Jn 6:41-51. Challenging the Crowd in the Bread of Life Discourse

Today’s passage is the reading for 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 11th Sunday after Pentecost. It is the third of five Sunday readings drawn from John chapter 6. We began John chapter 6 with the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes. Jesus then segues into the “Bread of Life” discourse by noting (6:24-26) that some of the crowd on the shore of Lake Galilee are the same people who were present for the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, which occurred the day before on the other side of the lake.

The Bread of Life Discourse

Caravaggio, c.a. 1600

The “Bread of Life” discourse in chapter 6, roughly verse 25 to the end of the chapter, is so named because Jesus calls himself the bread of life twice, in verses 35 and 48. The conversation between Jesus and the crowd is somewhat ironic, since Jesus has just fed the crowd bread the day before, but he warns them not to seek food that spoils, but rather food that endures for eternal life. Some biblical scholars have noted that the “Bread of Life” discourse appears to fit in at Mark chapter 6, after Mark gives the account of the multiplication of the loaves.

John appears to pick up where Mark left off at Mk 6:52-54. It is anyone’s guess as to why Mark and Matthew omit the Bread of Life discourse. But we can surmise that both Matthew and Mark relied on different accounts, stories and themes to develop the message that Jesus is the Son of God. In Mark’s case, it is simply not his style to develop long narratives, spanning fifty verses, in his very brief Gospel.

Challenging the Believer – A Literary Device

The Bread of Life title is an allusion the Exodus account where the Israelites were fed by manna falling from heaven.  Jesus points out that it is not Moses, but God who gives us true bread from heaven – and then Jesus very self-assuredly calls himself the living bread that came down heaven.  By doing so, Jesus insinuates that he operates with greater authority than Moses. And this is not the first time in John’s Gospel where Jesus will claim to outrank an Old Testament patriarch. In John 8:58, Jesus says, before Abraham was, I am. John’s theology is very consistent, because an over-arching theme in the Johannine Gospel is the reaction of the believer (like Peter, Martha, the beloved disciple, the woman at the well, Mary Magdalene, the blind man, etc.) to the testimony of Jesus. Where Jesus draws comparisons between himself and Moses, he challenges his listeners to accept or reject the Good News.

As a side note, it must have taken John years – perhaps decades – to reflect on the life of Jesus and develop an alternative pattern to the Gospel relative to the Synoptics. Recall the the Syoptic Gospels use the parables of Jesus to teach us about Jesus and our faith. However, John, very likely familiar with the earlier Gospels – which were circulating before his own was penned, likely chose to recount the Good News in a whole new context. In stead of peppering his Gospel with two or three dozen parables, John presents almost every account in his own Gospel as a direct challenge to the listener. John asks us – do you believe or don’t you?  Each chapter presents a direct challenge to the faith of a disciple or another individual who encounters Jesus. In the case of John chapter six, Jesus challenges an entire crowd of followers to believe in him.

Jesus Refuses to Patronize the Crowd

Though the crowd is initially friendly to Jesus, and though they have witnessed him perform the miracle of the loaves, the crowd is not entirely prepared to hear what Jesus has to say next. Jesus modifies his preaching agenda from the day before; where he first performed the miracle of the loaves to the crowd’s satisfaction, he now intends to test the depth of the crowd’s faith. Jesus challenges the crowd with a series of assertions – that Jesus has greater authority than Moses (v.32), that he is “the bread of life” (v.35), that he has “come down from heaven” (v.38), and that he will, “on the last day,” “raise up” those who believe in the Son (v.39).

To some in the crowd, his claims might seem almost ludicrous. They can accept the multiplication of the loaves, but they object to his statement that he is the bread that has “come down from heaven.” Some of the crowd logically respond, how could Jesus come down from heaven; “do we not know his father and mother?” Jesus responds with a sharp retort: stop murmuring among yourselves!

A Lengthy Sermon

Jesus now embarks on an apologetic discourse about himself. When the crowd expresses incredulity that Jesus has come down from heaven, (v.41) Jesus doubles down. Jesus asserts very forcefully (v.44) that everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.  Jesus is now asserting that he is the mediator through whom anyone can know God. But Jesus adheres to the bread analogy; your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died. He continues, telling the audience that I am the living bread that came down from heaven… whoever eats this bread will live forever. We sense in Jesus a certain degree of frustration with the crowd. He seems to be thinking, did you not witness the feeding of the multitude? What part of “I am the bread of life” do you not understand? 

Jesus concludes this Sunday’s passage by saying the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. As contemporary Christians, we should have no difficulty understanding this phrase. Where he uses the term “flesh” we could substitute “life.” The sentence would then read, the bread that I will give is my life – for the life of the whole world.  In other words, Jesus is prepared to offer his life so that others may have eternal life (for example, Jn 3:16).

Yet Jesus is not content to let the analogy stand there. But we will have to wait until next week to see what Jesus says next.

A Final Note

From a biblical scholar’s perspective, it’s quite valid to ask why the “Bread of Life” discourse in John’s Gospel, is absent in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. Some modern, historical-critical scholars suggest that John simply added the Bread of Life discourse to address matters specific to his own church. In other words, the account is perhaps as much fiction as fact.

I’m not sure these scholars are right. There are very good reasons why Mark, for example, might exclude the “Bread of Life” Discourse. Mark’s Gospel is highly abridged, shortened and abbreviated. His Gospel simply does not contain any discourse of great length. Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” which is perhaps one of the two most important theological linchpins of Matthew’s Gospel, is non-existent as a single literary unit in Mark.

Mark relies on far more concise literary devices to establish that Jesus is the Messiah. In Mark, Jesus predicts his passion to his closest disciples three times. Mark also tells us that the demons whom he exorcises “out” or reveal Jesus as “the holy one,” more out of fear than respect. Mark also relies heavily on the miraculous works and healings of Jesus to speak for themselves.

The “Bread of Life” discourse may be absent in Matthew’s Gospel because it does not fit the thematic objective of that Gospel. In Matthew, the antagonist in his Gospel is, broadly speaking, the religious leadership of the day. This is not conjecture. On the contrary, about 17% of Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 21 to 25), is an argument between the Temple leadership and Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Evangelist indirectly contrasts the hard-working, salt-of-the-earth disciples in Galilee (chapters 5 to 7) with the unaccountable religious leaders in Jerusalem (chapters 21 to 25). Mark rarely adds anything to the Matthean Gospel.

In John’s Gospel, the Bread of Life discourse serves a different pedagogic objective. John loves to dramatize the difference between those who believe and those who reject Jesus. The antagonist in John’s Gospel is not exclusively Pharisee nor Sadducee: the antagonist is anyone who is a “non-believer” or a “doubter.” Even the Apostle Thomas is presented as one who doubts until he sees Jesus for himself.

In John chapter 6, the Sacred Author shows that he is willing to concede that even some of the Galillean audience were themselves doubters. Therefore, we have the very antagonistic exchange in the “Bread of Life” discourse. Neither Matthew nor Mark, on the other hand, were of a mind to highlight the give-and-take between Jesus and his followers in Galilee in a lengthy discourse.

John 6:41-51

The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven?'” Jesus answered and said to them, “Stop murmuring among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day. It is written in the prophets: They shall all be taught by God. Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

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