Sometimes when I read (especially) the Gospel of John, I notice with discomfort that Jesus often does not answer the questions asked of him. In John 6:26, he responds to the question, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (to the other side of the Sea of Galilee) with the answer, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me not because you saw the signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” The answer that is no answer. The answer that redirects.
At the beginning of John 6, Jesus feeds the 5,000. His disciples then get in the boat for a night-time crossing of the sea, whereupon they see Jesus walking on the water. Then we come to this interchange as people figure out that Jesus is gone and they want to find him.
So, why does Jesus bluntly redirect the questioners’ question? One answer: they’re missing the point. Feeding the 5,000 was a sign of God’s presence, not just a meal (John is a good one for talking about those signs). The people seeking Jesus are latching on to him, evidently, because of the good stuff he did for them: “Maybe he’s a prophet or something. We’d better stick close to see what else he’ll do for us.” It is a way of following Jesus, all right.
A case of mixed motives again? These folks felt excited about Jesus. That’s good. But excited about what? It’s not about the bread, but about the Bread of Heaven.
The tricky part about mixed motives: many of them – considered on their own – are quite legitimate. But when laid next to the deeper realities to which Jesus points, they start to compete. “You are looking for me not because of the signs…but because you ate your fill.” Jesus, who knows all people’s hearts, discerns the mixed motives and points out the problem so that those who seek him can know their own hearts and make the appropriate response.
Why do I follow Jesus? Is it because of the cool things he does for me, or I’ve seen him do for others? Is it because I find my life seems to have more significance because of him? “My day just seems to go better” when I spend time in prayer with him (“go better” according to what principles of judgment?)?” Yes, yes and yes. These things are all true. But notice the focus: me.
I need constantly to check my motives, not in order to be picky and self-critical, not to deny legitimate desires, but to check to see if my heart aligns with The One. Not just the bread, but the signs.