Continuing our look into the gospel for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time….
27 Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.” 28 So they said to him, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”
A modern reader might be more prone to take the beginning part of v.27 for exactly what it implies: don’t work; it will be given to you – the implication being, given as a gift – and more than that the given (Jesus) has been ordained/sealed for this purpose. But then the one who are hearing these words receive them in a difference context. These are working people for whom there is family and tradition – these are gifts – everything else is earned. The crowd gives “work” (ergazomai) a new meaning. Jesus’ admonition about laboring to receive a gift of imperishable food is transformed by the crowd into a question about their performance of works. The grace in Jesus’ words disappears.
The NAB translates v.28 as “What can we do…” The word poiomen is translated in other modern translations (e.g. NSRV) as “What must we do…” which seems more consistent with the Greek. It is not a question of capability, but rather, more in the sense. “OK, so maybe we understand that is it a gift. But what’s the catch? What must we do to get this gift.” The verb is in a form that denotes continuity and regularity, as in “What must we continue you do?” This would fit in with the pattern of their lives in several ways.
Food was a perishable item. One must work for food everyday because food “did not keep” – one must earn a daily wage and daily acquire the needed foodstuffs and ingredients to prepare the daily meals. Jesus reminds them to the transient and temporal nature of such food that perishes. (v.27). This expression has been used before with Jesus’ earlier admonition about the leftover bread fragments (v.12); “perish” and “be lost” translate the same Greek verb, apollymi. This same word will later describe the perishable manna of Exod 16:18–21.
How would they have understood food that endures for eternal life? (v.27) There are rabbinic passages and thought that understands such food as symbolizing the Torah, the Law. The Jews may have taken Jesus’ words about the food that abides to eternal life as meaning the Law. What, then, does Jesus think, they must do by way of works of the Law? The expression works of God (v.28 – note the plural) is most likely taken in this context – works pleasing to God – works expressed in the Law. For a faithful Jew it is understood that salvation would be found in the Law. It would not be a leap to then think salvation is the result of their own effort, their compliance with what God has already made clear, rather than a gift given in the person of the one upon whom God has set his seal.
Jesus replaces their “works of God” with the singular “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.” There is one thing needed: faith, trust in the person of Jesus. If they are looking for what they must do, then Jesus has answered their question. Will they make the move from “performance” to gratitude for the gift?