Bread of Life Discourse 4

Bread-of-Life-John-6This coming Sunday is the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time for Year B of our lectionary cycle. We are taking our gospel from John 6, the Bread of Life Discourse.

The Miracle. 10 Jesus said, “Have the people recline.” Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number.  11 Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. One should note that the account indicates there are 5,000 men – so if one assumes women and children present, not an unwarranted assumption, then are a great deal more than 5,000 people present.

Verse 10 narrates an element standard to all of the accounts of the feeding: the order for the crowd to recline/sit down (Matt 14:19; 15:35; Mark 6:39; 8:6; Luke 9:14). In the miracle itself, Jesus’ actions do not reflect the more liturgically stylized actions of the synoptic accounts (e.g., Mark 6:41; Luke 9:16 – “looking up to heaven”), but rather reflect the actions of a host at a Jewish meal (although Liturgy has its foundation in the Jewish meal). Jesus takes the food, gives thanks over it (eucharistēsas), and gives it to his “guests.” Importantly, the Fourth Evangelist narrates Jesus’ distributing the bread and fish himself, in contrast to the synoptic accounts, where the disciples distribute the food (e.g., Matt 14:19; Mark 6:41; Luke 9:16). Jesus’ distribution of the food enhances the christological focus of this miracle: The gift of food comes from Jesus himself.

Miracle’s Aftermath. 12 When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” 13 So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat. 14 When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.” 15 Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.

The gathering of twelve baskets full of fragments is common to the other accounts (Matt 14:20; Mark 6:43; Luke 9:17) and serves to emphasize the enormity of the miracle; not only did the people eat their fill, but there were leftovers as well (cf. 2:6; 4:13–14). (Seven baskets of fragments are collected in Matt 15:37 and Mark 8:8). Jesus’ words (v.12) are unique to the Johannine version of the miracle and make an important connection between this story and the manna story of Exodus 16. In Exod 16:19, Moses asked that the people not leave any extra manna around, but the people disobeyed Moses and the leftover manna “bred worms and became foul” (Exod 16:20). Jesus’ words in 6:12 seem to caution against a repetition of Exodus 16. The connection between the feeding miracle and the manna story, so pivotal to 6:25–59, is thus introduced early on.

Verses 14 and 15 narrate the results of the miracle. The Fourth Gospel narrative has taught the reader to suspect any response to Jesus that is based on a surface reaction to signs (2:23–25; 4:48). The people’s confession of Jesus as “the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world” (v. 14; cf. 4:25) is, therefore, ambiguous, because while it is an appropriate confession (cf. 4:19; 9:17), it rests on the evidence of signs. In addition, the people also miss the christological reference point of the sign/miracle. It pointed people to God. But these folk saw only a reference to a prophet. Admittedly the prophet that they assumed would be the greatest of them all, namely the one foretold in Deuteronomy 18:15, the great prophet-like-Moses. Morris [306] holds that it is “somewhat curious that they thought of this prophet rather than the Messiah, unless, contrary to usual Jewish opinion, they thought of this prophet as the Messiah. But perhaps this is part of the confused state of mind of so many at that time. Various ideas about the Messiah were current, and various prophets were expected, some being linked with nationalist, militarist views.”

It is perhaps there fierce nationalist tendencies which provided the opportunity (v.15) for Jesus to display his omniscience (cf. 1:48; 2:23–25; 4:16–18) by knowing in advance the crowd’s intent. The people’s desire to make Jesus king by force resolves the ambiguity of v.14 and confirms that the people’s response cannot be trusted. The kingship of Jesus is an important theme in the Fourth Gospel, first introduced in 1:49. Israel’s desire for a king is part of its messianic expectations, the hope for a second David. Jesus will be “king” in the Fourth Gospel, but he will be king according to his definition of kingship (18:36–38), not forced to fit the world’s sense of the natural order. The kingship theme reaches its resolution in the crucifixion narrative of John 18–19.

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