Parent, Don’t Treat the Bread of Life Like Green Beans
My heritage prepared me well to hear that Jesus is the bread of life (John 6). My family is Italian. Along with a spaghetti sauce recipe, I inherited some choice phrases. “Mangia! Mangia, perche fa bene!” is a favorite. It means “Eat! Eat, because it’s good.” I remember other kids saying their parents guilted them with “There are starving kids in China, you know?” Others with more health-conscious parents heard “Eat because it’s good for you.” But each night I heard pure hedonism. “Eat. It’s good.” End of discussion.
Over the course of fifty-nine verses we are told the same about Jesus: to eat him for no other reason than his goodness. He is better than meals of bread and fish that leave us hungry in the morning because he is the Bread of Life. And just like Jesus knew that food could point to something as weighty as the divine, parents should know that how we get our kids to eat their green beans points beyond dinner time to the hopes and fears that animate our parenting.
Jesus’ audience was full of hope and fear. They were on the cusp of Passover (6:2). Their imaginations filled with the hope that God could topple Caesar like he had once toppled Pharaoh, while in their empty bellies they feared their children would always be enslaved to Rome’s power.
Throughout history parents have feared most the things we cannot control: whether our kids live or die physically, and whether our kids live or die spiritually.
For Israel, both the spiritual and the physical were bound up in their nation. Israel’s prophets had promised a future when no child would go hungry and all sons and daughters would worship God (Deut 28:1, Joel 2:28-32). So when Jesus performed this miracle of feeding five thousand men and their families with twelve baskets of leftovers (John 6:11-12), the twelve-tribed crowd cashed out all that patriotic zeal it had saved during years of oppression and attempted to take Jesus by force and make him king (John 6:14)! To them, Jesus would finally secure the spiritual and physical safety they have been denied under Rome.
But Jesus walked away (6:15). He refused to be king of those desires.
For some of us, the spiritual and physical are still bound up in our nation. We think that if the American experiment could just get back to the way it was, our kids would be praying in schools and the job market will recover by the time they get there. We try to force Jesus on the executive branch of government like those ancient crowds tried to force Jesus to be king.
But more commonly, around our dinner tables, we assume our children’s safety and spirituality fall on us. Frenzied, we bark guilt, shame, and disappointment like a machine gun hoping to mow down disobedience, rebellion, and laziness before it takes root. Then, just like those crowds attempted to do, we raise Jesus’ standard in our parental crusade, parading Bible verses around our cause.
But now, just like then, Jesus seems to walk away.
Jesus walked away from those would-be king-makers because their agenda was not his agenda. They wanted a victorious king, but he came to be a suffering servant.
We’re not so different. We want to be victorious parents, sovereigns in our home. In our desperation to keep control in the face of tyrannical toddle-thru-teenage-dom we begin to contradict the reason Jesus came. Jeff Vanderstelt says that parents often assume that the effects of sin will eventually make righteous kids. We assume that through leveraging guilt, shame and disappointment we can pry from our children obedience, honesty, and a decent work ethic.
But that is not how Jesus saves. That is not why he came. That is not why he became bread.
He made bread to reveal himself as the only bread, the only agenda, the only message, the only way parents need. In total contradiction to the expectations of fathers and mothers, ancient and modern, the “bread” we need is not a “what” but a “who.”
“The bread that comes from heaven is he who comes down from heaven.” (6:33).
Just like God sent manna to provide in the desert, there is a new manna from heaven, a “he” who will always provide what we need. Whether from hunger or parental exhaustion, we should cry out “Sir, give us this bread always” (6:34).
Jesus will not be a means to an end. He will not be our ticket to pantries full of bread, and well-behaved, well-adjusted, college-bound kids. His provision is not in what he provides, but who he is.
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (6:35-36).
The unexpected promise is that a consistent diet of Jesus is what our kids need most. And like the disciples say, “this is a hard saying.” It feels risky to let go of the behavior modification we mistake for parenting and feed our children only Jesus. To read Bible stories, to pray without ceasing, and to repent of our sins and failures in front of them seem trivial and insufficient when your son comes home smelling like pot, or your three-year-old is throwing his 100thtantrum of the day., just as “eating Jesus” must have seemed like a non-answer to thousands of hungry bellies under Roman cruelty.
And that’s exactly why this was and remains a hard saying. Jesus as he is, not as we expect, is enough for us. Jesus, like my childhood spaghetti, is good. End of discussion.
That means successful parenting is not going to bed on time having eaten X number of vegetables. It’s offering Jesus as often as we offer the salt. It’s praising Jesus as often as we praise Mom’s cooking. It’s treating Jesus like kids treat dessert. Successful parenting is eating and drinking, serving and pouring Jesus in our homes.
On a totally unrelated point, I was very chubby as a child. And I still cringe when I think about my Mom asking for “husky” sizes from the back when the ones on the rack wouldn’t fit. But as I said – totally unrelated.