First reading: Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 77(78):3-4, 23-25, 54
Second reading: Ephesians 4:17, 20-24
Gospel: John 6:24-35
Link to readings
In the second of the Gospel readings taken from John 6 at this stage of Year B we find ourselves at the beginning of Jesus’ long discourse on the “Bread of Life.”
The First Reading, from Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15, provides an appropriate background, describing as it does, the gift of “bread from heaven” with which God fed the Israelites in the desert. Some aspects of the Manna tradition not mentioned in this First Reading are important for understanding the way it provides a background for the Gospel. The Manna came down from heaven on the first six days of the week but not on the seventh day, the Sabbath. The Manna that fell on the first five days became unedible after that day. But that which fell on the sixth day did last overnight. By preserving some for the morrow, the Israelites were able to eat and still keep the Sabbath rest. In the later Jewish tradition the provision of the Manna was seen as one of Moses’ great feats and, in the Wisdom tradition, the life-giving bread from heaven became a symbol of the gift of the Torah (the Law of Moses).
Jesus’ interaction with the crowd in the Gospel (John 6:24-35) plays off these traditions. Following the miraculous feeding, the people had wanted to make Jesus their king. But he eluded them and went off to the hills by himself while his disciples set out to cross the lake by boat. Later (vv. 16-21), in a manifestation of his divine status, he rejoined them by walking upon the sea. Eventually, the crowds whom Jesus had fed by multiplying the loaves catch up with him again on the other side of the lake and begin the dialogue with him that triggers the discourse. They ask questions of Jesus that betray inadequate understanding of his person and his activity. Jesus takes up their questions and responses, correcting them and turning them in a direction that leads to mature faith and readiness to receive revelation.
He points out that they have been looking for him simply because they had been fed, albeit marvellously, with what was still ordinary food. They had failed to “see signs” in the sense that they did not understand the gift of ordinary bread as a sign or symbol pointing to a deeper reality: that Jesus is the gift of “Bread” sent down from heaven to satisfy a far deeper human need, the gift of eternal life.
By following the way of the Law they are “working” in the sense of working for money in order to have the wherewithal to buy bread to keep them alive. But such bread is like the bread the Israelites went out to collect on the first five days, bread that would not last. Instead they should understand that, in the presence of Jesus, they are really in a “Sabbath” situation where the Manna sent down on the sixth day is bread that truly lasts – lasts for eternal life. The Son of Man (Jesus) will give (v. 28 [The NRSV rightly has the future tense; contrast Jerusalem Bible]) them that lasting “bread” when lifted up upon the cross he becomes the supreme revelation of the Father.
ENDOWMENT WITH THE SPIRIT
A seal affixed to a document authoritatively stamps the document with the author’s identity and ownership. The “seal” that the Father has set upon Jesus (v. 27) probably refers to his endowment with the Spirit – an episode not described in the Fourth Gospel but alluded to by John the Baptist in 1:32-34. Endowment with the Spirit provides divine accreditation and guarantee that the revelation given by Jesus is the “food that endures to eternal life”.
The only “work” then that is required on the human side is the “work” of believing that such is the case: namely, that, in the person of Jesus, God is sending down from heaven the Bread of Life in this imperishable and life-giving sense.
Unconvinced, the crowds want Jesus to turn on a “Manna-like” miracle as they believe Moses did (v. 30). Jesus corrects them in regard to both past and present. It was not Moses but God who gave them bread from heaven. Likewise, they should not now be expecting him to provide bread from heaven as if he were simply a figure comparable to Moses. What Moses provided was the Law, which was not “bread from heaven” that would last (“endure to eternal life”). Whereas, he (Jesus) is the Bread from heaven that the Father is now providing for the life of the world. If the crowd can simply put aside its own presuppositions and demands, and simply believe in the generosity of God, then they will receive this life-giving revelation.
Both as revelatory Word of God and as Eucharist Jesus is for us the “Bread of Life”.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media