When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, "Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?"
Today’s gospel passage introduces a series of readings continuing into next week; John 6 concerns the Eucharist; or, more simply, food.
Periodically experts warn us how vulnerable our food systems are. Millions of people living within small areas require enormous and continual supplies of food and drink. We’ve been working on these systems since prehistoric times but we have suffered any number of disasters when systems collapsed. Drought, disease, storms, earthquakes, fires, war, terrorism or civil unrest – to name a few – threaten hungry populations at every turn.
The Bible saw these occurrences as God’s punishment; think of the “four horsemen” of apocalypse. Moderns think we should be able to manage all the variables to keep our food streams flowing. Some suppose we’ve solved all the problems!
Today’s gospel recalls a crisis that involved about five thousand men. They had eagerly pursued Jesus into the wilderness, apparently without planning or forethought. Their plight recalls that of the Hebrew refugees who fled Egyptian slavery into the Sinai wilderness. They had looted the Egyptians of gold and silver and had brought herds of animals with them. But, inevitably, the food ran out. After several hours in Jesus’ company this crowd was also hungry.
The Gospel of John never gets very far from ordinary. He doesn’t deal in romance or fantasy. He seems to avoid the spectacular. What could be more commonplace than hunger? Or more dangerous for the people and their leaders?
If someone challenged me about my faith I would have to admit I have little faith in human providence. Our systems, precisely because they are created and managed by sinful human beings, are prone to catastrophe. We build buildings but cut corners and they collapse; airplanes full of people disappear without a trace; bridges fall into rivers; signed contracts fail when one party decides he can get a better deal.
Like everyone including Jesus, I have to live in this world of shoddy workmanship and half-hearted agreements. I cross bridges daily; I eat in restaurants; I enter buildings and rely on health care systems; but if you ask what I believe in, “I believe in God the Father Almighty….”
The fanatics who followed Moses in the wilderness and Jesus into the desert believed in God’s providence. We exercise the same faith when we attend Mass. Like every human being since the race evolved we must trust each other and we must believe a Providential God will sustain us. Guaranteed is a hoax but faith is assured.