Our reading for the eighteenth Sunday in ordinary time, the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, begins the first of four Sunday Gospel readings on the Bread of Life discourse. The theme of physical and spiritual nourishment figures prominently in John chapter 6 – first in the miracle of the the two loaves and five fishes (6:1-15), and secondly with a lengthy discussion about the meaning of the statement I am the bread of life (6:25-71).
Two Interconnected Stories in John Chapter 6
Last week we considered the account of the miracle of the two loaves and five fish (Jn 6:1-15). Ten verses later, John tells us that Jesus initiates a conversation with the same crowd, albeit this time on the other side of Lake Galilee. Some of those who had been present for the multiplication of the loaves cross the lake to see Jesus. Jesus recognizes them and says, in verse 26, you are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled.
Jesus instigates a conversation by alluding to the previous day’s miracle of the loaves. His opening remark – you were looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate the loaves – is a rhetorical device employed to frame what will become a rather pointed and even awkward exchange between Jesus and the crowd. Jesus will speak of the bread of heaven in a way that will challenge the faith of some of his followers, to the extent that some will be driven away.
Jesus does something similar in Matthew 16:13 when he asks the disciples, who do people say that the Son of Man is? Peter answers, you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus sets up the conversation with a rhetorical question. Jesus knows how Peter will respond. In this passage, Jesus is about to challenge the crowd in rather dramatic fashion, though we will not get to the climax of the drama for another two Sundays.
A Sophisticated Rhetorical Device
Theologically, John the Evangelist has given a lot of thought to chapter 6. First, the Sacred Author tells us that Jesus and the disciples miraculously feed a large crowd with only two loaves and five fish. Ten verses later, we are told that the crowd’s curiosity is piqued, and that some of the crowd decide to look for Jesus on the other side of the lake (verse 24).
Jesus recognizes the visitors and makes a rather glib remark that might suggest that he is questioning their motives. He seems to asking, are you here for a meal, or are you here to see a magic trick, or are you here because you believe the Kingdom of God is at hand? Jesus then tells the crowd, “do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
When asked by the crowd what they can do to accomplish the works of God, Jesus answers in uncomplicated fashion, believe in the one [God] sent. Theologically, John’s Gospel emphasizes the contrast between belief and unbelief, which is a recurring theme in the fourth Gospel. Consider the miracle at Cana, the woman at the well, the healing of the blind man, and the raising of Lazarus. There is also a capstone speech on belief and unbelief in John 12:37-47. In this passage, when the crowd asks Jesus for a miracle or sign in verse 30, Jesus turns the tables on the crowd, and decides to preach to them instead.
The crowd has fresh in its mind the fact that Jesus had performed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves the previous day. In their conversation, both the crowd and Jesus allude to a similar Old Testament sign: God sent the Israelites manna from heaven. Now the crowd wants Jesus to provide them with some direction. Jesus tells the crowd that it was not Moses, but God, who provided bread from heaven. Note what Jesus insinuates: Moses didn’t feed you… God feeds you… and I fed you on the hill top yesterday. Jesus is telling the crowd that he operates with greater authority than Moses, and that he is closer to God than even the greatest of the Old Testament prophets (see Jn 5:46).
“Sir, Give us this Bread Always”
After both the crowd and Jesus make reference to the Old Testament story of manna from heaven, the crowd, speaking of the food that endures for eternal life, finally says to Jesus, “sir, give us this bread always.” [By the way, note the parallel with John 5:13, where the woman at the well says, sir, give me this water so that I many never thirst.] The crowd has now bought in to the argument made by Jesus: yes, we’ll forget about the multiplication of the loaves; what we want is true bread from heaven, of which you speak.
In the course of chapter 6, Jesus has identified himself with the miracle of the multiplication of loaves, cited the tradition of the manna from heaven, and then tried to connect the two by telling the crowd that the food that endures for an eternity is more important than the food that perishes. Jesus closes the circle on the argument by telling the crowd, I am the bread of life. The conversation will take another unexpected turn as Jesus further challenges the faith of the crowd in verses 35-70, but we will have to wait until next week to address that.
A Eucharistic Motif
In chapter 6, Jesus identifies himself with the bread of life. This “bread” is not temporary nourishment, but rather spiritual food needed for eternal life. What do we mean when we say the imagery in chapter 6 is eucharstic? The imagery appears to anticipate the Last Supper, where Jesus takes the bread and says this is my body (Mt 26:26; Mk 14:22; Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24). Throughout my years as a student of Scripture, I’ve always been cautious about reading too much into John chapter 6. However, looking at this passage now, for perhaps the fifteenth time, I can see that John the Evangelist, in verses 22 to 26, clearly links the feeding of the multitude with the bread of life discourse. In other words, the recurring motif of “bread” is intentional and deliberate.
The cycle of readings for both the Catholic and Revised Lectionaries will continue with the “Bread of Life” discourse for the next three weeks (verses 41-51; 51-58; 56-59), so we will have more to say on chapter 6 of John’s Gospel next week.
Gospel Jn 6:24-35
they themselves got into boats
and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
And when they found him across the sea they said to him,
“Rabbi, when did you get here?”
Jesus answered them and said,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
you are looking for me not because you saw signs
but because you ate the loaves and were filled.
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.”
So they said to him,
“What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them,
“This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”
So they said to him,
“What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?
What can you do?
Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written:
‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’
So Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven;
my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.
For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven
and gives life to the world.”So they said to him,
“Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them,
“I am the bread of life;
whoever comes to me will never hunger,
and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”