Misunderstanding Signs

Posted August 5, 2018 2:27 pm by Fr. Nick Meisl

Misunderstanding Signs

Year C, 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time | John 6:24-35

Think of an engagement ring. What is better, the ring, or what that ring symbolizes? Certainly, the physical ring is good, but we would all probably agree that what the ring symbolizes is better. The most important thing is that an engagement ring is sign of the love and commitment of the couple. That said, it is easy focus on the good thing rather than on the better thing. In today’s Gospel (John 6:24-35), we find Jesus correcting people for focusing on the externals of a sign – the good thing – rather than what the sign represents – the better thing. It is as though they want the engagement ring and not what the ring symbolizes!

Jesus Teaches the People by the Sea, J. Tissot [public domain, Wikimedia Commons]

The concept of “sign” is of fundamental importance in the Gospel of John. A sign is some miraculous action of Jesus that reveals a heavenly truth Jesus has come to transmit. While the miraculous action is something good, the divine truth is something better(1). The importance of signs is evident in the very structure of the Gospel as it can be divided into two parts: the Book of Signs (1:19 to 12:50) and the Book of Glory (13:1 to 20:31). In the Book of Signs, we find seven miraculous actions of Jesus. In the Book of Glory, we find the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, an event which, in its totality, is often viewed as the eight sign in the Gospel. In the Book of Signs, each sign follows a familiar pattern. The sixth chapter of John, from which today’s Gospel is taken, describes one such sign and follows the characteristic pattern neatly. First, Jesus works a miraculous action. This is the external, visible, aspect of the sign. It is something good. We heard about this last Sunday when Jesus multiplied loaves and fish and fed a multitude (John 6:1-15). Next, the people for whom Jesus worked the sign fail to understand its significance. They focus on the physical aspect of what Jesus has done only. This misunderstanding then gives Jesus the opportunity to enter into dialogue with the people and explain the significance of the sign that he has worked. Invariably, he tries to convince the people that what the sign represents is something better than the miraculous action he has worked.

In today’s Gospel, we find that the people have misunderstood the sign that Jesus performed and search after what is good while ignoring what is better. Going back to our previous analogy, the people want the engagement ring and not what the ring symbolizes. After Jesus feeds the people and departs, they go in search of him. When he is ultimately found in Capernaum, Jesus chastises the people for their lack of understanding. They followed him because they want more bread. They fail to grasp the divine truth the sign represents. We should not be too hard on the people in the Gospel. The physical bread that people want is something good. Since for many of us bread is a simple and easily available food, it is easy to lose sight of this fact.  An experience a few years ago helped me understand the importance of bread at the time of Jesus. At the time, I was spending a couple of months studying modern Hebrew in Jerusalem in a class of mostly Arab students, both Christian and Muslim. At the end of the program, we had a party and everyone brought in some food. One of my classmates, a young Muslim woman, brought flatbread that was freshly baked. It was warm and delicious! After we tried some of the bread, she proudly showed pictures of how the bread was made. Her mother had woken up at about 4 am to prepare and cook the bread over a charcoal fire. The class was struck by the act of the kindness the student’s mother had done for us. Her gift helps me understand the the action of the people in the Gospel. Bread took some work to make, even when the basic ingredients were on hand. If someone were to provide you with an abundance of bread, you would realize that they cared for you. It is only natural that they would come back to Jesus for more bread!
The bread!
Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the people, while a good thing, symbolizes a divine truth that is more important. In the Gospel, Jesus seizes upon the misunderstanding of the people and tries to convince them that the sign of the multiplication of the loaves represents something better: Jesus himself is the bread of life. Later in this chapter, Jesus will explain to the people two ways in which he is the bread of life. First, Jesus is the bread of life because his teaching nourishes and gives life like bread (6:35-50). Second, Jesus is the bread of life in the Eucharist, which is the very gift of himself (6:51-58). In today’s Gospel, Jesus tries to convince the people the people to come to him not because he can give them physical bread whenever they want, but because he is the bread of life. Going back to our analogy, this great truth is what the engagement ring symbolizes. It is the better thing.

The Gospel challenges us to come to Mass for the right reasons. This is because at every Mass, we receive Jesus the bread of life both in his teachings we hear in the readings and in the Eucharist. This is the better thing. Like the people in the Gospel that only want physical bread from Jesus, we can come to Mass for the lesser reasons and motivations, looking for something other than the bread of life. We can come because we feel obligated or because we like seeing certain people or simply out of a sense of habit. Although many of our reasons for coming to Mass are good and even though it is preferable to come to Mass for ambiguous motivations than not at all, if we come for the the better reason, namely, to receive Jesus the bread of life, we will probably get more out of Mass. Purifying our motivations for coming to Mass has the added benefit that it helps us put external and secondary things in their proper perspective. There is no Mass at any Church in the world that is done perfectly and according to everyone’s taste. We will always find something that makes the experience of the Mass less than optimal. Maybe the Church is too hot or someone beside us is singing out of tune or perhaps the music, liturgical style and preaching is not to our liking. When we get distracted by these considerations, it can be helpful to remind ourselves why we come to Mass. We are here to receive Jesus the bread of life in his word and in the Eucharist. It might be helpful to do some simple things to reenforce in ourselves a proper motivation for coming to Mass. For example, we could take a look at the readings of Mass before coming. We could try to pay especially close attention to the words and actions of the Mass or participate more in the singing and responses. Or, maybe we could say a simple prayer before Mass starts: “Jesus, I have come here for you”.

Just as the people in the Gospel are corrected by Jesus for focusing on the good, but external aspects of a sign (bread) rather than the better, divine truth it represented (Jesus is the bread of life), the Gospel today challenges us to ensure we come to Mass for the right reasons. Going back to our analogy, today is a chance to evaluate whether we we are focused on the engagement ring or what it represents. We would do well to ask ourselves two simply questions. Why are you here at Mass now now? What can you do to make sure the reason you come is to receive Jesus the bread of life in the word and sacrament?

1) For further discussion, see Brown, Raymond. An Introduction to the Gospel of John (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 80-81.

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