Who doesn’t like free stuff? My mother loved every discount she was entitled to, and I certainly take advantage of my military discount when available. Although I wouldn’t compare our desire for shopping discounts with the need for food the people in first century Palestine may have encountered. Would you keep coming back to a place that offered a meal every day? How about free clothing? Or a free house? I maintain that free stuff not only has always been appealing but may hurt us more than help us.

In the Gospel of John, chapter six, Jesus uncovers a hidden problem behind our free-stuff desires. Out of sympathy for one of the large crowds that followed him Jesus takes a few items of food and multiples them. Five-thousand people get their fill. The miracle inspires a movement to anoint Jesus as king, but he leaves and travels to another location.

However, at this new location, Jesus encounters many of the same people he fed the day before. We want to believe that Jesus welcomes these followers, but instead he reveals and criticizes a spiritual fault line. Jesus says, you’ve only followed because I gave you free food yesterday. I am paraphrasing of course, but Jesus gets right to the heart of their motivation: they are driven strictly by their physical need.

This crowd has not retained the lessons learned in Israel’s forty-year sojourn in the desert. Moses’ taught them to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:2-3). The deprivation they endured in the desert was meant to open their eyes to what truly gave them life. It was a lesson Jesus repeated to Satan when tempted to eat after 40 days of fasting (Matthew 4:1-4).

Perhaps we understand the single-minded motivation of Jesus’ followers and even sympathize with their impulse; everyone needs to eat. We too can be driven by the survival instinct, and the thought of free stuff provides an extra incentive to put out only a minimum of effort. Today, government handouts, though important for the neediest and weakest among us, have captivated many and destroyed the ambition to provide for themselves. Why work when someone else gives you stuff for free?

Jesus’ comments go deeper than the issue of depending on someone else to take care of us. We fail to comprehend what really gives us life. He says, “Don’t work for food that perishes but for the food that lasts for eternal life,” (John 6:27). Thus, these followers have been sidetracked by their physical appetites; they’ve failed to discern their true source of life.

We make the same mistake when we fail to comprehend our deepest need for spiritual sustenance. It’s what Jesus meant in Matthew 6:33 where he taught us not worry about what we will eat, drink, or wear, but rather we should seek first the kingdom of God. Life is more than food or clothing.

Jesus told the crowd, “For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” He also says, “I am the bread of life,” (John 6: 33, 35). Don’t be fooled by the offer of free stuff; it isn’t free; it enslaves us and blinds us to our real need. Work for the bread that endures to eternal life.

Video Conversation on John 6: https://youtu.be/3RQMMIUzIfY