by Bob Lupton
The need for food is forever with us. Every couple hours our body reminds us. Ignore the need and our stomachs begin to growl an audible dissatisfaction. From the time we enter the world, that need dominates our lives – and our parents’ lives who must schedule their sleep around it. Mothers all over the world spend generous portions of their days preparing food for their families. It’s fundamental to life.
Given that food is such a priority, why then did such a huge number of curiosity seekers stream out into the remote countryside – without packing lunches – to see a Galilean rabbi rumored to be a miracle-worker? Some said he was the long-awaited messiah. And if that proved to be true, he would be even greater than Moses who provided free food for the entire Jewish nation for forty years. And, sure enough, to every ones’ delight, the miracle-working rabbi came through. He took the sack lunch of a little boy (whose practical mother had planned ahead) and multiplied it before the on-looking crowd. It was a picnic the likes of which no one had ever witnessed before. They all ate until they were stuffed and still there were mounds of leftovers.
The following day the crowds showed up again – city people from Capernaum and boatloads of folk that ferried in from across the lake. The word was out. This could be it – the leader they had long awaited! Greater even than Moses! The constant stress of securing daily bread might be relieved at last. They pressed in around him, listening patiently to his message, watching as he laid hands on some sick people, waiting with intense curiosity to see how he would produce the day’s supply of food. But when food was not forthcoming, the people started to become impatient.
“You’re not following me because you believe my message or even because of the miracles I do,” Jesus turned and faced them. “You’re just wanting another free lunch.”
“Do a miracle like Moses did –free food for everyone,” the crowd retorted. “That’s how you can prove you’re the one sent from God.”
But as soon as it became apparent that the miracle-worker was not going to supply any more food, the people became indifferent to his message. He could give them true bread from heaven that would satisfy their hunger permanently, he told them. A few were curious enough to inquire how to obtain that bread but when he tried to explain that he was that bread, they turned and walked away.
Sound familiar? A similar scenario plays out on downtown Atlanta street corners when a van full of volunteers pulls up with free sandwiches to distribute. Hoards of homeless people suddenly emerge from alleyways and bridges, hands outstretched for whatever their benefactors are passing out. Are they interested in the bread of life? Try gathering them with a Gospel message from a bullhorn instead of a sandwich. Who wouldn’t choose dependency on a predictable, visible source of food over an elusive faith walk that offers no immediate, tangible guarantees? A sandwich in hand will win out every time over a give-us-this-day-our-daily-bread faith-prayer.
So why did the miracle-working rabbi feed the crowd in the first place? Compassion? A heart-response to hungry people is certainly a divine impulse. Heart-responses don’t examine recipients’ motivations or project future outcomes. They see a need and take immediate action, no questions asked. But the kingdom this radical young rabbi was introducing was about far more than heart-responses. It was about heart-change. And feeding the multitudes was clearly not the most effective method to achieve heart-change. His disciples who executed the food distribution would learn that lesson the very next day.
Heart-responses produce distinctly different behavior patterns than do heart-changes. Continual heart-responses yield diminishing returns:
feed a person once and it elicits appreciation (oh, thank you so much);
feed him twice and it creates anticipation (wonder if he’s going to do it again);
feed him three times and it creates expectation (when is he going to do it);
feed him four times and it becomes an entitlement (I need it now);
feed him five times and it produces dependency (you can’t stop, I’m counting on it).
Heart-change, however, moves one in a very different direction. Reliance upon God increases. Dependence on God for daily bread – for body as well as soul – becomes integral to one’s faith journey. Giving to others takes precedence over getting for oneself. Sharing replaces hoarding. Community increases. Isolation diminishes. These were the values that the young rabbi wanted the people to understand and embrace. It became quite clear to his disciples that a free food distribution program would not be the preferred method for ushering in this new kingdom. Should it not be as obvious to us?