Today, the Lectionary continues its glance at John chapter 6 which has spanned three weeks. The chapter starts with a feeding story. Actually, all the Gospels carry feeding stories. The one we are reading today is the Gospel of John’s account of the tale where 5,000 people are fed from the five loaves and two fishes offered by a little boy. Not only were they fed, but the left-overs were enough to fill twelve baskets.
The feeding stories have been mainly interpreted in two different ways. The first way is that they are miracles where bread and fish is supernaturally multiplied. The second way they have been interpreted is as an example of generosity where the little boy’s gift encourages everyone to share what they brought so there was more than sufficient for all. The end result is the same, 5,000 hungry people are fed.
Last time I blogged on this passage I talked about how I found the feeding stories profoundly disturbing as I tried to imagine reading them in a country where there is no green grass for people to sit on, no crumbs to gather and where perhaps, even one of those crumbs would mean life for another day for a child or an animal. How would I present the gospel with its many feeding stories and where Jesus claims he is the bread of life to those literally starving to death?
Today, as I read the chapter the verses that stood out to me were right at the end of the feeding story.
‘When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.’ (John 6:14-15)
They caused me to ponder Jesus’ reaction to fame and also the fickleness of humanity.
What is it that causes such extreme reactions in people? The crowd of 5,000 people ate and their reaction was to want to “make him king”. Why? Would we be the same today? If someone supernaturally fed 5,000 people would we be calling for them to run for the next president?
At this point in John’s gospel it is stated that people were following Jesus because of the miracles they saw. Prior to this story, the gospel records no stories about Jesus teaching, nothing that reveals any character, it is purely miracle based.
It seems like the people have short memories. I wonder how many of the 5,000 who were fed and wanted to make Jesus king were in the crowd who shouted “crucify him” a few months later!
As the story continues we see the character of Jesus emerge. It is in his reaction to the offer of fame. He withdrew to a mountain by himself. Now that is a model for us to live by. It is a model of ministry to others. It is a model that shows compassion on hungry people (or sick people, or hurting people, or abused people, or invisible people) but without any desire for fame or recognition. It is a model of service that alleviates suffering then slips away out of sight. It shows the character of the one who has compassion, serves and then withdraws. Let that be our model and our aim as we minister.
But the chapter doesn’t end there, in the gospel of John the story continues. The crowd was persistent they searched for and eventually found Jesus who challenged them saying that they were looking for him only because they ate their fill of the loaves.
Jesus then began to talk about being the bread of life. In the last part of the chapter the dialogue is clearly Eucharistic. One has to wonder if the dialogue is included to affirm the Eucharistic practice that had developed in the Johannine community. Margaret M. Mitchell et al take that view.
“The sacramental language of chapter 6 certainly alludes to a ritual practice used by the Johannine community at some point in its development. It might have come late to the life of the community, or more likely, it describes an accepted practice the understanding of which the evangelist wanted to deepen.” (Cambridge History of Christianity 2006, 142)
In other words, the author of John was giving the first and second century readers a legitimization of their practices. This was both with the Eucharistic language celebrating Jesus’ death and resurrection and with the analogy to Moses and the manna, even to the crowd grumbling as they did in the wilderness.
Yet, that was the verse that stood out as I read the latter half of the chapter. The people began to complain about Jesus because they didn’t like what he said (41). This brought me right back to my first thought about how fickle human beings can be.
This crowd had been fed, they had wanted to make Jesus king, they had sought him out on “the other side of the sea” (25) yet as soon as he started to talk they started to complain.
Apart from all the Eucharistic theology in this chapter I think it offers us a real challenge about our way of living. It speaks a lot about the character of humanity. Much for us to ponder, I think.