19th Sunday Ordinary time, August 12, 2018
Texts: Kings 19:4-8; Ps 34:2-9; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51
We continue to read from the Gospel of John, chapter 6. Two weeks ago, we read the miracle of the loaves and fishes, where Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 or more people with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. Everyone ate as much as they wanted, and still there were leftovers. We also learned that John’s Gospel was primarily written for people who had already accepted Christianity, and John’s goal is to deepen their faith and their understanding of Jesus.
Last week we found Jesus trying to enlarge the crowd’s understanding of “bread” and “work”; he told them to not work for food which perishes, but for food that leads them to eternal life. They ask Jesus for manna, the heavenly bread that God gave the Israelites after they escaped Egypt. Jesus responded that God gives the true bread from heaven, and they ask for that bread. Jesus then says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” He talks of becoming close to God, of gaining wisdom and understanding.
We pick up there today, and we begin to notice some changes in the way the story is told. First, we start off with “The Jews” murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” In our first two readings, the crowd is referred to as “the people” or just “they”. Suddenly they are referred to as “the Jews”. That label, in John’s Gospel, indicates unbelievers, especially those hostile to Jesus in Jerusalem. The crowd came looking for free food, and they are disappointed that no magic bread has appeared. They are critical because Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” Oddly enough, John did not record Jesus saying that exact statement in the previous verses.
There are two pieces of Mediterranean culture you need to know to understand this scene. First, “Honor” was very important, and honor required that a person stay in their family’s social status, maintain it, and never consider “getting ahead.” Unlike our culture, any attempt then to raise your social status or behave differently from your birth status was shameful because it was seen as divisive and disruptive to the community. Second, the way that people were pressured to follow the rules of society was to be sharply criticized and shamed. So the crowd immediately and bluntly reminds Jesus of who his parents are (not from heaven) and what their social status is, in attempt to belittle him and “keep him in his place”. Jesus tells them to stop complaining.
John used the exact same word for their “murmurs” (or complaints) as is used for the complaints of the Israelites in Exodus (the people who received the manna from God). Those people were portrayed as shallow people who had just been divinely rescued from hard labor and slavery and were not only ungrateful but outrageously rude to and demanding of God. The crowd who, a few verses ago, had difficulty grasping the symbolism of bread now sounds like Rabbis arguing about scripture. Now they use the formal “How can he say” format that was traditional when debating a meaning of the scriptures.
The crowd is behaving just as the label “The Jews” would indicate, with hostility. So Jesus offers the crowd an alternative to hostility. He says, “No one can come to me unless the Father…draws him…” Draw means to “bring near”. In this case, it means to bring someone near to Scripture, and open to them the knowledge of God. For John, when we listen and learn from God, we become close with/ near to Jesus. Jesus quotes a verse from Isaiah 54:13, that in the New Jerusalem, in the last days, “(the people) shall be taught (directly) by God”, a very personal relationship indeed.
It seems that someone different wrote this part of our reading, maybe a later editor added something or changed it. Biblical studies can be complicated by such events. We don’t have the originals of any of the Gospels, only copies that have been made by scribes whose tedious jobs were to copy them by hand, and the copies do not always agree. We do not know for sure who the original writers were, and who may have changed or added information, and Bible experts do not always agree even to what the author meant.
This is a good place to look at our other readings. In 1st Kings, we see the angel of God bring bread to Elijah, who was in deep despair and exhausted. It was a way to heal and restore Elijah to health and wholeness; it shows great care and gentleness. Likewise, the 2nd reading urges us to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving. Bitterness, anger, shouting, abusive language, and intent to harm or injure others has no place in our lives and grieves the Holy Spirit. We are to imitate God, living in love as Christ loved us. The Psalm urges us to “taste and see” how good God is. All 3 readings speak of God’s love and goodness.
So today we had new and different language (“The Jews” instead of ‘the crowd); we have the mood of the crowd change, as they belittle Jesus. Last week, I said, “The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves opened the door for people to have an insight into who Jesus was and how he will “feed” our souls for eternity. Now, we have a new image for the bread, a more traditional Eucharistic image of the bread as the body of Christ. Now Jesus says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, they will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” This is the introduction of another way of viewing bread, one that speaks strongly of the Eucharist rather than just manna/bread and learning wisdom and coming to understand God. And that is where we will pick up next week! Join me then!