The miracle of the Loaves and Fishes hardly needs description. This miracle of Jesus is reported in all four Gospels (twice in Mark, actually) and thus meets one of the measures of historical probability, multiple attestation, in the “quest of the historical Jesus” undertaken by Scripture scholars. Of course, its historical probability in no way clarifies exactly how Jesus performed this feat of mass feeding, as none of the evangelists felt compelled to explain this process; certainly it was impressive enough that the crowds sought to carry him off and make Jesus king according to St. John’s account yesterday.
Again we stick to what we know with certainty: each evangelist was guided by a specific theology or understanding of the living Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, while the act of feeding thousands in a miraculous fashion is reported in all four Gospels, each Gospel writer will address the episode from a different stance, consistent with the overall theme of the Gospel in which it appears. As Year B highlights the miracle in John’s Gospel, we have to approach the miracle and all its subsequent scenarios through the eyes of Johannine theology.
John’s Gospel is very different from the three preceding “Synoptic Gospels,” the three which parallel each other fairly closely. Some portions of the Christian world did not accept the Gospel of John till well into the fourth century. John’s overarching theology is the infinite glory of the Word made Flesh, set in a world where men accept the light of truth or reject it. John depends upon Jesus’ words as much as his actions to make his case to the world on behalf of his Father. So while Mark recounts multiple miracles, John reports only a few, most without precedent in the other Gospels, and these are just about always an entree into a discourse or full blown confrontation with obstinate followers or hostile Jewish leadership.
John’s Chapter 6 thus begins with the miraculous multiplication, but no pun intended, this is only the first course. Next Sunday (the Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time) will pick up the story of the day after the miracle, where the crowds are rather surprised to find that Jesus has somehow crossed the lake. I should note here that the editors of the Lectionary have omitted John 6: 16-23 which describes the disciples crossing the lake in a heavy wind and encountering Jesus on the water near the shore. (See text.) While the crowds are puzzled about Jesus’ whereabouts, he in turn launches into a not particularly friendly observation that they are hounding him because of “signs” and the fact that their bellies are full. It is interesting that Jesus (6:27) would refer to the previous day’s menu as simply “perishable bread,” suggesting that at this stage of the encounter Jesus has not yet entered the Eucharistic phase of his discourse in Chapter 6.
In verse 27, Jesus introduces the more noble quest of hunting food “that remains unto life eternal” which Jesus for the first time identifies with the real gift of the Son of Man upon whom the Father “has set his seal.” Here we see John’s theology at work, his emphasis upon Jesus as the Son of Man who enjoys the love and credibility of his Father. Typically the crowd seems to miss the point and demands to know the key to this better bread (a response very similar to that of John’s woman at the well scenario in John 4 where the five-time divorced woman asks how she can get access to the “living waters” and avoid a troublesome daily task.)
Jesus proceeds to equate the work of God—the key to the better bread-- with faith in the One God sent. Again we see John’s brilliance here: he (John) reports no puzzlement among the crowd that Jesus is the One God has sent; this raises the crowd’s response to a higher level of insolence when they demand yet more signs, going so far as to say that Jesus has not even measured up to Moses’ performance with the manna. Jesus continues by underscoring a misunderstanding: Moses had not worked his signs of his own strength, but rather it was the Father, the same God who (present tense) comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. In response to yet another demand, Jesus makes one of the signal teachings of Chapter 6: “I myself am the bread of life:” those faithful to him by doing his work, i.e., acknowledging the Father as true sons of Israel, will never hunger or thirst again. This is where Sunday’s reading comes to an end, but the dispute is only warming up as Jesus continues this disputation with more intensity about his own relationship with the Father.
The antagonism between Jesus and Jewish opponents is a noticeable feature of the Fourth Gospel. This is particularly surprising when one considers that John’s Gospel may have been composed around 100 A.D., long after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the diaspora or scattering of Jews around the world. In other words, this Gospel had no contemporary reason to single out Jews with hostility. A number of theories have been put forward over the years. Father Raymond Brown, perhaps the greatest New Testament scholar to emerge in the United States in the twentieth century, was working on a study of John’s Gospel and the Jews when he suddenly died in 1998. I am including here a link to the book’s summary, written by another scholar, Father Francis Moloney, for those interested in pursuing the question further.
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