August 1, 2021
Last week, we remembered the ways that God uses what we have to make miracles happen. Jesus had spent some time with the people, teaching and healing, and finally giving them all the bread they wanted so that there were twelve baskets left over. This was a spectacular miracle. By Philip’s estimate, enough bread was handed out to cost at least a whole year’s wages! And the people, they reacted just the way you’d expect: they wanted this miracle-worker to be their leader. He would be their king and feed them with this miraculous bread and all the world would be right!
Well, somewhere in the midst of them coming to this conclusion, the disciples went across the Sea of Galilee and Jesus followed. The people, waking up from their carb coma, looked around to find Jesus or his disciples so they could make Jesus their king and get access to that bread. But Jesus and his disciples had disappeared! Somehow, probably that kid that had the bread and fish that were multiplied, they figured out their miracle-working would-be-king was in Capernaum, so they hurried over there.
What follows is, I think, a pretty funny moment. John condenses it, but the wording just lends itself to a comedic moment. After all this running around desperately searching, the people find him. And instead of just getting to the point and acclaiming him king, they do this weird pickup line-type intro.
“Oh hey Jesus! Funny seeing you here! Were you—were you on your way here too? Oh, what a coincidence that we just happened to bump into you here, all 5,000 of us…so anyway we were thinking, about that bread…”
But Jesus knew exactly what they were after. Jesus was human, after all, and he knew what it meant to be hungry and the desperation of finding a way to never be hungry again. I don’t read Jesus chastising the crowds here; he gets it. “Look,” he says, “I know why you’re here. Let’s not beat around the bush: you want more of the bread. I get it. But let me tell you this, if you’re always looking for bread, looking for bread is all you’re gonna do.”
So Jesus does what he always does: he teaches. The crowds came expecting more bread, but Jesus uses it as an object lesson. It’s like the manna in the wilderness. This miraculous bread from heaven was all that the Israelites needed for forty years in the wilderness. It met all their needs and no one ever had too little or too much. But even more important than getting bread in the wilderness was the God who gave it.
The crowds were chasing after Jesus because their minds were on the bread, but Jesus was giving them a heads-up that the purpose of the bread was the same as the purpose of the manna. It pointed to the One who gave it. Manna in the wilderness didn’t just fill the belly, it taught the Israelites whom to trust, who would provide for them, who would be by their side. So Jesus teaches the crowds to remember that they should seek the food that doesn’t perish, the source that provides what will never leave you hungry.
If you’re always looking for bread, looking for bread is all you’re gonna do.
There was a Russian author who wrote a short story I had to read back in high school—y’all probably had to read it too—it was “How Much Land Does One Man Need?” by Leo Tolstoy. And in it, this Russian peasant boasts that if he just had enough land, he wouldn’t fear the Devil himself. He just needed enough land. And the story goes that the Devil hears his boast and presents him with opportunity after opportunity to get more and more land, ruining his relationships with his neighbors and friends in the process. Finally, the peasant hears of eastern tribesmen who will sell as much land as you can walk around from sunup to sundown for one low, flat price. So he takes up the offer and tries to get as big a piece of land as possible, only to overexert himself and dies. Because it’s a Russian short story, so of course he does.
What do we think, if we only had enough of it, we could be worry free forever? I know the Sunday school answer is Jesus, but what does that mean if we prioritize investing in retirement even if it means skipping offering? Or if we make sure we have plenty of time for family vacations, but never pick up the Bible? Or if we use our God-given skills to work for that promotion, but don’t use those same skills to help our neighbor in need?
The crowds following Jesus needed bread. It was a wise investment to seek the one who would give them bread. But the bread they were looking for was bread that would molder. They were looking for bread that was good for eating, but wouldn’t stick around long before they needed more of it. So Jesus’ (admittedly Midrash) words ring true: if you’re always looking for bread, looking for bread is all you’re gonna do.
That’s why the work of God is to believe—to trust—in the one whom God has sent into the world. When we start from a place of trusting Jesus, of believing that he will provide a way for us, that he’ll make a way where there is no way, then all the other things follow. That’s why Jesus points to the manna in the wilderness, the bread of heaven. It wasn’t that they received bread that was the lesson, it was that God provided the bread for them. In the same way, it wasn’t the plentiful bread from five loaves, it was that Jesus gave them the bread. When we seek Jesus first, when we look to trust Jesus first, everything else will follow.
And that can be frightening. I don’t doubt we want to trust Jesus, but we’ve been taught by the world to—what was Reagan’s phrase?—trust, but verify. Which isn’t so much trusting as it is asking for a sign first. “Prove to me that you are trustworthy, and I will trust you.” What would it look like if we were to trust Jesus first, and see how Jesus proves our trust is worthwhile? The saints of the early Church trusted Jesus would provide, and the whole Roman Empire marveled at how generous they were in every way, even as they lacked nothing. The little boy trusted that Jesus would be able to do something spectacular with the five loaves and two fish that day.
When we start from a place of trusting Jesus, of leaning on him rather than pursuing everything else first, we’ll find that everything lines up. It’s like when you fill a jar with rocks, you start with the biggest ones, because then the pebbles will fill in the gaps. It doesn’t work the other way around. Jesus is the biggest rock for your jar. Seeking him first will put everything else in order around him, and orient you to the life of the kingdom.
So seek Jesus first, and your retirement savings will follow in accordance with the kingdom. Seek Jesus first, and a good and loving family will follow in accordance with the kingdom. Seek Jesus first, and a fulfilling career will follow in accordance with the kingdom. Seek Jesus first, and all these things will be added to you as well.
There is plenty of time to look for bread. But if you’re always looking for bread, looking for bread is all you’re gonna do. So seek Jesus first. He’s the one who will give you what you need.
Thanks be to God. Amen.