At the end of an intense week spent ministering to those who have survived clergy sexual abuse, one small phrase in St John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000 took on a new connotation for me. Seeing the vast crowd coming towards him, Jesus asks Philip where they can get enough bread to feed these people. He said this, St John adds, “to test him”.
This is always the test of discipleship. That if Jesus places you in the face of a need he is also asking you to to believe that your ability to provide people with what they need for spiritual satiety is equal to the task, because Jesus sees and understands the hunger. He already has the resources. If someone has the faith and willingness to believe it is possible to be the instrumental (not the efficient) cause, they can be of use to him.
What Jesus is testing is Philip’s memory of salvation history. Faced with the need to feed a hungry multitude, will Philip raise his eyes heavenward and make the connection between this test and the miraculous signs he has already witnessed Jesus perform? Faced with a need on a fearful scale, is the disciple overwhelmed or does he invoke the memory of God’s previous miracles when human resources failed?
Jesus has in mind the manna in the desert, of course. And what is the particular feature that characterises the supply of manna? It gives you all you need, but only enough for the day. It doesn’t allow you to be self-reliant. In other words, it is both a motive for faith and an invitation to it in a place which is not meant to be your lasting destination. Every day it brings that “test” of asking whether you want to gather enough to satisfy your needs, or whether you will be tempted to hoard enough to end the very dependence which feeds you. The disciple who trusts only in the presence of Jesus to provide will see his limitations contained and confounded by God’s desire to bring salvation.
Manna comes in response to crying to God in the wilderness. For the would-be disciple, then, it is a response to fervent praying. It comes only after one has felt the emptiness of the sometime apparent futility of being a believer and a follower.
Manna is given to stop us compromising our freedom for the sake of things that do not nourish what we most truly need. Its “sign value” is of conversion of heart, reminding the disciple freed from slavery not to romanticise one’s identity as a slave.
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