The liturgy continues Jesus’ discourse on the ‘bread of life’, expanding and clarifying what we heard last week, and hinting at the Eucharistic interpretation that is spelled out in the next set of verses.
1 Kings 19:4-8
This story of the prophet Elijah miraculously providing bread and drink in the wilderness was biblical background that would have been in the minds of the first listeners. Elijah was the ‘former prophet’ whose stories are told in the history books of the Old Testament. With Moses he was considered to be one of the two most important founders of the Jewish religion. They are the two who appeared with Jesus in the accounts of the Transfiguration.
Before today’s section, Elijah had fled from threats of death. King Ahab of Israel had married a foreigner, Jezebel, who worshipped the pagan god Baal, and brought this worship and its priests with her. She had influenced her husband and others to serve Baal. Elijah challenges them, and when he had out-performed her priests in a contest, and had them slain, Jezebel retaliated by swearing to kill him the next day. In flight for his life, Elijah is so discouraged – believing his prophetic work was in vain – that he wishes to die. He has to learn that the Lord still has work for him. In the wilderness, he is fed by ravens for forty days and then sent to Horeb (Sinai), the mountain where Moses had received the Law. There Elijah will have a new commission. (The full story is found in1 Kings 18:16 to the end of chapter 19.)
Psalm 33/34, verses 2-9
This is classed as a ‘Wisdom’ psalm – one which reflects on God’s dealing with people, and human responses to God. We shall be praying selections from it for the next few weeks. In Hebrew it is an alphabetic poem; that is, each verse starts with a letter from the alphabet in order. (In Hebrew the first two letters are Aleph and Beth, which are related to our own ‘alphabet’.) This feature cannot be followed in translation, but some editions, like the Jerusalem Bible show the Hebrew in the margin. Finding opening words for each letter means the order is sometimes artificial. The psalm is full of positive images of trust and the verses chosen today are appropriate for Elijah and his rescue.
Paul J. Kobelski, in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, explains the first verse ‘do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God’ by pointing out that the moral commands in this letter are based on community, the union of believers stressed in our previous readings from this book. ‘Any offence against a fellow member is an offence against the Holy Spirit, for all Christians together form a living temple in which the Spirit dwells. The vices listed here those that are disruptive of communal life. One of the characteristics defining Christians as members of God’s household is love of neighbour’.
The liturgy has left out some verses between last week and this reading (6:36-40). In these Jesus develops the claim of his relationship with the Father, and adds the words ‘raising up in the last day’ all those who are his. We pick up with the next intervention of the people, who are objecting to Jesus being ‘the one sent from heaven’, since they know who his earthly parents are. Our translation reads, ‘complaining to each other’, but a more accurate word might be ‘muttering’ or ‘grumbling’ perhaps expecting that Jesus will overhear them. The word recalls the complaints against Moses and God of the people in Sinai (Exodus 15:24, 16:2). Jesus answers obliquely, first summarizing verses we did not hear saying that the Father draws people to Jesus. He then claims to be the only one who has ‘seen’ the father, and to be himself the source of eternal life. It is not hard for believers in our time to see this as showing Jesus in the ‘Trinity’ but the fullness of that theology would be more than the listeners could have easily taken in at that time.
Again with the ‘amen, amen’ formula Jesus uses to introduce an important point, he restates the bread of life theme with additions. Here is the first hint of the Eucharist in the discourse: ‘anyone who eats this bread’. He then predicts his death, using the word often translated as ‘flesh’ which is not the usual word for ‘body’ in other texts on the Eucharist, but a favourite term in John for human life. (Compare the prologue to the Gospel: ‘the Word became flesh.’) ‘Flesh’ designates the fullness of ordinary human life, embodied, but also including consciousness. It would be in contrast with another favourite phrase in this Gospel, ‘life everlasting’.