More often than not, we come to the Sunday
Scriptures with mundane matters weighing us down. We might be struggling with
family issues, job issues, broken lives, forsaken dreams. We half-listen to
words that seem to belong to another people, another time, a more exalted
spiritual realm than our own piece of earth.
And then today we hear the Israelites in the desert saying, “Would that we had
died by the Lord’s hand in the land
as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread!” We understand their
longing for the good old days. We feel their desperation as they realize they’ve
embarked on an arduous journey to something new and unknown. As the road
becomes long, even endless, their slavery in Egypt seems less oppressive. At
least they had enough to eat. And more, they had the varied food of the fertile
Egyptian fields. Freedom has lost some of its luster, obscured by the desert
sand. For us, too, embracing risk seems unthinkable, unwise, impossible, even
when we have an inkling that our lives would be better for it.
Each of us has an Egypt
in our life, that place where life seems easier, where the difficulties can be
glossed over with something that deadens the pain and obscures the real price.
We look back to previous jobs, wrong relationships, dysfunctional family
situations, and a host of other times and places that look rosier in hindsight than
they were in reality.
Every day we fight the struggle between Egypt and the desert. We stay just
comfortable enough that we don’t need to make the difficult decisions that can
lead to real freedom, that can lead to the promised land. One thing that
characterizes most of our Egypts:
Someone else is responsible for our pain, for our actions, for our decisions. Slavery
comes in many guises.
Dreams of the future can be as beguiling—and as unrealistic—as memories of
the past. In the Gospel, the crowds around Jesus are dazzled by his multiplying
the loaves and fishes. Their lives, like ours, are filled with the daily
demands of keeping food on their tables and a roof over their heads. When
someone comes along who seems to offer them freedom from that daily grind, the
impulse to follow is irresistible. How many of us play the lottery hoping for
just such a break?
Jesus recognizes that most of the people have followed him simply because
they’ve eaten their fill and want more. He knows he will need to lead them to a
place much more challenging in order to give them the great gift of eternal
life. Working for the kingdom can be even more demanding that merely working
for daily bread. But it can be difficult to make that leap of faith.
The Scriptures make it clear that God always calls us forward. Going back is
never an option. When we’re tempted to settle for less, we need to hear Jesus
say, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and
whoever believes in me will never thirst.” We might not have the material
success of our friends. We might not have a career filled with intellectual
challenges and the world’s recognition. We might not have endlessly varied
entertainments. But if we trust Jesus’s words, we will never be alone. God is
with us, even—especially— in the desert. And God always leads us to new life,
even if it seems like a risk at the time.