During my undergraduate years, I worked part-time at a business managed by a family friend. The business’ physical plant consisted of a sales office and a warehouse. Despite the many years that have passed, I remember distinctly the unique personalities of the company’s employees.
The sales staff were very talented; they had the amazing ability to promise anything and everything to customers – in order to close a sale. This ability on the part of the salesmen was due largely to the fact that fulfillment of their promises was the responsibility of the warehouse workers. One warehouse worker had a habit as bad as the salesmen’s habit of making unrealistic promises; that warehouse worker always responded to the unreasonable expectations of the salesmen by saying, “No, that’s impossible; it can’t be done.” The degree of perceived impossibility of the task varied in direct proportion to the urgency expressed by the salesman’s pleas. I thought of that warehouse employee when I read the Gospel passage in today’s Liturgy of the Word.
The crowd whom Jesus fed by the multiplication of loaves and fish recognized a good thing when they saw it. They had gotten a free meal from Jesus, and they were not opposed to receiving more of the same. They followed him even more attentively after the free meal, but Jesus found their devotion to be somewhat insincere. He said, “you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” (Jn. 6:26)
He tried to raise their minds (and stomachs) above the immediate issues of hunger and free food. He said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” (Jn. 6:35)
I was reminded of that warehouse worker whom I knew so many years ago. The proposition that whoever comes to Jesus will never hunger or thirst again is implausible if not impossible. How could it be possible that we would never again be hungry? It can’t be done. In fact, in the minds of many people, all of Jesus’ miracles are completely impossible.
The feeding of the five thousand is one of seven miracles that the author of John’s Gospel called “signs.” Unlike the other Gospels, John limits his recounting of Jesus’ miracles to no more than these seven: changing water into wine (Jn. 2:1-11), healing the royal official’s son (Jn. 4:46-54), healing a paralyzed man (Jn. 5:1-8), feeding the five thousand (Jn. 6:1-15), walking on water (Jn. 6:16-21), healing a man born blind (Jn. 9:1-7), and raising Lazarus from the dead (Jn. 11:1-44).
Organized religion is often mocked by those who consider miracles, like the “signs” Jesus performs in John’s Gospel, to be utterly impossible. The implausibility of religious claims is amplified by the fact that some of those who claim to be Jesus’ followers find much of his teaching impossible to practice. Based on anecdotal evidence, I must conclude that many of the baptized consider it impossible to love their enemies, pray for their persecutors, or forgive those who offend them.
The seven “signs” Jesus performed were intended to appear impossible because they intend to inspire us to believe the impossible. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” (Jn. 6:35) This seems implausible when we look at the world. Hunger and starvation afflict hundreds of millions of people, without regard to social status or religious affiliation. At present, the whole world faces a resurgence of a deadly disease. War continues unabated. Sinners prosper, the poor are neglected, and the suffering remain in torment. It seems utterly impossible that the world will ever change for the better. In the face of a suffering, fallen world, the seven signs in John’s Gospel invite us to believe that God will comfort the poor, heal the afflicted, and raise the world to new life.
The miracles of Jesus, the “signs” performed in John’s Gospel, invite us to believe that God can do what is impossible for us. Unless we believe this, we do not believe in the One, True God; a “God” capable of the merely possible is no God at all.
I’m not suggesting that we should live in denial about the sad realities of this fallen world, nor that we should live in a fantasy world where every dream comes true. Rather, I’m suggesting that a necessary element of an authentic faith is the trust that God can do what we cannot do for ourselves. This will require that we live as if the impossible problems of the world have a real solution in God. Do you think you can live in this way?
Can you live as if you believe God will comfort the sorrowful and deprived? Can you live as if you believe God will heal the broken and the brokenhearted? Can you live as if you believe God can raise you and your loved ones to new life? If so, you have already experienced the impossibility Jesus promised to his followers – that they will never hunger or thirst.
The miracles of Jesus do not suggest that we retreat into fantasy or delusion; miracles are not excuses to live in denial about the finite and fallen nature of the world. Rather, the miracles of Jesus are signs that point to what is possible only for God: that God can and will remedy the world’s faults and failings. This is the meaning of the miracles Jesus performed. The “signs” mentioned in John’s Gospel invite you to believe the impossible, namely, that God does redeem the world from sin and death.