Commentary by the Rev. Justin Kosec
Text: John 6:24-35
“What do you want to eat? What are you hungry for?”
These are the words my wife might helpfully ask as I rummage in the fridge, clinking jars to see what’s behind, opening drawers, making a Generalized Fuss. Sometimes she’ll even make some suggestions: “Do you want a bagel? Have some leftover pizza. Those grapes in there are really good….”
I love her suggestions. But I dread them, too, because if I knew what I wanted to eat, I wouldn’t have to search in every drawer, right? I would open the door and know exactly what I wanted; I would compose the perfect meal and tuck my napkin into my collar with a big smile on my face. Instead, I’m a bit cross because I don’t want to spend a half-hour cooking something; and it’s too late to go to the grocery store; and I just don’t want any grapes because I don’t know what I want.
Invariably, my wife will remind me that we have something particularly delicious–something I’d entirely forgotten. The clouds part, and before I know it I’m composing that perfect meal after all. The “helpful suggestions” I dreaded actually held the key.
It’s like my wife knew better what I needed than I knew myself. And that’s not surprising, is it? For years she’s watched me bang around in the fridge, and by now she knows what will end the search.
In the gospel, when we read about the crowds who follow Jesus, we might picture them like hungry folks who simply do not know what they want to eat. They’re looking for something–anything–that will satisfy their hunger.
This is the crowd Jesus encountered last week, when thousands
gathered in a field on the expanse of soft grass. They hung on Jesus’s every word for hours, long after they had grown hungry. As their stomachs rumbled, Jesus’s followers passed around basket after basket of food, and people ate until they were so full they passed the basket of bread.
This week’s reading picks up the day after, when the crowd find themselves hungry still; and they come back to Jesus with some questions. Like peckish grumps, they’ve discovered their first meal did not satisfy their deeper hunger. They wonder: does Jesus have any better suggestions?
Because we expect a distinction between mind and body, between the spiritual world and the physical, we easily perceive this dynamic in today’s reading. We readily see Jesus pointing the crowd away from the previous day’s satisfying meal and toward something more “meaningful” in the spiritual realm.
Perhaps Jesus does have to remind them of the spiritual dimension of the previous day’s meal—a little like reminding an over-eager child to say a retroactive mealtime grace. But as soon as Jesus points out this spiritual connection, the crowd immediately begins asking spiritual questions. We might say they’re not just hungry for bread, but also for spiritual purpose; for assurance of heaven.
Note that Jesus does not point out the spiritual at the expense of the physical. Their spiritual hunger and their physical hunger seem inextricably linked. So just as the people seem willing to go to great physical lengths to follow Jesus, they seem similarly eager to go the distance on the spiritual front. Crucially, they want to know what they had to do to receive this spiritual food Jesus promised. Each of their questions reveals their assumption that God’s gifts required some of their labor. Even their comment about manna–that God gave their ancestors manna in the wilderness–demonstrates this assumption. Manna didn’t come easy. Each person could gather as much as an omer of manna every day, or about three pounds. It must not have been easy to gather three pounds of flakes off the desert rocks every day!
This group of people is willing to go to any length to satisfy their hunger. That was true when they thought they were physically hungry; and it remained true when they discovered they desired a deeper satisfaction. They have spent quite some time in the proverbial fridge. They have checked every option, opened every drawer, considered every angle, but they still don’t quite understand what will satisfy their hunger.
The end of this dialogue recalls Jesus’s discussion with the woman at the well in John 4. But it also anticipates John 14, where Jesus tells his disciples that they already know the way to eternal life, only to receive Thomas’s clearly confused response: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
This certainly happens to me when I’m clanking in the fridge. The perfect leftover my wife suggests isn’t hidden from view. It’s often right in front of my eyes, but for some reason I can’t see it until she reminds me it’s there. First, she just helps me understand my hunger so I can recognize what will satisfy it.
Just so in each of these instances: the pathway to eternity should be clear to Jesus’s audience, because Jesus is the pathway. But although Jesus stands in front of them, each audience struggles to understand. The woman by the well struggles with the difference between her heritage and Jesus’s. Thomas and his friends struggle against their own ignorance, or their own expectations that they shouldn’t quite feel so confused all the time.
The crowd at Capernaum struggles against their own expectation that God would require them to do more than they had already done. They want to strain heavenward, but they do not know what God requires nor how to accomplish it. Note they struggle not against their hunger—not against the demands of the physical body—but against their own preconceived notions for what God would demand.
By reminding them of the previous day’s feast, Jesus does not distinguish between that meal and some future, and more spiritual, feast. Instead, Jesus uses that recent meal to demonstrate to them the fullness of God’s love. Since Jesus stands before them, they do not need to guess or imagine what this future spiritual feast might look like, or what would be required of them to receive it. Quite the contrary! Jesus had already fed them. That means they do not need to do anything more to know who God is or how much God cares for them. They have already tasted the proof. The abundant meal on the plain, freely given to them by Jesus, was the true sign of the God who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. They had already done what was required of them to know the love of God: they had come to be with Jesus; and they had eaten what he had offered. They already know everything they need to know about God–if only they would look back on their recent experience as a feast of plenty where every person ate and was satisfied.
Jesus showed them just enough about their own hunger, their interconnected spiritual and physical needs, and their preconceived notions of God that they could recognize that what Jesus offered was the only thing that could satisfy them. They knew enough to recognize that Jesus would satisfy them because they had already sampled the good food Jesus provided. Jesus was perfect leftovers.
In your congregation, this may be a good week to consider the experience of hunger and satisfaction. Recognize that hunger is a human universal, but also that every person has different means for satisfying their hunger, different cravings, different needs, different relationship to food. And some cannot afford to satisfy their hunger at all.
One might also recognize that our experience of hunger is often deceptive. People might articulate a hunger for one thing but actually feel satisfied by another. People might seek satisfaction in material goods; or a new house or car; or a better church building; or a new job–when the hunger they face has a different source.
If we misunderstand how to satisfy our own hunger, then we could certainly misunderstand how to satisfy the hunger of others, as well. So you might consider the work of local feeding ministries or hunger relief efforts or advocacy strategies–but you also may want to contemplate whether such ministries fall short in meeting the needs of the people they serve.
When approaching this text, perhaps the preacher is like the spouse who watches a loved one search in the fridge. You have the opportunity to help your congregation recognize more about their hunger than they understand themselves. And, you can help them recognize, as Jesus did, that in Christ they have already feasted on what truly satisfies.