So, those who have heard me preach often or speak about the Gospels will know that one of the problems contemporary Christianity has is the distance or inability for modern-day Christians to appreciate what is happening oftentimes in scripture. Usually, this is most clearly seen in the Gospel parables when, because we’ve heard them a million times or because we don’t really understand the images, relationships, or history of the examples, we miss the actual point that Jesus was conveying and that the Gospel writers were passing on to us. Such is, I suspect, the case again this weekend with the readings from Exodus (16:2-4, 12-15) and the Gospel of John (6:24-35).
In order to help us “get it,” I want to share with you one of the most significant works of fiction that has been published in the last thirty years, a book of tremendous importance: If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff. Now, in my homily this weekend I actually read the very short book, but because I cannot reproduce the entire text here, I encourage you to go check it out yourself.
There are many ways to understand the “point” or “moral” of this story about an insatiable mouse, a silent boy who tries his best to meet the mouse’s needs, and the disregard that the mouse exhibits in his constant desire to have more. But it is something of a combination of these three themes that play out strongly in the reading from Exodus with the grumbling of the people of Israel to Moses after they are led out of captivity and into the desert.
There are numerous clichéd sayings we can draw from to highlight what is happening here. The grass is always greener on the other side. Or, if you give them an inch, they’re take a yard. And so on. But what the story about giving a mouse a cookie and the story about the people in the Book of Exodus have in common is the lack of satisfaction that comes with the human (er… and mouse) condition.
It isn’t enough that the People of Israel have been freed from slavery, but now they’re grumbling about the lack of food. So dissatisfied are these people that they start to lament leaving the life of captivity, where “at least they got something to eat,” for the life of freedom that isn’t as easy as they had previously dreamed. They want more.
In this case, God gives them a cookie — the manna and quail. But, as the Book of Exodus will continue afterward, this doesn’t satisfy them for long.
Such is the case with us as well.
As human beings we seem to be insatiable when it comes to what we want and we can (a) never have enough and (b) always want more. Our popular culture plays into this and a whole marketing industry plays off of this inherent restlessness and hunger that we have for more.
We are sold many bills of goods that we are made to believe (or want to believe) will finally make us happy, whole, complete. Perhaps it’s the latest car or iPod or computer or vacation. It might something I’ve never even heard of, but something that some advertiser has creatively sold to you by drawing on this human weakness.
In the Gospel Jesus calls out the people who are following him on precisely this point: you don’t know what you want! He essentially tells them. They are following him not because of who he is or why he is among them, but because they get some sort of immediate need met (food in this case) and they want more.
He makes it clear that we will hunger and want for so many things that are perishable and ultimately unimportant in our lives, and those things will never satisfy us, we will still want a glass of milk or a straw or a nap or any of the many things the mouse demands after getting his cookie.
The answer to this problem, Jesus says, is God. The Bread of Life is not perishable, it is what is most important. It is only God that can satisfy our deepest longings, which we try to satiate with all sorts of material and fleeting things.
Perhaps instead of getting a cookie in the first place, we might focus more of our energy on our relationship with our Creator and live in such a way as to reflect that relationship in the rest of our lives. When we’ve got God, to borrow the famous Gershwin line from the song I Got Rhythm, “who can ask for anything more?”