About 50 years ago, Walter Mischel a psychologist did an experiment at Stanford University, where he was a professor. In this experiment, 5 year-olds were given a marshmallow or some other treat, and told they could eat it immediately—but if they waited 15 minutes, they could have two.
The experiment sought to test the variations in delayed gratification in young children. Some twenty years later, another much more disputed experiment, made the controversial claim that the longer a child could wait before eating the marshmallow, the better their chances at succeeding in life—better SAT scores, fewer behavioral problems, fresher breath, and a clearer complexion—well, not the last part.
I remember seeing video of these kids sitting in front of that marshmallow. Some ate it as soon as the person in the white coat walked out of the room. Others had strategies for distracting themselves, so that they could hold out for the second treat—talking to themselves, acting like the marshmallow sitting on the table in front of them wasn’t there. And I remember thinking, “I was totally an eat-the-marshmallow-right-now sort of kid.”
When I was a kid, if it was between you and me and some candy—well, let’s just say, I hope you’re health insurance is paid up.
I remember my mom taking my brother and I to the bank to open a savings account. This was, of course, supposed to teach us the value of setting a little bit of money aside on a regular basis. After some lengthy period of time, we could then withdraw our small fortune and use it to buy something really great—a new bike, or a baseball glove, or a down payment on college tuition.
I didn’t get to the end of the week before I was pestering my mom to take that five bucks out of my savings account—because, do you know how much candy five dollars would buy in the 1970s?
She didn’t let me take it out, though, and I didn’t put any more in. So there’s a bank account somewhere in western Michigan that with the interest on $5 over forty years is now probably worth somewhere north of $5.12. So, if I can ever track that down, retirement is going to be pretty cushy.
I wasn’t much of a saver. I’m better about it now, but it sure took long enough. The pressure for instant gratification is cruel.
Lots of people find themselves in that boat, though. Credit card companies, pay-day lenders, shady used car salespeople, sketchy mortgage brokers take advantage of the cruel pressure; they all rely on the fact that so many people need help badly enough now that they’ll agree to just about any terms to get it.
But there are other people out there, willing to put off experiencing the good stuff now for the promise of some amazing deal somewhere on the distant horizon. You know what I’m talking about, right?
My grandpa and grandma Penwell worked their whole lives to save up money to leave their children—my grandfather a farmer and my grandmother a beautician. Never took a vacation in sixty years of work. The only vacation my grandpa ever took was to drive his pickup truck down to Tennessee and help Susan and I move back to Michigan.
And we said, as I’m sure many of you have said to your parents and grandparents: “Spend the money, for crying out loud! Go some place. Enjoy yourselves a little. After all, you’ve earned it.”
No such luck. My grandpa got Parkinsons, and somebody made some bad investments for my grandma after he died, and it was all gone. All those years, saving up for a big payoff that never came.
There’s a philosophical argument in there somewhere. Do you live as hard as you can today because you’re not promised tomorrow? Or do you put off satisfaction with the belief that it’ll all pay off somewhere down the road in some future jackpot?
Which kind of person are you? Are you an eat-the-marshmallow-now kind of person, or a wait-to-get-two-marshmallows-sometime-later kind of person?
This isn’t just an academic, first year philosophy major question either. We have to make real life decisions based on whether we’re going to look for as much enjoyment as we can right now—since tomorrow’s not guaranteed to any of us—or are we going to risk putting off pleasure now so that we can enjoy a larger reward later?
We know the “smart” thing, don’t we?
Capitalism (and the religion that thrives under capitalism) much prefers a longer term investment strategy. The folks that wear Brooks Brothers suits and carefully shepherd their 401Ks have a habit of looking down their noses at people who appear not to be able to think past the next meal—calling them impulsive, short-sighted, and lazy.
They see people hungry for bread for the day and wonder to themselves: “Why don’t these people think ahead? Why don’t they plan better? Why don’t they make better choices?”
When we read last week’s Gospel about the feeding of the 5,000, those questions lurk beneath the surface, don’t they?
A whole crowd of people follow Jesus around the Palestinian countryside, and it’s only when they’re out in the middle of nowhere that it becomes clear there’s no traveler’s oasis anywhere in sight. Where are they going to get food to feed all these people?
But lo and behold, there’s a kid with a Star Wars lunch box full of some bread and fish—which, according to John, saves the day. We’re not really quite sure of the mechanics of the whole potluck thing—but in the end, the people are so happy to have been fed that they look to take Jesus and make him king . . . by force, if necessary, John tells us.
The crowd’s apparently amped up to start an actual revolution to put someone on the throne who can figure out a way to feed hungry people.
What do we learn from the crowd’s reaction?
First of all, we can safely assume that people who want to take the first person capable of providing a meal for them and make him king are people who live day-to-day with the reality of hunger. I mean, that’s a pretty serious step—looking to stage a royal coup to crown a someone king just because he fixed everybody up with some Lunchables.
Second, we know that Jesus—before he tended to their spiritual needs, first looked after their immediate physical needs of the hungry crowd; which is to say, before he ever delivered them bread from heaven, he gave them bread from Kroger.
In our text this morning, the whole issue hasn’t yet been resolved: the people are hungry again and Jesus seems to be the way they figure they’re going to get fed. After the last huge group feeding, Jesus, not wanting anything to do with their revolution, runs and hides. But as we open or passage this morning, they crowd has finally found Jesus. And once again they come to him with their hands out.
Now, Jesus’ reaction to the crowd seems to be pretty harsh, doesn’t it? “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
Sounds like Jesus is scolding the crowd for being one marshmallow people, when they should be two marshmallow people. “You want everything now, but it doesn’t work like that. If you’d just work a little harder, plan a little smarter, make better decisions, you could have a shot at the celestial jackpot in the divine lottery God’s running at some distant point in the hereafter.”
But let me ask you something: “Does that sound like Jesus? Can you picture Jesus saying, ‘Look, I fed you once already. Will you quit being greedy and start thinking of the future?’”
That doesn’t sound like the Jesus I read about in the rest of the Gospels at all. And it’s not because Jesus never gets annoyed. He’s forever flashing his irritation with the bigwigs and the power brokers—that is, with the people who always seem to have ready access to food, and the power to maintain that access.
But think about it, at no time in the Gospels does Jesus ever get cross with people struggling just to make it through the day—the kind of people who always find themselves at the back of the line with their hands out, looking for a break—or just a bit of bread. Whatever else he may be as he sees the crowd gathering once again, Jesus isn’t aggravated with them because they want more food. He grew up as a peasant himself—aware of the the thin line between having just enough to scrape through another day and starvation.
So, but if Jesus isn’t scolding them for being hungry, what’s he getting at?
He says, “Do not work for food that perishes, but for food that endures for eternal life.”
I think it has to do with how it is we define “eternal life.”
Traditionally, this passage is read as Jesus drawing a contrast between the inferiority of present concerns and the vast riches of future rewards. Don’t get caught up in the here and now; there’s better stuff coming in the sweet bye and bye.
The problem with that surface reading of the text is that it doesn’t take into account the fact that Jesus spent a great deal of time trying to address the present concerns of those who never seemed to have the resources to hold out for the second marshmallow—since they had reasonable anxieties about making it very far into the future without a little relief—the hungry, the sick, the outcast, and the oppressed. Jesus never dismissed people’s immediate suffering as unimportant—never said that they should just suck it up in anticipation of a big payoff in the next life.
The people in the crowd were his people. He was a Galilean peasant himself. He knew the hardships they faced, the unrelenting oppression of the ruling authorities. So, I suspect that when Jesus talks about working for food that endures for eternity, he doesn’t mean food that’s available to you only after you die.
Eternity can, of course, mean in the great forever in the future—some endless span of time. But eternity doesn’t just have to be about the length of time; it can signify the depth of time, which is to say the quality of time. In that sense, then, food that endures for eternal life can be about food that deepens the quality of time right here and now by having enough, so that people no longer need to follow a potential messiah around the wilderness in constant search for a little relief from the hunger that besets them—so that eternity can begin to break into the world right now.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t talk about bread that lasts forever; he offers bread that endures for eternal life.
Perhaps Jesus isn’t just extolling the virtues of holding out for the second marshmallow—but trying to point out that expecting people always to choose between one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in the future is an indictment of a system in which the only choices are between focusing on getting one meal right now and going hungry waiting for a divine feast after you die.
What if the “food that endures for eternal life” is a system in which there’s enough food for everyone all the time—so that people can spend their lives no longer in a desperate search of relief, but can experience the in-breaking of the eternal right now?
What if Jesus’ aggravation isn’t with the hungry crowd but with a world that forces whole crowds of people to beg for food?
What if the kingdom of God Jesus announces envisions a world in which there are no more haves and have-nots,
a world in which there isn’t a criminal justice system for white people and another one for people of color, a world where people seeking asylum from violence don’t have to choose between keeping their children or being sent back to the places where they must live every moment in fear of their lives, or a world where healthcare, clean drinking water, and food security aren’t luxuries for the well-born and the powerful—but are available to everybody . . . just because they’re God’s children and God wants ***everyone*** to flourish?
What if the question put to us all these years later, sitting comfortably in this air-conditioned sanctuary, isn’t about how we can secure our own slice of the bread of heaven after die, but about how we can help to realize a world in which eternal life isn’t a choice between life today or life after death?