“You can know a thing to death, and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” So says the old preacher, Ames, to his son in the book Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It seems to me to express a deep, and strange truth.
Actually, the truth, it seems to me, can be even stranger than that. We can live our own lives and be to all intents and purposes ignorant of ourselves, live through the most astonishing events, and know nothing of the significance of what happens to us.
I think that is part of what Jesus is saying to the crowd when he says, “You seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Of course the crowd saw signs. They cannot have failed to see the five loaves and two fish multiply to feed the great throng, something utterly amazing.
Moreover, it’s surely not quite true that they are just following him for the free food. People will turn up to events for free food. As a university chaplain, I was always shamelessly offering free food to students to encourage them to attend chaplaincy events. But their devotion to Jesus does seem to be more than this. In the passage immediately before this, the one we read last Sunday, John writes, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Making someone king just for some free food seems a little extreme!
And yet, when Jesus asks for their faith, they ask him for a sign, as if he hasn’t already given them one. They see the miraculous feeding. In one sense, they see everything that can be seen. But in another sense, they see nothing, they understand nothing. It’s as if they get caught up in the excitement of it all, and fail to ask themselves what it’s all about, what it really means.
I think that’s an experience we have in our own lives too. We are so caught up in the thick of things that we never see what is right in front of us. We are so busy being thrilled or bored or terrified or miserable or amused that we don’t see what’s happening before our eyes. We miss the significance of it.
Some people think human beings are so keen on significance and meaning that we tend to see it even when it isn’t there. I think that’s almost the opposite of the truth. We might well look for hidden meanings in a story, or in what someone else tells us, but we’re inclined to dismiss the meaning, the significance, of the everyday things that happen to us.
I don't mean that this business of significance is something too subtle or too clever for us. Often, the people who saw the meaning of Jesus’ presence among us were not the scholars at all. Like the centurion whose words we imitate before we receive communion at every Mass, the recognition required is simply one of seeing Jesus as God’s gift, a gift from God, a gift of God, to us who have done nothing to deserve it, and yet a gift which satisfies every desire of our hearts.
Jesus is pointing out to his hearers, to us, that there is an obvious meaning in what they have seen. God is giving his very self to them in Jesus, nourishing them, giving them all that they need, giving them significance too, by making their stories part of his story, that story of God’s love. Food becomes a sign of God’s giving us himself, satisfying us with his very presence.
Very occasionally, perhaps, we see the significance in the events of our lives, very often, I think, while looking back in gratitude. It can be unnerving to see God’s activity in the everyday, because it reminds us forcefully that our lives are not our own, that they are God’s loving gift to us. Perhaps, though, we can then see them as part of that same story of God’s love shown in Christ. That’s their real significance.