5 August 2012
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 13B (RCL)
2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a
We get more of the story of David this week. Nathan tells a wonderfully ironic story, in which David at last recognizes his sin. Don’t we always see others’ sins more quickly than our own? The punishment Nathan announces fits the sin. David took what wasn’t his — others will take what he took.
The narrative in the passage from John’s Gospel is carried forward by John’s favorite device of misunderstanding and misdirection. The crowd ask Jesus, “When did you come here?” They are puzzled of the when and how of his presence. Jesus replies, “You followed me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Not the question they asked. As always, in John’s Gospel, a response to a sign is incomplete if it doesn’t lead to a response to Jesus. Here, the crowd isn’t even responding to the sign, but to eating their fill. They are operating altogether on the wrong plane.
Jesus redirects their attention: “Work for the food that endures, not the food that perishes (like the leftover manna in the wilderness).” The crowd misunderstands, and wants to know what “work” they must do. Jesus again redirects — the work is to have faith in the one whom God has sent. They ask him what sign he is performing to prove that God has sent him (the didn’t see the sign of the loaves and fishes, but only ate their fill). They point out that Moses gave manna in the wilderness. Jesus corrects them again. God (not Moses) is giving (not gave) the true bread (not manna) from heaven. This is the food that endures. They ask for this bread always, just like the Samaritan woman asked for the living water always.
John uses bread as a metaphor for the grace of God, because it is so ordinary. Bread, water, and all the other metaphors in John, are things we encounter and need daily. The metaphor redirects our attention from the quotidian to some other level of meaning – it becomes a sign. Bread is a wonderfully rich sign. It begins from God’s free gift of grain (we can plant the seeds, but the sunshine, water and dirt are all there before we start). In this regard, it is similar to water. But, unlike water, bread requires human culture and labor to get it to the table. Someone has to sow the seed, tend the field, harvest the grain, grind it, bake it and place it on the table. It represents an economy that includes both divine grace and human “work”.
So, what is bread that doesn’t perish? Not the actual stuff on the table (that will mold and spoil over time), but the divine/human community of which it is the sign. I suspect that is why John includes the detail that the boy provided the loaves and fishes — this community extends beyond just us. It is a community in which everyone has enough, and there are twelve baskets left over – enough for the 12 tribes as well; a community in which everyone contributes to the economy; a community in which divine grace and human work both serve the same purpose.
Compare that to David’s kingdom, in which the rich man has more lambs than he can count, but takes the poor man’s little ewe lamb to feed a visitor, for fear that he would diminish his own surplus.
Water, perhaps for John, represents the life of what we would call the spirit, the mystical, direct relationship with God/Jesus.
Bread represents the communal aspect. Both are essential.