Text- John 6: 1-15, 25-40.
Jesus feeding the Five Thousand is there in all the 4 Gospels. But the setting and intention in John is different in comparison to the Synoptic Gospels. There is a context of Passover that sets the framework of liberation to the entire text. The Geographical Location of the crowd is on the Other side of the Sea Of Galilee or the Sea Of Tiberias. This says something about the crowd as Tiberias was the major urban centre along the lake. The city was named after Emperor Tiberius and founded by Herod Antipas in about A.D. 19. It is said that the city was built on a graveyard and therefore Jews refused to settle in this city as contact with the dead made people unclean according to the Jewish Law. Therefore, to find residents for his new city, Herod freed slaves and offered free land and house to those who would settle there. He also built a synagogue but the ‘City of Graveyard’ was the label that city of Tiberias had to carry. The Roman rulers used to placate their vassal states by providing free bread to the people. The people were dependent on this act of charity from rulers. As the crowd is the focus of our meditation, the brief background of the crowd will help us deal with the text keeping the focus on the crowd.
When Jesus saw the crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat? (vs 5). What is interesting is Philip’s reaction to deal with the crowd. “Six Month’s wages would not buy enough bread for these people to eat” (vs 7). We see that His approach was to calculate the enormity of the crowd in monetary terms to dismiss the crowd and their needs. While Andrew searched for a possibility of gathering resources but could only get a boy with five barley loaves and two fish. Andrew tried to solve the problem with available resources but knew that the resources to feed the crowd were meager. But Jesus seeing these responses was not overwhelmed by the Crowd. He made them sit down. Vs 11 is the key of the passage which says “Then Jesus took the loaves and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.” What is very interesting is that Apostle in his emphasis has highlighted the act of Jesus giving thanks taking the loaves and fish. In Vs 23 it says “ Then some boats from Tiberias came where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.” The description does not say “The place where the Lord fed the five thousand” but “The place where they had eaten bread after the Lord had given thanks.” So I assume the Apostle was emphasizing on the formation of a crowd that was transformed into a sharing community through the sacramental act of Eucharist or Thanksgiving. The author assumes the miracle of feeding the five thousand with Five Loaves of barley and two fish but he does not stress on the miracle aspect unlike what we find in the Synoptic Gospels. Seeing the provision of bread in abundance provoked the people to make Jesus the King as for them, those who provide bread for free are the rulers. Jesus resisted this attempt. John 6: 25-40 Jesus makes a binary with the earthly bread that perishes with the Body of Jesus which was presented as a “Bread from heaven.” In vs 33 Jesus says “For the Bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” The emphasis is giving life which Jesus intended to do. When the Greeks came to seek him it is in this connection that Jesus said those famous words “I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24. So the understanding of Jesus of giving life is not giving bread alone but the need of incarnation into a situation that compels us to forego our ‘Self’ that refuses to die. Jesus challenged us to die to our own selfish needs and compulsions. It challenges us to be Life givers to vast section of people who live on bread without hope and community. Jesus became the Heavenly bread by espousing the biggest sacrifice that the Cross symbolizes. The resurrection gives us hope of bread that never spoils. So we see that the miracle was not Jesus feeding the Five thousand with Five loaves of Bread and two fish but that Jesus intended to tranform the crowd into a Ecclessial Community by offering himself as a bread to be broken for the World. Jesus presents himself as the bread that was ready to be broken for the Crowd to become a community. This Sacramental Discourse of Jesus at the same time is a mission mandate where he opens himself to be broken for the Jews and the Greeks alike.
In the North East of India there are gamut of issues and crisis. One of the most evident presence one sees is the presence of the so called “illegal immigrants”. The largest labour force is formed by these illegal immigrants. They have been accommodated in places like Dhubri , Kokhrajhar, Gossaingaon areas of Assam. Government settled them in areas notified as the land of Bodo Territorial Council. The recent ethnic violence in Assam was due to the contention of land and meager resources. These people have a very slave like existence and are deprived of all the human rights and sense of dignity. In most of the cities in the North East, they form a work force that is used as cheap labour. They live under sub-standard conditions and are paid way below the standard minimum wages. Successive governments and movements have treated them as non- entities or as the reason for dispute and disharmony. Their existences as humans are debunked. They too use their labour to win the bread. Bread is the centre of their existence. Successive governments too have only facilitated in providing them bread. Now major of the labour force in Kerala is from this section. The train from Guwahati to Trivandrum is full of these labourers. The Sleeper compartment will have 500 passengers instead of 72. One cannot imagine the conditions which they travel. When I was travelling by A.C. compartment, I ventured into one Sleeper compartment. I was shocked at the human conditions of people desperate for work and bread. When I came back to the A.C. compartment, I ordered for a specific menu. The man of the pantry told me “Sir that food is not for people like you. It is not cooked that well. We give it to the labourers in the sleeper compartment. Why don’t you order something different?” I was shocked at the gross distinction that was being made of humans. Outside the precincts of Guwahati, these people are accomodated in Labour Camps which has the feel of a ghetto. It is also used as a social marker of these dispossessed people. These very people are working on a Church project at my parsonage in Guwahati. All the boys working are between 17-20. One thing that strikes is none of the boys give eye contact and are very uncomfortable in my presence. Their identity, self esteem and dignity have been crushed under the cruelties of life. Noor Ahmed, one of the laborers confided that “ I come from a family of Imams and my father is a Haji as he has gone to Haj. But the 1998 flood devastated us and our 15 acres of land was swallowed by the Brahmaputra River. I was studying in standard 10. After the flood I came to Guwahati from Dhubri and worked day in and day out and learnt to be a maistry as we had lost everything. But once the building is built or a house is built, we are scared to enter into these homes. We are unwanted.” Church here has a lesson to learn from the Example of Jesus. When the expectation of the crowd is to be fulfilled of the needs of the bread, We have to strive for a Eucharistic community where we offer ourselves as bread. Church has to think of new outreach strategies that that transform the crowd into a community. Church at times deals with the Crowd like Philip by seeing people and their needs only in monetary terms. Or at best we try to be like Andrew who searches for resources just to fix a problem. But Jesus was not just interested in satisfying the physical needs of the people. He sees the importance of Bread that satisfies physical hunger. But Jesus was interested in the identity formation of the crowd that formed them into a community by displaying love on the Cross like a grain of wheat ready to die to give life to many.
Let me conclude with my observations of the Northeast India. Work among the natives, among the tribals has been espoused at length. But in the context of huge migrational displacements, the existence of the illegal migrants has not been engaged with. The issues of justice and peace can only be dealt when Church has a policy or a mission strategy that strives for the rights of the so called illegal migrants. Here we need to dare to go beyond the compulsions of geo-politics and religion. The educational status of these people is abysmal which keeps them in the vortex of poverty and exploitation. They are also easily manipulated on communal lines as the discontent and drudgery of living everyday is a fact. It is the truth of National framework that has termed them as “Illegal”. We need to overcome that blindfold to accept them as humans. Talking to the labourers working on daily wages reveals that the government schools are the only source for education. The bias of teachers against the migrants denies them of quality education which leads to huge rate of school drop outs. So from then on they have believed that they are only fit to be labourers to earn bread. Ali, a painter by profession said “I went to school only till standard 4. Teachers always said we are not fit for studies. So I realized that there is no use studying. I started working from the age of 9.”
Today the xenophobia of the local communities has forced the migrants to have artificial communities in ghettoes based on striving for bread and the struggle for self preservation. When church produces a community that is committed to die for these brethrens of theirs so that they may have life and a meaningful community, then and only then can we pray “God of Life, Lead us to Justice and Peace.” Or else the symbol of Cross is a scandal that will judge our hypocrisy and fashionable slogans. May God of life lead us to be breads that feed the hopeless life of many a crowd to justice and peace.
Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Church
(Readers I am aware of my naivity in regards to a complex topic. It is out of my personal struggles with my encounters with these labourers that I have written this. I am also aware that my tone is one that is patronizing)