John 6 narrates a painfully familiar story – one that I’ve seen played out many, many times in my lifetime of ministry overseas. Jesus had just fed the 5,000. Mind you, it wasn’t 5,000 people. It was 5,000 MEN. I don’t think we can assume that there were an equal number of women in that crowd. Pretty sure in that culture, the women were mostly at home doing the work, while the men hung out looking for the latest, greatest “teacher.” Well, they found Him!
But despite that, there were likely quite a few lucky women who weren’t tied down taking care of life, and a fair number of children hanging around as well – as evidenced by the little boy who was well-prepared with his lunch of 5 loaves and 2 fishes. So, the crowd was undoubtedly upwards of 10,000, and no matter how you slice it, that is a REALLY large crowd of people.
We’re not talking about a mega-church here, with auditorium seating in graduated tiers, ensuring that everyone has a decent view of the Teacher, and megatrons projecting His Messianic face and message on the side for those on the fringes. We’re talking about a field, on the side of a mountain, somewhere near the Sea of Galilee, where everyone is pushing on each other, trying to not trample and suffocate the little ones, jostling for the best vantage point. People shushing each other trying to hear what the famous Teacher from Nazareth is saying. Babies and toddlers crying as lunch time comes – and goes. People whispering to their friends and family members: “Hey, we should go get Miriam! Maybe he would be able to heal her!” It is altogether plausible that a large percentage of the crowd didn’t even realize the miracle-of-unusual-size they had just been a part of. Those farther back may have just thought the logistics team for Jesus’ traveling band was on their A-game that day and had estimated well for those who were going to randomly show up throughout the day. They were just happy to eat.
The next day, a bunch of the same crowd shows up in Capernaum where Jesus had escaped, walking across the Sea of Galilee like it was 8 miles of roadway, not the biggest fresh-water lake in Israel. They come to Jesus with an offhanded, logistics question – “Teacher, when did you get here?” Jesus, reading between the lines, answers them: “You are only looking for me because you want more food.” Hmmm – that’s direct. Busted, they attempt a recovery, taking a shot at a spiritual-diversion – “What do we need to do to do the works that God requires?” Jesus, however, wise in the ways of humans – having first created them and then becoming one – doesn’t buy it. Eventually, the conversation comes back to bread again, and Jesus throws them a zinger – “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger. Whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
This leads to grumbling. Not only are the people offended by Jesus’ suggestion that they must eat Him (admittedly off-putting…), but they figure out they’re not going to get any more food, which is why they went to find him in the first place. Even many of the disciples, confused over the whole interchange, decide Jesus is a nut case and go back to their former lives. The few though, stay. Jesus asks them if they want to leave too. Their answer is telling. “Where are we going to go? You have the words of eternal life.” To paraphrase: “With you, Jesus, we have found something more than bread.” To them Jesus responds, “Because you are the ones I have chosen.”
This is a scene that plays out all too often in development work. People come in droves, seeking bread – or in our case, rice. We’ve even had some super honest women in our program – “Everything’s Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! When are you just going to give us money!” There’s nothing like a good dose of honesty to define the lines! Once people figure out we’re not going to be their daily rice and sauce, many leave. But some – those the Father has chosen – have seen something more. They stick around, listening for words of life – seeking a new life, not a new meal – and perceiving that it is here that that new life might be found.
Last week, I was sitting with a few women in our program in Makeni, Sierra Leone. It was the tail-end of a general monthly meeting, open to all women with disabilities in the city and surrounding areas. There is a custom (one I have some quibbles with, but that is for the staff there to figure out on their own) of giving out a package of a few cups of rice to each woman who attends. As the meeting adjourned, there was a MASS of women who moved toward those who were distributing the rice – and it quickly became evident that there wasn’t going to be enough to go around. The women I was sitting with didn’t move. Someone nearby asked them, “Aren’t you going to come and get your rice?” One of the women, a woman who has been in the program for quite a while, and who has experienced a fairly dramatic life transformation, quietly commented, “We will leave space for the ‘strangers.’ We are always here, and we know how to find our own rice.” Something more than bread… These women have found the Bread of life – and they will never be hungry again.