We all are oblivious from time to time, either missing what is right in front of our faces or forgetting the obvious that we should already know so well. We like to imagine that we are perceptive, but far too often our own preconceptions blind us to the reality that presents itself in unfamiliar ways.
The term oblivious has an interesting etymology, coming from the Latin obliviosus, which itself comes from oblivion, entailing the state or act of forgetting. (The English term oblivion is derived from this through the Old French word of the same meaning.) Oblivio as a term is formed etymologically from oblitus (by means of oblivisci) which, while carrying the connotation of “forget,” originally meant to “to even out or smooth over,” There is even a hint of “to efface” in oblitus.
Thus, while in modern parlance oblivious carries more the idea of simply not paying attention or being unaware, even in the more modern sense we still latently retain this original meaning.
After all, the reason we are often so oblivious to what should be obvious is that we all construct matrices of perception through which we apprehend and understand the world around us, with boxes of categories into which we try to make everything fit. It is often not that we don’t notice the unexpected, but rather that it has no ready-made place within our pre-defined understanding.
As such it can be either thrown away (into oblivion?) in the act of being oblivious, or “smoothed-over” to fit into an already defined category.
Very rarely are we willing to expand our field of view to accept that which doesn’t already fit.
In the Gospel reading last week was the followup in John 6 to the recounting of Jesus’ feeding the five thousand. To be honest, I have always found this section a little perplexing, especially the crowd’s response to Jesus, both in their actions and words. But when understood in terms of humanity’s propensity to consign the unexpected to oblivion, it begins to not only make sense, but can hit far too close to home.
Jesus had just performed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, and apparently the crowd initially understood this miracle as a miracle, since they declared him the Prophet whom Moses foretold and would have forced kingship upon him has he not withdrawn from their presence. The import of this miracle, at first glance, would seem to suggest that they understood the implications of what John calls “the sign Jesus performed,” but- as will soon become clear- they really missed it altogether.
The following day the crowd journeys to the other side of the lake to find Jesus, and when they do they ask him:
“Rabbi, when did you get here?”
This seems like a perfectly innocent question, but the intention behind it is actually provided a few verses before:
“The next day the crowd that had stayed on the opposite shore of the lake realized that only one boat had been there, and that Jesus had not entered it with his disciples, but that they had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.”
The seemingly throw-away phrase about the boats from Tiberias is important, since John’s implication here is that news about Jesus’ miracle of feeding the five thousand has spread, and people from all over the area are coming to see him. Once they realize Jesus and his disciples are no longer there, they go looking for him again.
After all, everyone loves a spectacle, especially when it is accompanied by free stuff.
It is in this context that Jesus responds, in which he precisely discerns their motives:
“Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
The reason they came to find him (and managed to bring others along) seems to be not because they found him to be an insightful teacher or even that he might be the Prophet Moses prophesied about, but rather because he gave them food. Granted, no one is a single motivation, and no doubt mixed in with the excitement over finding someone who could seemingly bring forth bread from nothing was the wonder and mystery os this man who might be the promised One.
As will be seen, this particular sign put Jesus into the company of Moses, and was no doubt intended to be indicative of the miracle of the manna from heaven. For the Hebrews of old and the Jews of Jesus’ time, this was a definitive event which formed a certain cultural ethos. It wasn’t just because Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand was an impressive miracle that they wanted to make him king; rather, it was because of the cultural and prophetic milieu in which it occurred. Moses had been the definitive leader of Jewish history, and many no doubt saw in the moment of Jesus’ sign here an indication that he was the prophet about whom Moses spoke, and thus the leader who would fulfill all the promises of the Law and the Prophets.
However, sometimes our preconceptions can cause us to miss what is there right in front of our faces.
When Jesus confronts them with their actual motivation for seeking him out, they seem to avoid the implication and try to deflect its pointedness by asking a seemingly pious question:
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Which, of course, is a perfectly reasonable and pious question, and no doubt intermingled in there is some sincerity. After all, if Jesus is the prophet Moses spoke of, then part of his role is to lead the people in their collective relationship with God. Moses, it will be remembered, was the one who gave them the Law; here the people seem to be thinking that Jesus- if he really is the Prophet– is likewise going to be the one to take up the mantle of Moses and usher in a new Law.
Nor would this be something out of the blue; Jeremiah, for example, prophesied that the new law would be written on the hearts of the people, and others like Isaiah and Ezekiel spoke of similar things in reference to the Messiah.
Jesus is actually about to give them the new Law, but it is nothing like they expect.
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
As revered as Moses was, he was- in the end- great because he was an instrument of God to make known his will to the people and to deliver the Law to them. The crowds here are expecting something similar of Jesus, but instead of locating the Law external to himself, he states that the work of God (that is, the following the Law ) is identical to believing in the one whom God has sent. In other words, the new law that is to be written on the hearts of the people is to believe in Jesus.
It is here that the narrative gets a little tricky.
Initially after the miracle, it seemed that the crowds were more than willing to accept the feeding of the five thousand as a sign. After all, they wondered aloud if Jesus were the Prophet, expected that he would be a new Moses to give them a new Law, and even tried to make him king by force.
But once Jesus confronts them with their double-mindedness and baser motivations, the sign they were so eager to accept all of sudden takes on a more mundane quality:
So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
I have always found this a little perplexing, since they seemed to initially accept the sign, but then ask for another one, almost pretending that the previous sign wasn’t one. But the more I have puzzled over this, and the more I have taken stock of my own double-mindedness and lack of faith, the more it begins to not only make sense, but accurately describes our normal obliviousness.
The miracle in its initial perception checked off all the boxes on what was expected of the Messiah. Jesus performed a sign that was- it would seem- unmistakably linked to the miracle of the manna from heaven, which clearly associated Jesus with Moses and seemed to be a slam-dunk as far as him being the Prophet Moses prophesied about.
And let’s be honest- any time things go right for us or we are provided with something that costs us nothing, it can make it effortless to believe it or go along. It can be a confirmation of what we already believe, even if it is not what we expect. In fact, we can be oblivious to counter-factuals as long as there is enough confirmation of what we already want to believe.
But once Jesus stepped outside of their expectations and paradigms by making the sign about him, and specifically by making the new Law completely about him, the sign lost its luster, becoming any other ordinary miracle. Impressive? Sure. A signifier of something more? Eh, maybe not so much.
Now that Jesus had run afoul of their preconceptions, he has to prove himself, even though the day before they were more than willing to believe him. Moses, they say, gave them bread from heaven. What will you do?
And so they have turned from a willingness to believe as long as Jesus stayed in their paradigms, to forcing him into a game of one-upmanship with Moses. If Moses gave them bread from heaven, Jesus has to at least do the same; although, since he already did that, they are really implying that he needs to do something greater, something flashier, something bigger that will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they should believe he is who he says he is.
But Jesus avoids such a fruitless exercise and has to correct a theological error on their part:
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe.”
In the remainder of this discourse Jesus demonstrates that he was indeed correct about their primary motivations. The tried to mask it under pious questions and bad theologizing, but in the end their desire for Jesus was not for his sake but because he gave them bread to eat and they had their fill.
Nor is the problem necessarily in this material motivation alone, because we humans are not just one motivation. Rather, the problem was that they had made this motivation the driving paradigm through which they viewed their faith, and through which they were expecting the Messiah.
It is, of course, easy to scoff at such seemingly backward rubes who missed the very one they had been longing for when he was standing right in front of them. And, let us not forget, he pulled off some impressive miracles which would surely convince any one that he was who he said he was.
But the reality is that the motives and preconceptions of the crowd in this narrative are precisely like the motives and preconceptions that all humans have, even we moderns who have the benefit of hindsight.
Bread might seem a base and pathetic motive, but if we substituted any other material thing we would find ourselves just as easily implicated as well, perhaps even more quickly.
For most of us, our lives are consumed with the world and its desires, and any time we are confronted with things that reinforce whatever we already believe (or want to believe) we are quick to latch on to them. By the same token, when things are asked of us that we don’t expect or that don’t fit into our paradigms, we are equally quick to demand proof, even from God.
We even engage in the same one-upmanship. Something terrible happens in our lives, and no matter how many blessings we have experienced, no matter how many times God may have intervened in the past, we still tend to stop and demand to know why. We ask for a sign that God is still with us, which oh-so-conveniently almost always coincides with him doing the very thing we want him to do.
But it is never enough, and it never will be enough, because- as Jesus demonstrates in this story- the signs that God provides are not found in the material things that we tend to focus on, but are found in the One he has sent.
Often we wonder why God just doesn’t reveal himself in some extreme way, by means of something so unmistakable that everyone would have no choice but to fall on their knees and believe. The problem is that as this narrative indicates, even when God does reveal himself in unmistakable ways, we are often too oblivious to see them. And even worse, when God starts to step outside of our preconceptions we can all too easily rationalize the unmistakable away.
As the etymology of oblivious indicates, we like to smooth over the sharp corners that jut into our lives, which probably more often than not are God’s way of trying to break into our hearts. But as our doubts and our rationalizations and our disbelief wear them down to nothing, we can just as easily forget, until what once had a certain clarity just sort of melts into background.
This is precisely why Jesus says that “as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe.”
St. Augustine captures and concludes the dynamic of this entire passage thusly:
It is as if he said, “You seek me to satisfy the flesh, not the Spirit.” How many seek Jesus for no other objective than to get some kind of temporal benefit! One has a business that has run into problems, and he seeks the intercession of the clergy; another is oppressed by someone more powerful than himself, and he flies to the church. Another desires intervention with someone over whom he has little influence. One person wants this, another person wants that.
The church is filled with these kinds of people! Jesus is scarcely sought after for his own sake… Here too he says, you seek me for something else; seek me for my own sake. (St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John)