TEXT: John 6:24-35
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life …” (John 6:26-27a)
Here’s a question for Thanksgiving Sunday: What motivates you? What moves you to act—to do something—when you otherwise might not?
Well, we’d all like to think that we’re motivated by noble ideals, or a sense of duty, or a higher purpose. And sometimes we are, I guess. But our human nature seems to result—often—in us being motivated most powerfully by self-interest.
Once upon a time, I was part of an organization that was trying really hard to get people interested in coming to our meetings. It seemed like the only good time to get people to attend was during lunch … but we weren’t drawing much interest. What to do?
What we did do, finally, was this: we decided that we would use our organization’s budget to offer everybody a free lunch! And before we knew it, we had a regular, steady attendance at our meetings. Maybe at this point, I should go ahead and admit that this was a ministerial association, and the meetings were aimed at pastors … I guess maybe all preachers love a free lunch!
In any event, the free lunch seemed to be the trick to make people show up. And maybe it’s not just preachers who are like this. Don’t we all like to feel we’re getting a little something extra in life? Deals motivate us. We’re attracted by anything we think is a bargain. We love the free gifts—the bonus items that businesses will give away just to make us choose their product or service over others. Credit-card companies, for example, compete by offering “joining gifts”—like 1,000 free air miles for opening an account, or a free tote bag. Some department stores will give you a special holiday teddy bear if you spend a certain amount on shopping.
And you know what? Those tricks work! We love to grab something extra, to get a bargain. And that feeling—that rush—of getting something for nothing … that motivates us. Doesn’t it?
The crowds in our gospel lesson today are also motivated by the prospect of getting a little something extra. Sure, they would follow Jesus around, and listen to his teachings and preaching. But there was always the prospect of getting a little something extra. Perhaps a cure for a stubborn ailment … perhaps something else.
In the passage just before this one, Jesus had really wowed them. John’s gospel tells us that a large crowd had been following Jesus because they saw the miracles of healing that he was doing. Some 5,000 of them had gathered, and they were hungry. So what did Jesus do?
Well, I’m sure you know the story: with five barley loaves and two fish, he managed to feed them all. Five thousand people had enough to eat because of Jesus—and there were 12 basketfuls left over!
Apparently, this new bonus prize of getting free food from Jesus was a huge motivating factor—because, after Jesus and his disciples row across Lake Galilee to get away from these people … they find boats of their own and follow them! They go all the way to Capernaum to find the one who had provided them with such a great meal.
They want to keep tabs on this guy. So when they get to the other side of the sea and locate Jesus, they’re interested in pinning down his plans and his schedule. “Rabbi,” they ask, “when did you come here?”
Jesus sees their heightened interest in his movements for what it is: pure self-seeking opportunism. He says to the crowds, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
Then he challenges them: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Jesus wants them to understand that he has something better—something deeper, and more completely filling, than any free meal they could ever get.
But they don’t understand. They want to know how they can do such miracles, too. They ask, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”
They want to know what they have to put in. They want to know the terms of the agreement: what they have to do in order to get the reward again—the bonus. They want Jesus to explain the details.
He answers them by saying: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
They still don’t get it. “What sign are you going to give us then,” they ask, “so that we may see it and believe you?”
If Jesus insists on them believing in him—but won’t teach them how to do his tricks—maybe they can get him to do another sign, and get something more out of him. And—perhaps trying to tempt Jesus into a bit of a miracle-performing competition—they remind him that, with Moses in the wilderness, their ancestors got daily manna from heaven (see Exodus 16:2-4a, 9-15).
Can Jesus top that?
It reminds me a bit of the TV commercial that says you can have banks competing over who gets to give you a loan. The crowds are trying to work out a similar deal. What is Jesus gonna give them to claim status as their Saviour? How hard is he willing to work for it?
But Jesus is having none of this. He quickly puts things in perspective, reminding them that it was not Moses who provided the manna, but God who gives true bread from heaven. And this true bread isn’t just a tasty meal. No. The true bread from heaven gives life to the world.
Here, finally, is an offer the crowd is ready to accept. “Sir,” they say, “give us this bread always.”
So Jesus lays it out for them: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” If that’s the offer on the table, who needs a free tote bag on top of all that?
In the rest of this chapter, Jesus continues to talk with them about this bread—but it’s not an easy concept, apparently. In today’s reading, we can clearly see the confusion of the crowds as they ask question after question. They’re looking for the best deal they can get, and when Jesus offers them the very best, they start to look for loopholes! They wonder what exactly the fine print will bind them to. They’re wary of agreeing to anything where they have to give what they don’t want to give—or where they get less than they came for.
We certainly can relate to this attitude, can’t we? In the marketplace, as consumers, we are wary of getting taken in. And—no matter how much we want that bonus gift—we won’t accept it, if it sounds too good to be true. We’re wary consumers, motivated by the desire for the best deal, the best bargain … but we’re suspicious and hesitant, too.
And you know, I think we have this same dilemma when it comes to matters of faith. Our motivations for seeking out a relationship with God are many and varied. What is your motive, if you are totally honest with yourself?
Hopefully, for all of us—some of the time, at least—our motive for seeking God is the desire to fill the deepest longings of our hearts with this grace and love that God is offering. But sometimes—maybe for all of us—our motives are completely different. We are sometimes motivated by guilt and regret because of things we wish we had not done. Sometimes we’re motivated by a need to belong to a community, to have a social circle, to have the companionship that comes with belonging to a congregation. Sometimes we’re motivated by a sense of obligation.
There are many circumstances that can bring us to a time and place where we seek God’s presence in our lives. Some of them are more pure—and some of them are more selfish.
Fortunately, God is both good and gracious. No matter what less-than-perfect motives get us into God’s house, or bring us to God’s table, or open us up to God’s message, God is still willing to give us the best of the best—the best offer, the best gift. No matter why the crowds came to Jesus—and no matter what would have been the ideal motive for their seeking him out—Jesus still offered himself to them as the bread of life. He still offered them life-giving bread, no matter what brought them to him that day. And this gift is still being offered to us, my friends. In Christ we find an offer of full, complete, abundant life—right now. It’s ours for the taking—free of charge—no matter why we’ve come. There are no other conditions upon this offer of salvation; all we have to do is accept it.
You can react like a suspicious shopper, if you want. You can scrutinize the offer as closely as you like. You’ll discover there’s no fine print; no shipping and handling charges; no “while supplies last.” There’s just a gift, freely offered, for you—you, whom God loves.
Surely, that is reason for thanksgiving!