Barbed Questions and Bread from Heaven

Listen in on a conversation between Jesus and a crowd of persistent people gathered on the shores on the Sea of Galilee. It is the morning after the feeding of the thousands back on the other side of the lake. A conversation between Jesus and a crowd of people? Chances are, it was more like a high-stakes press conference, with questions being shouted from all corners of the crowd. There is a certain haphazard, disconnected, non-sequitur quality of this encounter between Jesus and the crowd. No wonder–questions were hurled at him like fastballs from the pitcher’s mound.

From someone way in the back, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Here is a fellow that just wants to know when Jesus came to town. Jesus answers with a quick retort, “You’re not really interested in me–you just liked that free lunch you had yesterday. Well, I’m telling you, that kind of food will not truly nourish you. Work for the food that endures for all eternity–that I will give you.”

From the other side of the crowd, “Teacher, do you have a miracle that will dazzle us? Our ancestors got manna from Moses. Can you beat that?”

Jesus answered with admirable patience for a question so clearly meant to bait him. “Actually,” he said, “God sent you that bread, not Moses.” And then he brought the point home, “I am the bread of life that will nourish you to eternal life.”

It is a quiet question from someone in the front row of the crowd that captures my attention. “What must we do to perform the works of God?”

“What must we do?”

“What must we do?”

Jesus was asked that question another time–by a young man, successful, up-and-coming, ambitious. He wanted to know, too, what he must do to have eternal life. Then, Jesus gave him a straight answer, “Keep the commandments and you will enter into eternal life.” When the confident young go-getter assured Jesus that he did keep the commandments, Jesus raised the stakes, “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come, follow me.” This silenced the young man and he went away, grieving.

Here, in John 6, the question, “What must we do?” does not receive a straightforward answer. Jesus says nothing about the commandments, about the law, about selling possessions. In fact, he doesn’t really answer the question at all.

Instead, he says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Jesus simply avoids the question. He is not interested in giving a short list, a crib sheet, a post-it note of requirements for signing up on God’s team.

He is interested in assuring this disorderly crowd, filled with needy people, curious people, clueless people, hopeful people, perhaps some arrogant and self-sufficient people, perhaps some honest, faithful people–Jesus is most interested in telling them that there is actually exactly nothing that they can do to be on God’s team, to win God’s favor, to perform God’s works.

So he says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Faith is not our doing. It is not our accomplishment. It is not our sheer doggone effort. Instead, it is the gift of a generous God. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom God has sent.” This quiet statement of Jesus, embedded in his repartee with a curious crowd, is an affirmation we all need to hear, over and over again. For those of us who are needy, curious, clueless, hopeful, perhaps arrogant and self-sufficient, perhaps honest and faithful, it is bread from heaven.

Leanne Van Dyk is professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan and co-editor of Perspectives.