“Man, am I tired,” the young schoolteacher said at the end of a hard day.
His father, a lifelong rancher, scoffed. “You’re not tired. You sit in a classroom all day. You don’t do any work.”
We may well take issue with the rancher’s paternal manner, but he raises a legitimate question. What is “work”? Is it defined by effort or result? Is it necessarily physical? Must it produce something useful? Am I “working” when I tap away at a computer making a story or a blog post? Are athletes “working” when they train to pursue or propel a ball in accordance with a complicated set of arbitrary rules? Is my daughter “working” when she studies Latin? How about when she draws? What is the proper answer when a stay-at-home mother is asked with a condescending half-smile, “Do you work?”
My dictionary’s first definition of “work” is exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something; labor; toil. A narrower definition farther down is productive or operative activity. Narrower still is employment, as in some form of industry, esp. as a means of earning one’s livelihood. The physics one, which I do not understand in the slightest, is force times the distance through which it acts; specifically, the transference of energy equal to the product of the component of a force that acts in the direction of the motion of the point of application of the force and the distance through which the point of application moves. The theological definition is simply righteous deeds.
I posit that the most basic work a person can do under ordinary circumstances (as opposed to extraordinary circumstances like climbing a tree before this wild boar gores me, or building a fire before I freeze to death) would be work that produces or processes food, because in the absence of food all other work becomes a nonissue. Clothing and shelter come close behind; after that things get blurry. But food is tops.
Most civilizations have a staple food, usually a grain. People-groups that cultivate grain are more stable than hunter-gatherers, and stability is foundational to civilization. (By “civilization,” I mean an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached, as opposed to simply a group of people living together in basic subsistence.) But a truly essential thing, something that simply must exist before a civilization can develop, is a food surplus.
Without a food surplus, people spend most of their time and energy scratching up a daily living. There’s nothing left to pursue art, science, or philosophy. Even basic craftsmanship can’t progress much when you’re always working for your next meal.
A food surplus changes all that. Suddenly you have time to ponder things beyond subsistence, and members of your community can afford to specialize. After you get past the apprenticeship period involved in learning any new skill, this leads to greater efficiency in industry as well as the cultivation of the finer things in life. Metallurgy, written language, civil engineering, even a formal priesthood, all can flourish in the presence of a food surplus.
Another prerequisite for a civilization, or something that grows up along with it, is the building of walls. When you build walls, you commit yourself to staying in one place and protecting that place from predators, animal and human. And once you have those walls, you need to man them. You need an army.
It’s been said that an army marches on its stomach. Herodotus’s mind-blowing account of the march of the army of Xerxes from Persia to Greece contains some wild numbers which many modern historians find simply unbelievable, but I don’t think anyone has disputed the proportions—that is, that adding support personnel to combat personnel basically doubled the army’s size. Transporting a large army—whether 500,000 or 2.5 million—from Persia to Greece with supplies and equipment, on foot or by horse, and feeding them on the journey to keep them fit to fight when they get there, would be a logistical challenge in the modern or ancient world.
I recently read an article that said for every modern combat soldier, there are 2.5 support people keeping him going. My son, a soldier for the National Guard, estimates it’s more like 5.
This is only reasonable. A soldier, as the apostle Paul said, doesn’t concern himself with civilian affairs; he commits himself to a different task. He isn’t raising food or making clothing or constructing shelter. Someone else must bear the burden of feeding, clothing, and sheltering him, and fashioning weapons for him to carry, vehicles to transport him, and tools for him to use. His “work” is to defend the civilization he represents—to keep that civilization, with its livestock and its commerce and its written language and its codified system of government, and its walls, and its food surplus, safe from marauders who would otherwise pillage and burn it all to heck. He’s doing a necessary job, vital to our survival, and yes, we do want him on that wall.
(I’m of course aware that a military may abuse its citizenry and that not all wars are just, but the idea is still sound. Most pacifism is the indulgence of a coddled and sated society. Its adherents cannot understand what it would truly mean to lay down arms, forever, in a fallen world. Few of us can. We’re so far removed from the edge of annihilation, so deep in our security, that we’re like fish who don’t know what “wet” is.)
In summary, then, a food surplus is necessary both to building a civilization and to defending it.
Which brings us to the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John.
The chapter begins with Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee. A multitude that earlier saw him heal the sick now follows him at some distance. Unlike the army of Xerxes, this multitude has no supply train. These are just a lot of regular people following an itinerant rabbi to who knows where. When they started the journey, they probably had no idea how long the trek would be. If they packed provisions at all, they’ve run out by now, because it’s implicit in the text that they have nothing to eat. They’re like several vanloads of unexpected guests pulling into the driveway right at dinnertime.
What happens next is so familiar to many of us that it may have lost its shock value. Jesus takes five barley loaves and two fishes and uses them to feed a crowd that’s well in excess of five thousand. After the meal is finished, twelve basketfuls of leftover bread fragments are collected.
Think about how this must have appeared to the crowd. Without expending significant time or observable energy, Jesus somehow generated an enormous quantity of food. Just transforming five loaves into twelve baskets of bread would have been a huge deal in itself, but that’s merely what’s left over after the multitude ate and was satisfied. How did Jesus do it? He didn’t wear out any equipment. He didn’t plant any seed—always an inherently risky venture, because seed can be eaten instead of planted, and once in the ground may or may not bring forth a good yield. Neither did he reap a crop, grind grain, or knead and bake dough. The bread simply appeared as he willed it to.
Imagine what a civilization could do if it had not just a food surplus, but an unlimited supply of work-free food! Think of the possibilities for advancement in art, literature, architecture, science!
And if you are a tiny nation oppressed by a conquering empire, and if your sustainable energy source—your anthropomorphic arc reactor technology, let us say—has been foretold by the prophets and anointed by God himself…well! Think of the power of your revolution! Watch out, Rome, it’s about to get real.
But wait! Not only can your uber-guy produce unlimited supplies of food, but he can also heal the sick! Your wounded soldiers will be instantly returned to service, no worse for wear! Your army is proof against both siege and assault. That alone makes it well-nigh unstoppable. And that’s not even counting any other superpowers Jesus may have up his sleeve. If he can do all this, imagine what’ll happen when you put a weapon in his hand!
The significance of all this is easily lost on twenty-first century Americans. Our economy is such that we see little connection between our labor (such as it is) and the food we eat. The expenditure of energy goes through a lot of intermediary channels between our jobs and our food supply, and most of us have far more than enough anyway. If someone presented me with twelve baskets full of bread fragments, I would be frantically visualizing my limited freezer space and wondering how we would ever finish it all before it went bad. Not so for a first-century working-class Israelite. Abraham’s descendants remembered how God fed their ancestors with manna in the wilderness when they were too nomadic, and too stuck in a desert, to cultivate grain. God had supplied their lack by a completely supernatural, previously unheard-of means: bread from heaven itself. It didn’t grow on any plant of the field; it just appeared on the ground, ready to eat as-is or be baked or otherwise cooked as the people pleased.
By producing bread out of almost nowhere, Jesus did essentially the same thing, only more so. What an unmistakable mark of authority from on high! No wonder some of the men present said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world. No wonder they decided to take him by force and make him king.
It’s easy to criticize Jesus’s contemporaries for not getting it, for expecting a tangible political redemption and not perceiving that Jesus was accomplishing much more. This is the historian’s fallacy, blaming the decision-makers of the past for failing to perceive things that seem obvious from our retrospective vantage point. The truth is, political redemption was a pretty reasonable thing for them to expect, because that was the shape their redemption had always taken in the past. Certainly the prophets gave indications of greater things to come, but a game-changer this big takes time to sink in.
Through a clever game of evasion, Jesus escapes the zealous king-making crowd. Eventually they do catch up with him, and he addresses them. And boy, do they get an earful.
Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.
Labour not for the meat which perisheth–the stuff that fills the children’s bellies and provides a layer of protection against social and political chaos, or seems to; the stuff of prosperity and stability. This is an extraordinary thing to say. To “labour not” is to invite famine and dearth.
Perhaps wondering what possible alternative there could be, the people ask Jesus, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?
Jesus answers, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.
This is the crux of the matter. The work of God is believing on the one he has sent. Not generating an endless food surplus or making a king of a guy who can; not stockpiling weapons or righteous deeds. Believing on Jesus. The only “work” that Jesus calls “the work of God” is an act of faith.
Does this sound too easy? Easy or not, people fail at it. Most of Jesus’s listeners at the time did. First they hedged by asking, What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat. (Notice how they still can’t get away from the word “work.”)
Jesus answers, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.
The true bread from heaven—the bread of God—is no mere physical substance, but a person, body and soul, who gives life unto the world.
A long back-and-forth follows, with the crowd getting increasingly irritated by Jesus’s insistence that rather than being merely the source of the bread of life, he is the bread of life.
It finally comes to this.
I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
This is understandably disturbing. I wouldn’t fault any earnest disciple for asking Jesus for clarification. He’s spoken in figures of speech before, and he’s always explained himself to those who made sincere inquiries. He’s a teacher, after all. Maybe the Twelve do ask for clarification later; John doesn’t say. But the crowd at large evidently doesn’t. After some more back-and-forth in a similar vein, many of his disciples–not the Twelve, but actual followers of Jesus, not random lookers-on–say, This is an hard saying; who can hear it?
Then Jesus asks, Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before? It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.
Jesus isn’t talking about some crude cannibalistic ritual. It is the spirit that quickeneth. His words have import beyond the physical.
From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.
Among those who remain are the Twelve. Were they quicker on the uptake than those who left? Perhaps they were just as puzzled as the deserters about all this eat-my-flesh-and-drink-my-blood business but had sufficient faith in Jesus to believe that whatever he meant, he’s right, because he is who he is.
Then said Jesus unto the twelve, will ye also go away?
There are no words for the poignancy of this question, or of Peter’s reply.
Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art Christ, the Son of the living God.
Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he said that the work of God was to believe on the one he had sent? This is faith not just in his food-generating abilities or his healing powers, but in him. This is the way to partake of the bread of life. This is the work of God.