Very often in the Gospel we find striking dialogues between Jesus and “the crowd”. The crowd signifies those who have not yet become disciples or those who in their obstinacy are symbols of rejection of faith in Jesus. Indeed the crowd indicates also our obstinacy and the factors which render it difficult for us to accept the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
There is a real temptation for all of us to construct a God of our own making, a God who makes us feel comfortable – much worse a God who makes us feel self-satisfied – rather than allowing the Jesus revealed in the Gospel and in the tradition of the Church to challenge our hearts and to shake open and change our minds.
Let us look at this fascinating dialogue between Jesus and the crowd in the Gospel reading of today’s Mass.
After the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, the crowd wanted to proclaim Jesus an earthly king. Jesus slips away from the crowd and goes up on a mountain to pray. Jesus knows that he must break the frame of thought of the crowd. The crowd fails to recognise that his actions are not worldly and that his power and his kingdom belong not to the categories of this world.
The crowd goes after Jesus to find him, but remains trapped in its own limited thought frame. When they find him their first question is not even about his message or activity; it is a simple curiosity: “when did you come here?” The crowd completely misses the point; it fails to identify anything of the deep relevance of their meeting with Jesus. “When did you get here”, they ask. They remain in a banal way on the level of the superficially empirical, without any sense of engagement or wonder.
Jesus ignores their question and attempts to lead them to something deeper. What is it that they are really looking for from Jesus, even though they cannot express it or perhaps do not even yet realise it? What is it that is beginning to arouse their interest and wonder about his person and his teaching? I remember once reading a book review which said that the book in question provided “answers to the questions that nobody ever asked”. That, as you can imagine, was certainly not intended to be a compliment. But one of the big challenges to evangelization today is precisely that there are indeed many vital questions which people never come to ask. They remain on the superficial; they remain stubbornly empirical and never develop that sense of engagement or wonder which is necessary for faith. The deeper questions are not asked or are asked within a framework which limits any possible answer.
Jesus attempts to redirect the thought of the crowd. He reminds them that they are following him for the wrong reasons. All that they remember is that their immediate hunger had been satisfied with the bread that he had provided. Once again they remain on the empirical level and they fail to move on to the level of the interpretation of the sign Jesus had worked, to the level of the deeper meaning of what he had done. Jesus tells them not be trapped in the search for what does not last, but to work for the food which leads to eternal life.
Now the crowd seems to be responding. They ask: “What must we do if we are to do the works that God wants”. They first felt that the food which does not endure was sufficient for them. Now they recognise that perhaps there is another food which is more essential. But once again the crowd misses the point. They begin to think that they can attain that food which lasts forever by themselves, by “doing something”, by their own effort, rather than realising that what is asked of them is to open themselves and receive the gift of faith, especially the great gift of Jesus himself, who is the one who brings life. They must trust in Jesus as the revelation of God.
So often we fail in both faith and love by thinking that they are all about doing things, whereas the first condition to be able to believe is to open our hearts and the first condition to be able to love is that we allow ourselves to be loved.
Now the crowd, as often happens, changes tactic and comes back with their doubts from another direction. They ask for a sign, for a miracle. Their ancestors, they tell Jesus, came to faith because they recognised the miracle of the manna in the dessert which Moses had worked. Jesus reminds them that the manna in the desert was neither the work of their ancestors nor the work of Moses but the work of God, the work of his Father in heaven. Once again the crowd recognises the empirical fact of the manna, but fails to understand either the meaning of the sign or the true author of the sign. The manna was a sign of the continual presence of God with his people and his continual care for them.
The question that emerges in today’s Gospel then is about our ability to listen to the message of Jesus and not be offset or distracted by our own thought frame and our own ways of thinking, rather than allowing God to orientate our research and our questioning and remembering that he is always with us.
We celebrate here in the Cathedral of Saint Stephen for decades the mother Church of the Archdiocese of Brisbane. Here the word of God has been proclaimed and the faith of individuals and of the entire diocesan community has been nourished and developed in times which have changed so much since the dream of Archbishop Quinn to build this Cathedral had been realised.
We live in challenging times. From my own experience I could give you facts and statistics about the difficulties which the Church is encountering in Ireland. Bishops right across the “developed” West are facing similar challenges of how to foster belief in an increasingly secular world.
How should we react? How do we engage with a world which seemingly does not understand us or even seems to reject what we affirm? Perhaps we need to develop the pastoral style of Jesus that we have seen in the Gospel. Jesus enters into dialogue and engages. In his dialogue with the crowd he is neither authoritarian in imposing his teachings, nor does he simply allow people to come up with a version of faith which suits them at a particular time. He is in no way arrogant. He never looses patience.
Jesus never relents in his engagement with the crowd, which represents not the faithful disciples, but those who do not come automatically to accept his words and to faith. The crowd may take one step towards faith and then gets trapped again in its inability to break through the thought frames of the contemporary society. Jesus never despairs or gives up when his dialogue with the crowd leads to the very opposite to the answers he is aiming at. He engages with people as they are. He engages them in their reason, but does not reject them or belittle them.
We pray for the gift of discernment that we can come to a deeper faith. We pray for the strength to put away “the old self of the former ways of our life”, as the second reading notes, and to witness to our faith, as individuals and as a Church community, as “the new self, created in God’s way of righteousness and holiness in truth” in such a way that our lives will help others to ask the deeper questions about their own life and come to recognise Jesus as the true bread of life.
Lord, give us this bread always.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin
August 2, 2009