This coming Sunday is the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time for Year B of our lectionary cycle. This Sunday and the following four cover John 6, the Bread of Life Discourse, in its entirety. Yesterday’s post provided some context and summary of precedes John 6; today’s post begins our looking more deeply into the key chapter.
This chapter begins the second major ministry section in John (6:1-10:42). There are similarities to the beginning of the first major ministry section (2:1-5:47). O’Day  suggests: “It is probably no accident that the two inaugural miracles involve wine and bread, the sacramental symbols of God’s grace in Jesus.” Both sections start with miracles in Galilee that show God’s abundant grace and Jesus’ divine glory:
- In 2:1-11, Jesus turns a whole lot of water into an abundance of wine, which is “the first of his signs,” in which “revealed his glory” (2:11)
- In 6:1-15, Jesus turns five loaves and two fish into an abundance of food for thousands. This is followed by 6:16-21, Jesus walking on the water, which is primarily a theophany — an occasion where Jesus’ divine glory is revealed.
Differing Accounts. The story of the miraculous feeding occupied a central place in the oral tradition about Jesus – it is the only miracle story found in all four gospels. (Matthew and Mark also include the feeding of the 4,000.) The pivotal place of this miraculous feeding occupies a central place in all the gospel traditions. The accounts are not the same there are unique features, omissions, additions, and parallels. Yet the central placement of the story means it is not necessary to conjecture if John relied upon others for the recalling of the story. Fr. Raymond Brown , after a detailed study of the all the accounts, concludes about John’s account: “There is one logical explanation for all of these features, omissions, additions, and parallels, namely, that the evangelist did not copy from the Synoptics but had an independent tradition of the multiplication which was like, but not the same as, the Synoptic traditions.” The difference, as well as the similarities, can be accounted for in John’s perspective. Seeing all the other gospels had written the factual account of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, John had set out to write the theological gospel according to Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200 AD). Such a perspective will naturally capture more the intent of the dialog as is the natural inclination of the theological undertaking.
The Setting. 1After this, Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee (of Tiberias). 2 A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick. 3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish feast of Passover was near.
While short in length, each verse of the introduction contributes something significant to the narrative that follows: the location at the Sea of Galilee (v.1), the theme of seeing signs (v.2), the distinction between the followers and the crowd (v.3), and Passover (v.4). These simple verses almost act as a pause, asking the reader to reflect upon what has come before.
Consider the crowd’s response in 2:23–25 (Jesus doing other signs during Passover) and to the healing in 5:1–9 (on the Sabbath) in which great signs were done and yet not all believed. Such will be the same in John 6. As noted earlier in this commentary, Jesus’ self-revelation is to two groups: the crowd and his disciples. This pattern will repeat in John 6. Jesus’ retreat to the mountain with his disciples in v. 3 sets up the contrast between Jesus’ self-revelation to his disciples and to the crowd. The reference to Passover in v. 4 introduces the exodus theme; exodus imagery figures prominently in vv. 5–59 (e.g., vv. 12, 31–32, 49, 58).
St. John does not casually mention times/events to add authenticity to his account. He seems to always have purpose. “It was night.” describing Nicodemus’ approach to Jesus, “It was noon” describing the Samaritan woman at the well. “The Jewish feast of Passover was near.” in today’s verses. These markers are always meant to not only situate the reader, but also to recall the imagery.
The mention of Passover should bring to mind God leading the people to a deserted place on the way to freedom from slavery, the care and compassion for them on the journey, the giving of the Law on the mountain, the night the Angel of Death passed over the houses of the faithful who marked their houses with the blood of the lamb.
As you sit down with the prelude to John 6, let those images come to you and help inform your reading of the Sacred Text.
Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966)
Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996)