Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory
It would make a fascinating study to look closely at the way those who follow Jesus around in crowds often utterly fail to understand what he is saying and doing. Once again, Jesus finds himself performing a miracle in order to teach and then being very disappointed when no bulbs go bright. Jesus uses this failure to instruct. When the recently fed crowd find him in
What does Jesus know about those in the crowd that they probably don’t know about themselves? Looking at the answer he gives to the question about why the crowds follow him, we can say that Jesus understands human motivation with a great deal of clarity and depth. Not surprising given who he is, but perhaps a little frustrating given that he often doesn’t connect with his students or the crowd with his odd-ball parables and cryptic sayings. We know that we must have ears to hear and eyes to see.
How does Jesus answer the question about why the crowds follow him around? Ignoring the question actually put to him—“when did you get here?”—Jesus says, “…you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” In other words, you aren’t here because you believe I am who I say I am, but because I’ve proven that I can fill your bellies. What’s interesting here is that Jesus doesn’t seem at all put off by this rather pedestrian motivation for stalking him across the sea. He moves blithely on to attempt again to teach them the truth of why he multiplied the fishes and loaves for them. He says, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life…” I can see most in the crowd nodding their heads at first. . .and then getting this look on their face something like, “Uh?” And it might have been the last little bit of that sentence that confuses them: “. . .[the food of eternal life] which the Son of Man will give you.” Again, “Uh?” To their credit they overcome their initial confusion and manage to ask a sensible question: “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”
We don’t want to be too hard on our Lord so early in the morning, but can we really say that we know what to do with his answer: “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one He sent.” OK. Do they understand this answer? No. Tomorrow we will hear them ask for a sign so that they might believe! Here’s a suggestion: how about, oh I don’t know, maybe Jesus could fed five thousand grown men with five loaves of bread and two fish!? Seems like a good start to me. That they are still clamoring for signs is a sure sign that they are willing not to believe in the face of one mighty work after another.
So, what’s going on here? Jesus is teaching but his students aren’t getting it. The students are listening but Jesus seems to be teaching them cryptic gibberish. Like most of us, probably most of the time, those in the crowd are looking for physical proof, “scientific evidence” that Jesus is the Son of Man sent by the Father. They want to understand before they believe. Most of Jesus’ post-resurrection teaching falls on the tired and frightened ears of the disciples. But here he is still with the crowds and yet they cannot see, cannot hear. Much like those in the Synagogue of Freemen who hear Stephen witnessing to them, “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.” And we are left again with the question: why not?
Why not? Jesus is appealing to their hearts of flesh, that is, the Law of desire for God gifted to us all at our creation. They are listening with their hearts of stone, that is, hearts trained in the Law of Moses. What they must do, what we must do, is crack that stone and fling open the gates that guard the beauty of God revealed through us. Until they can do this, until we can do this, Jesus will always speak cryptic gibberish, utter nonsense. So, to quote my father when there’s work to be done: “Come on, boys! Let’s get crackin’!”