We are coming upon the fifth and final Sunday of the breads narrative of John’s Gospel, Chapter 6, after which we will return to the narrative of St. Mark for the rest of this liturgical year. For the past four weeks I have used as my “helper” the Jerome Biblical Commentary, but today I remembered I have the two-volume commentary of the Gospel of John by Father Raymond Brown in the Anchor Bible commentary series. It is a tribute to Brown that volume one of this work, published in 1966, still costs $56 on Amazon Prime. However, you can shop much more economically for all of his many and more recent works on his Amazon page or elsewhere. His premature death in 1998 was an immense loss to the Church.
Since Brown is one of the editors of the JBC, he would have great familiarity with the treatment of the Fourth Gospel as it appears in this work. In his own Anchor Bible commentary, however, Brown is himself the author of the analysis of St. John, and he has much more room to expound on some of the finer points of Chapter 6, notably the reading for Sunday. (John 6:60-69) He agrees with scholars who hold that Chapter 6 has been constructed by at least two and possibly three separate traditions: (1) the bread dialogue where Jesus proclaims his flesh to be real food; (2) Jesus’s identity as the one sent by God the Father, and (3) the destinies of the Twelve, notably Peter and Judas.
Verse 60 is confusing on several points: who exactly are the “followers of Jesus” spoken of here? Are they the Twelve, or a much larger group that the Synoptic writers have returned to as “the 72?” There is no indication that the official Temple legation played any role here. This portion of the text, as it stands, is an “in-house debate.” Secondly, what are they arguing about? The idea that Jesus’ followers must eat his flesh? Or perhaps an even greater mystery, that Jesus is the One ordained by God to bring Jewish expectations to an end in his persona and works?
Jesus’ response may help to clarify the thrust here. Nothing that his “disciples” were protesting “what he had said,” Jesus asks the question if “it” had shaken their faith. Continuing his answer, asks what their reaction would be if they saw the Son of Man ascend to where he was before? John’s audience in 100 A.D. would have no doubt conflated this with John’s descriptions of Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost. For in the next line Jesus states “it is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” I must add here that John’s use of “flesh and spirit” is roughly equivalent to life in God versus those who choose darkness; it is not a disparagement of human life, a heresy which many early Christians of John’s day were regrettable embracing.
Inserted here is a peculiar sidebar from Jesus which seems directed at Judas, though Jesus speaks in the plural: “Yet among you are some who do not believe.” John inserts his own editorial note: “Jesus knew from the start, of course, the ones who refused to believe, and the one who would hand him over.” Jesus concludes this discourse by stating unequivocally that no one can come to him unless it is granted by the Father. In short, he is stating that his listeners must acknowledge that the God of the Holy of Holies, whose name they were prohibited to pronounce, was now present upon the earth through the agency of Jesus Christ. This would have been the hardest tenet of faith to embrace, beyond even the stupefying teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. John fittingly notes that many of his disciples parted company with him. Remember, though, that there are many instances in John’s Gospel where Jesus’ followers laid low because of fear of Jewish authorities; with Jesus’ final authoritative teaching, there must have a sense among the astute that Jesus’ mission was heading for a showdown with the Temple and Jewish authorities. John uses the phrase that the departing followers “would not remain in his company:” i.e., be seen with Jesus.
The final portion of the text contains the first mention of the term “The Twelve” in John’s Gospel. Jesus asks the Twelve if they wished “to leave me, too?” I am certain that John couched this text as a “faith question.” It may also have been a charitable question: is this mission getting too dangerous for you, too? Simon Peter’s answer is one of Christianity’s great prayers: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter goes on to say that the faith process for him and presumably the other eleven has been an unfolding challenge, as he goes on to say that “We have come to believe; we are convinced that you are God’s holy one.” Peter’s answer is the direct antithesis of the reaction of the earlier larger group.
It is hard to find words to adequately describe the contribution of St. John to our Christian heritage. In reading Xavier Rynne’s history of Vatican II, I noted that many Church fathers wished that the Church would propose a four-year cycle of Mass readings instead of the three, so that the Catholic community (and others who use our lectionary cycle) would have the opportunity for an entire year to reflect upon the unique style of evangelizing undertaken by John. There is nothing to stop a hungry Catholic from taking a good commentary of St. John for a deeper immersion into the nature of faith and the glory of the Word made Flesh. Consider the riches of the past five weeks—from just one chapter of John.
If time allows today, I will try to research some possible titles for the “book nook” section of the blog.