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Manna matters

May 6, 2014

John 6: 30-35                         Tuesday of Easter Week 3 (2014)

There was a strong belief amongst the Jewish teachers at the time of Jesus that when the promised Messiah finally came, he would bring them manna from heaven, as Moses had done.

This is why Jesus is being asked in the gospel today to provide a sign that he would bring them manna. They are saying – ‘If you’re the Messiah, prove it’. Astonishing really isn’t it, how narrow human thinking and reasoning can become? Only the previous day he has fed 5,000 men with five loaves and three fishes. But they’re still not satisfied that Jesus is the Messiah.

In answer to their demands for a sign, He reveals Himself as the sign of God present in the world, saying, “I am the bread of life.” No doubt there would be some amongst his questioners and those listening who would have been deeply intrigued by what He says – probably unsure of its exact meaning; a like people who are unsure of themselves, very cautious, ready to interpret his new teaching as probably being blasphemous.

Pondering on these things over the past couple of days, it has struck me how tremendously important the Feeding of the 5,000 was, not only in revealing the true identity of Jesus as God Himself, but also how much Jesus, despite being an observant and devout Jewish man, was under suspicion of being a dangerous influence, not only teaching dangerously radical new ideas, but also breaking the Law of Moses, which as I said yesterday, was a central tenet of Judaism.

Let me explain what I’m trying to say.

In the gospel extracts we’ve been hearing over the last few weekdays about Jesus preaching to a huge crowd near the Sea of Galilee, there are certain aspects that suggest to me that the Feeding of the 5,000 took place on a Friday. Why do I think this?

It comes from the parallels of these events to the story of Moses and manna from heaven. In the Book of Exodus we are told that manna only remained edible for one day – when they tried to stockpile manna it became infested with worms and mould. So in the wilderness, the Jews could only gather manna one day at a time. [Remember that when we say the Lord’s Prayer in a few minutes – the line “Give us this day our daily bread”, that is, asking God to provide simply enough for today, no more, no less. It’s an echo of the Jewish experience with manna in the Wilderness.]

I talked yesterday about the strict observance of The Jewish Law, and that this forbids work of any kind on the Sabbath. Collecting manna on the Sabbath would have been work. And this prohibition on working on the Sabbath would have meant no food on the Sabbath….. except……. on Fridays, and only Fridays, the Bible records that God provided enough manna to last for two days – and it didn’t go off. God made special arrangements to protect the Sabbath.

Now, to me, this puts a different interpretation on the fact that Jesus fed the 5,000, and when they had collected up the scraps, there were 12 baskets full left over. What was that food provided for? I think it hammers home the message that God provides for His people on the eve of the Sabbath. Just like God provided for Moses and his people. I think the extra food in the 12 baskets was provided for use the next day, on the Sabbath. So the feeding of the 5,000 parallels the wilderness experience of Moses and his people even more closely than we may have realised.

And another reason I think the miracle took place on the eve of the Sabbath was the emphasis on WORK in St John’s account of events on the day after the miracle of five loaves and three fishes. The gospel story about the next day emphasises activities like working and travelling, which would be forbidden if it were the Sabbath.

Remember that the day after the Feeding of the 5,000, the people could find neither the disciples nor Jesus, who all seem to have left by boat. So the crowd followed in some other boats, travelling across to Capernaum in the hope they would find Jesus in the town where He lived. It was a good guess. They did find Him.

And the first thing they said to Jesus was, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Note that: WHEN, not HOW. That question has always intrigued me. Why would they ask WHEN. What’s so important about the timing? I think I’ve worked it out.

It’s because travelling on the Sabbath is forbidden. It’s a weekday activity, forbidden because it would interfere with the spirit of the Sabbath. Yet the crowd had broken this rule by hurrying across by boat and then frantically walking to find Jesus. They knew they were breaching the rabbinical rules of the Sabbath. I think they called Jesus “Rabbi” to emphasise His authority as a religious teacher, and then they asked Him WHEN He travelled because they wanted to be reassured that they had not done anything seriously wrong – they wanted Jesus, as a rabbi, to tell them that He too had broken the rules when He had journeyed across. If he had broken the Sabbath rules, as a miracle worker and man of God, surely they’d be OK. Then they wouldn’t have felt so guilty. But they didn’t get the answer they wanted (although we know the answer – Jesus had come earlier, and had been seen by His disciples walking on the water. Slow, prayerful walking, different to weekday rushing about, was indeed allowed. Instead of telling them of His rather unusual power of walking on water (which, I suppose, would be a bit like ‘showing off’), Jesus tells them that they only want to find Him so they can get an easy supply of food. Don’t forget, they were living in a subsistence, rural economy: slaving away to get barely enough food to eat each day required a LOT of work. The opportunity of instant, endless food would be very attractive. Jesus tells them “Do not WORK for food that cannot last, but WORK for food that ensures to eternal life.” Note that, two references to WORK: Jesus is telling them not to work for food on the Sabbath. No, on the Sabbath they need to work hard at spiritual matters. He is telling them that they had been mistaken to have been rushing about on the Sabbath trying to find Him just so they can get more food from Him. They have not realised the spiritual significance of either what Jesus is saying and or what He is doing in front of their very eyes.

In a few moments we approach our Lord, who is indeed ‘The Bread of Life’. To people who do not understand what they see happening before their very eyes, who do not understand the mystical nature of this heavenly bread, this may seem very strange, even threatening. But we are privileged to receive Him in the knowledge that He is the Son of God. We believe Him when He tells us that as a result we will never be hungry or thirsty again, but will have life.

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