Portable Commentary

1 August 2021

Thought for the day  
Physical hunger is unmistakable and urgent. The deeper hungers of the heart are also urgent but can take a while to recognise. Deep down, for what do I really hunger and thirst?

You alone can satisfy the hungry heart, Lord God, and may we make our the words of the Gospel, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Through Christ our Lord.

John 6:22
  The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23 Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

John 6:25   When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

John 6:35   Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Initial observations
There is a problem with the lectionary at this point because the Gospel passages are not well selected. The divisions ought to be 6:22-30 followed by 6:31-48. The lectionary excerpt overlaps the sections (6:24-35) somewhat. For clarity, I have added above the necessary introductory verses.

A search is going on, a not quite disinterested, open search but a search nonetheless. My own quest for meaning, often mixed up with “food that perishes”, should provide plenty of material for reflection. The occasional moment of real lucidity might be noticed: what must we do to perform the works of God? The real challenge of Christian faith is the figure of Jesus himself. Bishop John Robinson’s phrase comes to mind: “the scandalous particularity of the incarnation.” Somehow today we have to negotiate a recognition of the real diversity of faiths, while keeping before our eyes the person of Jesus, the unique and irreducible heart of the Christian faith.

Kind of writing
This is a dramatic scene, which presents a kind of rabbinic argument about the identity of Jesus. As often in the Fourth Gospel, the dialogue partners seem to be talking at cross purposes, with layers of misunderstanding, intended really to instruct the reader. In reality what we have here is not a report of a conver-sation held by the historical Jesus but rather a historicising reading back of the kind of argument the Johannine church was having with the synagogue. It therefore gives us a window on late first-century religious disputes.

Old Testament background

The story of manna (recounted in Exodus 16 and Numbers 11) should be read carefully in conjunction with this text.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. (Exod 16:4)
Yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. Mortals ate of the bread of angels; he sent them food in abundance. (Ps 78:23-25

New Testament foreground
The theological centre of John 6 is found here: Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29) There is a Eucharistic “layer” to chapter 6, of course, but the more important layer is Christological. This can be shown by looking at the following selected verses, which underline the person of Jesus and the reactions of believers to him.
John 6:2 A large crowd kept following him, 3 Jesus went up the mountain. 14 “This is indeed the prophet.” 15   (They) were about to take him by force to make him king. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 24 (They) went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 (Work for) for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph?”. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. (T)he bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

St Paul
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. (1 Cor 10:1-5)

Brief commentary
Verse 22 The mysterious “whereabouts” of Jesus lead to a search for Jesus, who has become somehow detached from his disciples.
Verse 23 This reminds us of the multiplication, with its hints of Moses. Just who is this Jesus becomes the topic of the present “dispute.”
Verse 24 “Looking for Jesus” is a thematic feature of this Gospel from the start (1:38-39) to the finish (20:15). However, not all searches are open-ended and sincere and some fail.
Verse 25 The origins of Jesus constitute also a thematic feature of this Gospel. The final expression of this is on the lips of no less a figure than Pilate: He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. (John 19:9)
Verse 26 The motivation of those looking for Jesus is questioned.
Verse 27 The first part of this verse ought to be read in conjunction with John 4:31-34. The “food” of Jesus, his source of nourishment and inner life, is doing the will of the one who sent him, a task accomplished, perfected, on the cross. Jesus then offers us this same “food” of obedience, that is, this loving relationship. The later imagery of giving his flesh brings together the imagery of food and cross: it is there that he metaphorically gives us himself for our nourishment. The second part of this verse gives rise to the question that follows.
Verse 28 This is one of few totally open questions in this Gospel and it leads to a similarly totally clear response.
Verse 29 Surely the theological centre of John 6, as noted above. It may even be the heart of this Gospel as a whole.
Verse 30 This reflects the kind of discussion held with experts from the synagogue.
Verse 31 The partners in dialogue quote Exodus 16:4 and Psalm 78:23-25 (see above). This verse forms the basis of the discussion that follows.
Verse 32 Of course, there would be no objection to identifying God as the one who provided the manna. The real problem is the identification of God with “my father.”
Verse 33 Jesus is the bread from heaven and he gives life to the world through the Cross and Resurrection.
Verse 34 A natural and spontaneous response. However, the similarity to the naïve response of the woman of Samaria (the woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” John 4:15) thus alerts the reader that there is a lot more to this desire than meets the eye. Physical drinking or eating is beside the point.
Verse 35 A first and important affirmation. It belongs to the great I am sentences of this Gospel, echoing the name of God in Exodus 3:14, I am who I am. Notice the pairings hunger / thirst, come / believe. The important level is faith in Jesus himself.

Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus distinguishes between food that gives quick satisfaction and food that gives lasting nourishment. It is a mark of wisdom to be able to say ‘no’ to enticing but delusory attractions in order to choose things of lasting value. From your life experience what advice would you give to another about where things of lasting value are to be found?
2. Jesus reminds his listeners that God is the source of all good things. What difference does it make in your life when you are aware that life, the world, everything you have is gift, and you live in a spirit of gratitude?
3. The work of God is that we believe in the one whom God has sent. In what ways has your faith in Jesus enriched and changed your life? How has Jesus satisfied your hungers or quenched your thirsts? Is it the idea that we are loved by God?
4. As Jesus came down from heaven to give life to the world, so each one of us is here to be a source of life to others. Think of people who have been a source of life to you, and give thanks for them. For whom have you also been a source of life?

Lord, giver of lasting life, satisfy our hunger through Christ, the Bread of Life, and quench our thirst with your gift of belief that we may no longer work for food that perishes, but believe in the One whom you have sent.

We make our prayer through your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.