It is the strangest thing that we have in our holy book. It’s not a story of worldly success–much as preachers have tried to make it out to be just that. It’s not a story of patiently resigning ourselves to worldly evil. It’s a story, told in a hundred different ways, of giving the world up and then getting it back again. If we actually had to live it ourselves, how would we bear it–the walk to Moriah with Abraham and Isaac, the flight to Zarephath, the warning against the people who organize God’s worship, the chaos and terror of Golgotha?
When we’re in an audience, we want to be led on, tricked, deceived by sleight of hand. In the real world, face to face, we don’t want that at all. We don’t want to be led on, tricked, manipulated. Instead we want to give ourselves freely to one another, and we want to receive the free gift of another person in return.
This verse is like an explosion. How do we get right with God? How do we attain that righteousness with which God judges the world and condemns the wickedness of humanity? Do we have to humble ourselves before our husbands? Do we have to lord it over our wives? Do we have to follow “Biblical life principles”? Do we have to pray an hour every day? Will that get us to the righteousness of God?
Jesus says that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. And that means that we who are saved by faith in him, and raised to new life by his grace, must allow him to serve us, too. If you know the power of service, you probably know also the mania that can come with it. The passive-aggressiveness–”it’s ok, I’ll just do it myself.” The resentment–”I work and work and give and give and no one thanks me.” If Jesus only wanted us to find the humblest task and do it for someone else, he’d be setting us up for a great deal of misery.
I say all of this as someone who has been on every side of this very human struggle: offending, offended against, passive bystander, participant in a mob mentality. That’s human life. We are always being asked to hear, to judge, to act. And the way we do these things implicates us very deeply. It cuts to the heart of who we think we are. It is painful to cut off that part of us that cannot bear to be wrong.
When the great theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote about the sacraments, he wrote about them as the way God gives us grace. “Now the gift of grace,” he wrote, “surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking in the divine nature.” This is a professional way of saying that grace is the gift we can’t get for ourselves because it is beyond our capability. It is the way we embrace the very nature of God. It is the way that the invisible, eternal Father comes to live inside of us, like a radioactive tracer that outlives our own flesh.
And it’s funny—it seems that no one can think about these words for more than a few minutes without turning them into a problem that has to be solved. What did Jesus mean? Was he referring to the meal his disciples shared, the sacrament of bread and wine? Or was he talking about eating and drinking as a metaphor for believing in him?
So Jesus lets you say no—to him and to each other. He invites his disciples to leave. He does this without blame or resentment. He doesn’t call out after the people who are leaving, “You’ll be sorry!” And if the twelve had walked away discouraged, he would have found new disciples. He would have raised up a body for himself in the world somehow. He will find a way to share his eternal life with this hungry, bleeding, sinful world. Someone, somehow, will answer.
Now when a crowd shows up in ancient literature, it usually stands for human nature at its most basic and unimproved. The crowd is not very smart. The crowd is not very patient. The crowd is not very reasonable. The crowd is prone to fear. The crowd is fickle and impulsive. The crowd is like a child: when it hasn’t had a good night’s sleep and something to eat, it can become difficult.
This principle–God’s words are actions, God’s actions are words–is something I try to keep in mind whenever I read a miracle story in the Bible. Because the fact is that miracle stories can seem very disappointing after you get used to them. The people who are healed and fed in the Bible just remind me, at least, of those people ever since and even today who are not healed and not fed. Where’s the miracle for them?