).