(Creative Commons Image by Rik Lomas on Flickr)
Food fills the menu in August’s lectionary. Four weeks of Gospel readings explore John 6’s discussions between Jesus and others following the feeding of the five thousand, while Old Testament readings and Psalms further reflect on food.
John 6’s conversation begins with a puzzling question from a crowd who had just feasted on bread and fish that miraculously multiplied. Their bellies still full, they ask, “What sign are you going to give us, so that we may see it and believe you?”
The unintended, unacknowledged ironies voiced by Jesus’ interlocutors in John often leave readers’ jaws hanging. Here, beneficiaries of a life-giving miracle demand a bigger sign. They appear even more oblivious to the wonders they witness than the prior wilderness grumblers who once complained, “There is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Numbers 11:6).
But rather than take the low road of disapproval, we could see the writers of Numbers and John holding mirrors before our own faces. We could ask ourselves the same question: what sustaining miracles do we take for granted, or altogether miss?
My spouse and I grow fruit and vegetables in a borrowed plot near our home. Last winter he spread a load of composted manure, our offering for the garden’s health. Two days ago I harvested a crop of plump onions. Yesterday I discovered a first apple growing on a four-foot tree that had never made an apple in its life. Today I collected an eggplant, a cucumber, a cabbage, tomatoes, basil, parsley, and three kinds of peppers, and observed corn, beans, okra, fennel, and potatoes coming to fruition. Since March, asparagus, broccoli, garlic, peas, kale, raspberries, strawberries, lettuce, and spinach have already come and gone.
I should point out that this downtown plot is pretty small. Granted, we did apply compost and wait, but I’d still call this a miraculous multiplication given by God, food from heaven.
Without this constant witness to seeds interacting with sun, rain, and soil, working wonders that humans, with all our intelligence, could never achieve, the idea of food as a divine miracle would remain theoretical. We “create” meals of what nature gives, but like the Israelites in the wilderness, like the Galilean crowds, without the miraculous multiplication that only God provides, humans would simply starve.
When Jesus replies to the Galileans’ challenge by calling himself the bread of life, moderns often read him as disparaging the manna, in fact disparaging food itself, setting himself above these mundane, earthy processes, bidding the faithful to forget about food and concentrate on spirit. Such misunderstandings lead not to asceticism (we still have to eat), but to devaluing nutrition as a gift God gives to all humans and animals. We forget that God loved the Israelites, and therefore fed them every day. We forget that Jesus’ compassion compelled him to feed the crowd. We forget that following Jesus means doing the same.
Not only can spiritualizing Jesus’ words lead us to forget to the nutritional needs of hungry people. It can lead us to neglect the very processes on which we depend -- climate stability, pollinators, topsoil, fertility itself -- until we find ourselves in drought, or heat, or salinated fields, or some other agricultural crisis.
Jesus wasn’t disparaging the manna. He was drawing an analogy between himself and that legendary gift from heaven. As New Testament scholar Susan Hylen points out, the manna was more than physical sustenance. It was daily training in trusting God; it was living by God’s teaching word. In comparing himself to humble bread, Jesus reminded hearers that they too, like their ancestors -- and like contemporary gardeners -- haven’t got their fill when their bellies are full, but when they comprehend with gratitude the miracle they witness daily before them.1
Similarly, Pope Francis speaks of the Eucharist as joining heaven and earth:
Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love: “Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world.” The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation … Thus, the Eucharist is also a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation. (Laudato Si’, par. 236).
Many August passages dwell on the gift of food, while others underscore the need for gratitude, generosity, and wise discipleship:
- 2 Samuel 11:26 - 12:13a describes David’s sin as a rich man’s gobbling up a member of the poor man’s family.
- Psalm 51:1-12 describes restoration from sin as God’s act of creation.
- Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 (alt.) demonstrates abundant food in the wilderness as a daily gift from God.
- Psalm 78:23-29 (alt.) describes manna as “grain of heaven” and “bread of angels.”
- Ephesians 4:1-16 describes a worthy life as one of humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and peaceableness, and reminds Christians of their bonds with all, joined in Christ’s body.
- John 6:24-35 describes bread from God as that which gives life to the world.
- 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 demonstrates the forest itself fighting against rebels.
- Psalm 130 expresses great hope in God, whose restoration is both necessary and reliable.
- 1 Kings 19:4-8 (alt.) relates Elijah’s being fed by God in the wilderness.
- Psalm 34:1-8 (alt.) describes God’s goodness as spoken, heard, felt, seen, and even tasted.
- Ephesians 4:25-5:2 commends graceful behavior: honesty, generosity, tenderheartedness, forgiveness -- in short, imitating God.
- John 6:35, 41-51 continues the theme of Jesus as the manna, emphasizing that what is of earthly origin is also a heavenly gift.
- 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 describes Solomon valuing wisdom over other gains.
- Psalm 111 numbers food among the most basic of God’s provisions.
- Proverbs 9:1-6 (alt.) portrays Wisdom offering wise council as choice food and wine.
- Psalm 34:9-14 (alt.) suggests that God-seekers will lack nothing they need, including food.
- Ephesians 5:15-20 counsels the Ephesians in gratitude.
- John 6:51-58 shows Jesus once again calling himself the living bread.
- 1 Kings 8:(1,6,10-11), 22-30, 41-43 outlines the paradox of transcendence and immanence: God who fills the temple cannot be confined even by heaven and highest heaven.
- Psalm 84 celebrates the temple’s hospitality even to young sparrows.
- Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 (alt.) portrays the tribes of Israel pledging loyalty to God.
- Psalm 34:15-22 (alt.) praises God’s faithfulness to redeem the righteous.
- Ephesians 6:10-20 reminds the Ephesians of the invisible forces against which they strive.
- John 6:56-69 portrays Jesus concluding the speech about being the living bread.
- Song of Solomon 2:8-13 describes the wonders of spring in the garden.
- Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 correlates righteous behavior with joy.
- Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 (alt.) depicts the rules God gives as an enviable privilege to be cherished.
- Psalm 15 (alt.) recites expectations for blameless behavior for those who aspire to live with God.
- James 1:17-27 instructs disciples to attend to the plight of the poor in this world, while at the same time keeping aloof from worldly temptations.
- Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 explains that it is not contact with earthly things, but deeds of greed and selfishness that ruin a person
1 Susan Hylen, “Seeing Jesus John’s Way: Manna from Heaven,” Word & World 33.4 (Fall 2013), 341-48.