By: Rev. Paul Scalia
“Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a multitude was coming to him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?'” (Jn 6:5)
Philip and the other Apostles must have been frustrated with the situation — perhaps even with our Lord. They were in “a lonely place” (Mt 14:13). It was because of Him that the crowds had followed them out there, seemingly without a thought about provisions. And He had indulged their lack of planning, allowing them to follow, and responding to their desire for teaching and healing. They were sure to grow hungry and the Apostles, known as our Lord’s closest followers, would feel some responsibility. And now Jesus asks the question that the Apostles must have wanted to ask Him: “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”
The Evangelist gives us some insight to the purpose of the Lord’s frustrating question. Jesus asks it “to test [Philip], because He Himself knew what he was going to do” (Jn 6:6). But what exactly is the test in this situation? And…how do we pass it?
“How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” The question brings Philip and, through him, the rest of the Apostles face to face with their own inadequacy. They have no way to answer the need. Philip sees it immediately: “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little” (Jn 6:7). Andrew exacerbates the sense of helplessness with good news that is not good enough: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” (Jn 6:9) The Apostles, practical men with jobs, businesses, and responsibilities, were accustomed to getting things done and meeting the needs of the situation. Now they had to acknowledge their powerlessness.
This, then, is the first part of the “test” — to acknowledge our own limits and inadequacy. At the root of all sin is the ultimate “do it yourself” mentality, the desire to be like God on our own terms (cf. Gen 3:4). We echo that same rebellion, thinking we are in control and sufficient. We have delusions of adequacy. Inevitably, however, we encounter a situation — a difficulty in ourselves, in the family, at work, etc. — that brings our inadequacy into stark relief. Then our Lord’s question — “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” — comes to us. Then we realize that we do not have what it takes, that a particular situation is beyond us to address. Then we must recognize our insufficiency and by so doing grow in humility.
But if we stop there, things seem pretty grim. We have to proceed to the second part of our Lord’s test. Our Lord “knew what He was going to do.” In other words, He asks the question in order to reveal not only Philip’s (and our) inadequacy, but also His own power. In response to the apostolic powerlessness, Jesus works a miracle that does more than merely assist them or compensate for their weakness. He takes their insufficiency itself and, with it, creates an abundance.
So also for us, our weakness is only half of the equation. God’s superabundance is the necessary other half. If He, at times, makes our weakness clear, He does so not to discourage us, but to invite us to trust in Him. The recognition of our weakness ought to lead us to greater trust in His power to accomplish more than we can hope or imagine.
“How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” This question provides the answer to our frustration and despondence in the face of difficulties. Why has God put this before me? Why does He ask this of me? How can I possibly do what He asks? He allows us to face such challenges not so that we can stoically endure or muscle through. It is, rather, so that we can — by way of our inadequacy — learn to trust Him. It is so that we can hand over what little we have and allow Him to create from it an abundance.
This is the sixth of seven posts that will take up some questions of God that satisfy more than the answers of man.