Trust: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for TWELFTH Week after Pentecost
Twelfth Week after Pentecost (Year B): John 6:35,41-51
1) This is the third of a five-week series of readings walking through a single chapter in John. Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd of five thousand people, withdraws as they clamor to make him king, and then challenges the crowd to move beyond the need for “signs and wonders” to an even wider, deeper trust in God. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus declares - and in this week’s reading, he expounds on what he means.
2) He does so primarily by way of the ancient scriptural story of God providing manna in the wilderness for the Israelites. It’s the crowds who bring up the story first, saying, Give us a sign! After all, Moses gave the Israelites the sign of manna, so they could trust him… Jesus not only refutes this argument (as we saw last week), he also turns the interpretive tables, rabbinical virtuoso that he is, using the same story to illumine his own identity and mission.
3) The manna story is about God feeding the Israelites in the wilderness - but the story’s deeper theme is trust, and in particular the tension between a) the Israelites grumbling and distrusting God, and b) God training (or “testing”) the Israelites by providing them with a daily practice meant to cultivate their humility and ultimately their trust. In other words, the manna story (in Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and elsewhere) is really about trusting and distrusting God in challenging circumstances - and John’s narrative in this week’s passage follows these thematic contours. As we’ll see below, the ancient manna story is the interpretive key for unlocking what Jesus means when he says, “I am the bread of life.”
4) Throughout this Gospel, John uses the phrase “the Jews” as a shorthand for that portion of the Jewish community who did not come to regard Jesus as the Messiah - and who, at some point fresh in John’s memory, expelled followers of Jesus from the synagogue. Those expelled followers were also Jewish, of course (as were Jesus and the disciples!), so the phrase “the Jews” should by no means be understood as referring to the Jewish people as a whole, but rather to the synagogue authorities and others who opposed the emerging Christian (or “Jewish-Christian”) movement for whom John wrote. The pain of expulsion comes through in John’s language. But reading him, we should never lose sight of the thoroughly Jewish ground on which he stands - including in this week’s passage!
1) Even from the outset (v. 35), Jesus’ language signals to his listeners that he has in mind an unconventional meaning for the word “bread” (and “water,” for that matter, hearkening back to his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:14)). For here is “bread” and “water” that comes in the form of a person, and for those who “come to” and “believe in” him, “hunger” and “thirst” are forever banished. This is something more than a mealticket, and indeed something more than physical hunger and thirst. Jesus is talking about a deeper, more profound form of nourishment than the one the crowds call him to provide.
2) Anyone in the crowds familiar with the ancient manna story would have known that God’s provision of the heavenly bread was itself a kind of teaching, a curriculum that would humble the Israelites and cultivate their trust in God. Deuteronomy puts the point this way: “God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut 8:3). Thus the manna was food that pointed toward another, deeper sustenance: divine guidance, teaching, instruction. The crowds call for physical bread, and Jesus in effect replies, God gave the manna as a way to teach the Israelites humility and trust - and behold, God is doing so again today. Moreover, today the Manna has come in the form of the Word of God incarnate. I am the Manna. I will teach you humility and trust; I will guide you in the eternal, life-giving ways of God. Follow me, and you will never hunger or thirst for such instruction again.
3) As if to make this eating/learning parallel even more clear, Jesus then quotes a line from Isaiah in which the prophet proclaims what Jerusalem’s restoration will be like: “And they shall all be taught by God” (John 6:45; Isa 54:13; see also Jer 31:34). In other words, Jesus moves back and forth in this passage between “eating” language and “teaching” language, spelling out for his listeners what he means by “I am the bread of life.” Jesus is God’s Word, who was with God and was God in the beginning - and now has come to teach us directly (John 1:1). He will give us the nourishment we require - for we do not live by (physical) bread alone.
4) As Jesus’ opponents interpret his words in a clumsy and rather literal way (How can he say he has “come down from heaven”? We know his parents!), their grumbling mirrors the Israelite grumbling in the wilderness. Jesus tells them, “Do not complain” - and the word John uses for “complain” (gonguzo) is a cognate of the words used in the ancient Greek translation of Exodus to refer to the Israelites’ kvetching (for example, diagonguzo in Ex 16:2). In this way, all the roles in the ancient story are reprised: the Israelites (the grumbling crowds), Moses (Jesus), and the manna (also Jesus!).
5) The word translated as “believe” in this passage is pisteuo, a word that even more commonly refers to a trusting relationship. Indeed, “trust” is an excellent and revealing alternate translation for “believe” in this passage and throughout John, not least because it helps provide a sense of the radical, personal intimacy with God to which Jesus calls his listeners.
1) This intimacy is personal, and also cosmic in scope. For John, Jesus is the Logos, the Word of God, the pattern that underlies and animates the cosmos. This same Logos calls us to “abide in me, as I abide in you” (John 15:4). Our very life emanates from him, John contends, even to the point that we should conceive ourselves as “branches” and Jesus as the “vine” from which we extend, and without which we can do nothing (John 15:1-11). It’s in this wider context that we can best understand what Jesus means when he says, “I am the bread of life.” As the Logos, Jesus is life’s source, our source, the cosmic source of sustenance and vitality. And as the Logos, the Word of God, Jesus is also life’s pattern, the Way of life and health and salvation. We are made to trust in, abide in, live in this pattern, this Way - and Jesus has come, with both physical bread and the "living bread" of wisdom, to nourish us, and guide us, and bring us back to life (John 6:51).
2) Far from a story about receiving some magically satisfying physical bread, this is a story about trusting in Jesus, and learning from him the life-giving wisdom we need to thrive. This wisdom is the deeper, wider “bread” Jesus has come to impart. A figurative parallel between “eating” and “learning” is familiar, even in the twenty-first century: for example, we sometimes refer to learning something as “taking it in,” or “ruminating,” or “chewing on it,” “digesting” an idea, and so on. But the learning Jesus has in mind here isn’t only taking in information; it’s deeply personal, at once intellectual, emotional, physical, and existential. It involves ideas, but also the most intimate forms of trust and symbiosis, like the common life shared by a vine and its branches. For Jesus, the “living bread” of wisdom is nothing less than himself, even “his flesh” (the very thing the Logos came to embody (John 1:14)), which he vows to give “for the life of the world” (John 6:51). This last remark seems to evoke both the cross and the Eucharist - and it will be our focus next week.