So my first week working in the Holy Land is at an end. It’s been a week of learning, thinking and most of all listening. Listening to future plans, listening to the languages around me, listening to different people from different backgrounds, but more importantly listening to God.
One thing I was privileged to take part in this week was the weekly Bible Study at Sabeel. This week the study concentrated on John 6 : 25 – 35, a passage which coincidentally I had been thinking about just before I arrived.
When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.
For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Bread, to us it is an everyday staple, something to be toasted, to be used to hold other food. Bread is sustaining and a main part of life; it is a staple of most of the western world; a staple of the middle east in Jesus’ time and now. Jesus was referring to himself as something needed to stay alive, something essential and for life itself.
Certainly just before this passage in John, Jesus gave bread as a life sustaining food to the crowd at Tabgha. The crowd are so enthralled by this action that they wait by the shore of the Sea of Galilee as Jesus and is disciples went across the lake. When the crowd approach Jesus on the shore for a second time he says something which starts to indicate a change in their understanding of bread – a key to the symbolism bread will have in the time to follow. Jesus tells them “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”. The crowd are almost certainly confused by this statement – not quite grasping what the meaning of this is – just like the Samaritan woman at the well.
The crowd clearly ‘don’t get it’, they ask again for the bread and keep going back to the need to ‘work’, but Jesus has one last go and explaining what he really means. He says something that the crowd must have thought very odd, referring to himself as ‘bread of life’, something we now understand having heard the ‘whole story’.
This is what I was thinking and writing before Thursday, but pause, think, and consider, what does this passage mean in a Israel/Palestine context. Suddenly this passage becomes more problematic – if you’re hungry because of fighting, blockades, shortages then a passage emphasising the need for bread in both a spiritual and life sustaining way is not going to make you feel very good about yourself. The search for God in your ‘daily bread’ is not going to be an easy one. This is a passage which can be read literally but I also think it can be read in a metaphorical way and this would give it a new meaning in this specific context.
Interestingly there is a Hasidic story which closely relates to this search for God in work and may have been the root of the work question from the gathered Jews. It involves a man travelling from village to village asking Rabbis “Where can I find God” upon which he receives a variety of answers but does not find God. The final Rabbi tells him to stop, stay in the village and work. He then found God in this village with the Rabbi explaining
“God is not a person, my child, or a thing. You cannot meet God in that way. You were so caught up in the question that you could not hear the answers. Now that you can find God, you can return to your village, if you wish.”
(READ THE FULL STORY HERE)
The work becomes the activities of resisting oppression, sharing the word of God (from all faiths in the land), understanding one another, calling out injustice wherever it may occur and in whatever shape it may take, and continuing to have faith in God throughout the hardest of times. With the new Nation State law this becomes more difficult and more important, as the voices of the Palestinians are made quieter not just in practice as they have been for years past, but now in law – in a law, which emphasises the ‘Jewishness’ of Israel at the cost of everyone else in the land. The current arguments in the UK on antisemitism are a fruit of this same vine, it’s time to stop and think…who were the Semites? The Oxford Dictionary explain it as
A member of any of the peoples who speak or spoke a Semitic language, including in particular the Jews and Arabs.
Taken from the Greek ‘sēm’ (shem) meaning Son of Noah from whom all the three religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism spring. It is way past time to look at the Israel/Palestine situation and discuss what to do, the Palestinian people are tired, worn out, they need help to rebuild themselves and to push against the current Israeli administration.
Do what you can, just don’t be like the gathering in the passage, don’t stand and question believe, live, work and God will follow you in what you do. Most of all push back against unfair laws, oppression, blockade and struggle for there you will be nourished with the bread of Heaven and given the sustenance to carry on.
When we take communion we share in this bread of life; we share in Jesus and with Jesus and with all christians across all of time. In this feeding we are commissioned to share the bread of life. We are told to “work for food which endures” and the word work is there for a reason. We are called by God to work for Him, to share His love and the good news of Jesus. We are called to be peacemakers, to see the similarities rather than the differences in people and work to bring everyone together. We are called to share the unconditional love and acceptance of Jesus and to live as an outpouring of that unconditional love.