This week we hear the first part of Jesus’ dialogue on the ‘Bread of Life’ which continues for the next two weeks. It is complex both as to theology and literary technique, but offers much to reflect on about who Jesus is and what the Eucharist is for us.
Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15
This is the Old Testament background for manna mentioned in the Gospel. The Jewish people had been journeying out in the Sinai desert where Moses had led them, following the directions of God. Their joy at being released from slavery in Egypt has evaporated and they are dissatisfied, probably fearful, in this harsh environment. They blame Moses and challenge his leadership. Moses is still listening to the Lord and receives the message that God will intervene to provide food. The coming of the manna was later regarded by the Jews as Moses’ greatest miracle. While not ‘bread’ in the strict definition, it was bread in the sense of being a basic diet. Compare the Lord’s prayer with the petition for ‘daily bread’. Perhaps the idea of asking for the present day only comes from the daily provision of manna, which the Israelites were to rely on day by day rather than seeking to hoard some for the future.
Psalm 77/ 78:3-4, 23-25, 54
This is one of the longer psalms, a reflection on the history of Israel and the lessons to be drawn from it. That intent is explained in the first verses we read. Then we jump to the provision of manna, and then a second jump to the conclusion of the desert experience and coming into the holy land. The words ‘bread from heaven’ will be quoted by Jesus.
Ephesians 4:17, 20-24
This reading again has a different theme, but the encouragement to remember the teaching of Jesus and live by it fits with Jesus calling on the crowd to trust in him. In this part of the letter, the author makes a traditional contrast with Christian life and the ways of the Gentiles, seen at the time as immoral and godless. Much of the language is based on baptism motifs, such as the ‘old self’ which by going through the sacrament rises to the new way of life.
The opening verses move on in time and location from last week’s reading where Jesus multiplied the loaves. This kind of address is a ‘midrash’ – an early Hebrew form of interpreting and reflecting on texts of the Old Testament. As a homily, it is typical of those heard in a synagogue, though it is not until the end that John tells us that Jesus spoke in the synagogue at Capernaum. Jesus, as is typical of a midrash, moves around in the Hebrew Bible, sometimes combining quotations. This can sound repetitive to modern ears. Keeping in mind that this is a different style may help us appreciate how it works. The basic texts for Jesus here are Exodus 16 and Psalm 77/78, both heard in the first readings.
Jesus opens with the words that he used to set off an important point. In the Greek text is the Hebrew word ‘amen’ which has the root of ‘being firm, reliable, faithful’. Used like this as an emphasis, it is known only in the gospels when Jesus is making an important point and found nowhere else at that time. Although a number of modern translations try to find some English expression (like the ‘I solemnly assure you’ of our missal), I prefer the actual words Jesus spoke rather than some modern interpretation. John uses a double ‘amen, amen’ which increases the call to pay serious attention.
As Jesus speaks, he is interrupted by questions, which is a common technique in John, often showing a misunderstanding that allows Jesus to give a fuller explanation or deeper meaning. The question-answer dialogue moves back and forth between the listeners and Jesus. The first question comes from the crowd from which Jesus had escaped (see last week’s reading for that). Perhaps they want to know how he managed to get away from their attempt to make him a king. Jesus does not give an explanation but responds by point out that the real reason they are looking for him is not because they have appreciated the miracle as a ‘sign’ but rather they want a reliable supply of food.
In John’s Gospel, ‘signs’ have an important role in showing who Jesus is, and what is his mission in the world. They are usually miracles or actions that have a deeper meaning than appears on the surface, and we now are told that is true of the bread Jesus speaks of. It is not food to nourish the physical body in this life. Jesus sees that these people who were fed in the desert want more of such easy bread and think only of earthly provisions. He makes the first attempt to draw them deeper: there is a better food that the perishable kind we have on earth. The contrast, as B. Lindars says, is not between two different kinds of food, but of the different effects of the two breads on human life. The bread Jesus gives brings everlasting life.
Stressed in this section is another important John theme: Jesus sent by the Father. ‘Set his seal’: a seal means a certification, a guarantee of the one behind the words, as a document is when sealed. It is the Father’s guarantee that should assure them of his right to speak for God.
The listening crowd seems to take in some of Jesus’ words, picking up the ‘work for’. Jesus takes the word ‘work’ and plays on it through the discourse. ‘Works of the Law’ were familiar to his audience and they may suppose he is going to give them similar rules to follow. But he has a surprise: the ‘work’ is that they are to believe in the one God has sent. In Greek, the verb for ‘believe’ has also the sense of ‘to trust’. It is more than an idea accepted by the mind, but committing oneself wholly to what is professed.
When they are told to put their trust in Jesus, they challenge him for a reason to do that. In all four gospels at various times, people ask for a ‘sign’. This can seem to be a wise request when confronted by a call to a new kind of life, but often we see Jesus rejecting or turning around these requests. He sees behind these demands for some proof an opposition to opening oneself to God’s revelation, rather than an honest search for truth. We see that play out in this chapter.
The listeners seem to recognize that Jesus is speaking of himself as the one God has sent, for they now ask for a ‘sign’ to show a ‘work’ that would be like that of Moses and the manna. Some commentators find it odd that they seem to have forgotten the bread and fish Jesus multiplied. Likely the people want something more miraculous than the ordinary daily sort of bread that Jesus provided for them.
Jesus corrects their understanding: it was not Moses who provided the bread from heaven. Instead the true bread from heaven comes from the Father. Again there is an emphasis in the Greek word we may miss in English: ‘true’ for John is not an ‘accurate idea or a concept’ but more like our word ‘real’ – so it is a spiritual ‘really real’ bread Jesus speaks of. They still misunderstand and want something to hold on to. Jesus then makes a claim that will be central in the rest of the speech: He himself is the real Bread that gives life everlasting, so that there is no more ‘hunger’ or need in our spiritual life. He adds ‘thirst’ which will be a second theme later in the gospel.