Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Although Jesus’ words “I am the bread of life” are familiar to many Christians, in this passage the disciples declare this to be a “hard saying.”

"Wine." Image by Brendan DeBrincat via Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0.

August 23, 2015

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Commentary on John 6:56-69

Although Jesus’ words “I am the bread of life” are familiar to many Christians, in this passage the disciples declare this to be a “hard saying.”

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue (John 6:69), where he is interpreting a passage of scripture that was introduced by the crowd in verse 31. They ask Jesus for a sign similar to the one Israel experienced in the wilderness, “as it is written, ‘he gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus goes on to interpret this verse about the manna, and he continues on the same subject through verse 58. He declares himself to be manna, the “bread of life” (6:35). Just as manna gave life in the wilderness, so also Jesus gives life.

Although the crowd was initially enthusiastic about the idea of Jesus as one like Moses who could provide this miraculous bread (John 6:34), they reject the identification of Jesus with manna. In verse 60, Jesus’ own disciples declare his teaching to be “hard,” and in verse 66 many of them turn away from him. What is it about Jesus’ teaching that they find difficult?

Some interpreters think that Jesus’ disciples have only understood his words on a literal level. Although modern readers are conditioned to hear Jesus’ words about those “who eat my flesh and drink my blood” (John 6:56) as a reference to the Lord’s Supper, the disciples at the time would have no experience of the Eucharist. They reject Jesus’ teaching because they think that he is referring to cannibalism. This way of reading the passage approaches the disciples’ rejection of Jesus’ teaching as a question about the logical content of what he says.

However, it may make more sense to think about the narrative logic of what John is doing here. In the original manna story, the people’s response to God’s salvation is mixed. Although they initially herald the triumph of God in the Exodus (Exodus 15:1-21), Israel immediately begins to “grumble” or “complain” against God and Moses in the wilderness (e.g., Exodus 15:24; 16:2). They do not trust God to take care of them. Over and over, with questions of water, food, and physical safety, the Israelites play out the same drama of whether they will trust God to care for them.

Similarly, the group following Jesus initially receives the miraculous food of John 6:1-14 and heralds Jesus as a prophet (v. 15). But they also begin to “grumble” against Jesus following his teaching about the manna. (The word “complain” in 6:42 and 61 is a cognate of the word used in Exodus to describe the Israelites grumbling or complaint). The response of the disciples to Jesus is an example of the irony for which John is well known: the disciples reject the idea that Jesus is manna, but in doing so they display that Jesus is manna by responding to him just as the Israelites responded to manna.

As in the Exodus story, the issue is not simply the grumbling of the people but the lack of trust in God that it represents: “some of you do not believe” (John 6:64). The Greek word pisteuo is a common word in John that is usually translated “believe.” However, its more common meaning is to trust or rely upon someone. Although John certainly also cares what readers believe to be true about Jesus, this more primary dictionary meaning also sheds light on how this word functions in John. The difficulty in John 6 is not simply the cognitive content of believing something about Jesus, but also the lack of trust that the disciples display. Like the Israelites, they have experienced God’s miraculous provision, but they do not trust that God will continue to provide for them in the wilderness.

To partake of Jesus as manna involves a reliance on God. One way John expresses this throughout the Gospel is through the word “abide.” The idea of “abiding” appears throughout John’s Gospel (e.g. 15:5-6). The same Greek word, meno, appears in John 6:56, although it is often translated “remain”: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood remain in me and I in them.” Feeding on Jesus as manna means remaining or abiding with Jesus. It is through this proximity that Jesus brings life to those who eat (v. 57).

But “abiding” with Jesus is difficult. Staying with Jesus and learning from him is a long process. For many, a quick fix would be more attractive. The crowd was initially attracted to Jesus when they saw him as a Moses figure — one who could work miracles and provide political victories. As they continue with him, they learn that Jesus is not offering an easy victory but the long road of discipleship.

On a narrative level, the twelve are shown in this passage as the ones who “abide” with Jesus. They stick with Jesus even though his teaching is difficult. (Although they, too, will scatter instead of remain during the trial and crucifixion.) Here, they recognize Jesus’ words as life giving and do not turn away. In doing so, they represent what it means to trust that God will provide manna. They stick closely to Jesus, who is the manna, and they listen to his words. This is their only real option — much like the Israelites stuck in the wilderness, whose only option is to return to slavery: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

John’s Gospel is written in a way that mirrors this need to “abide” with Jesus. As readers, we can’t absorb all of the Gospel’s meaning the first time. The manna discourse is filled with nuances that take time to understand. The language is multifaceted, so there is not a single meaning that one can digest and then walk away. Readers who come to understand themselves as the Israelites, feeding on Jesus as manna, and who “abide” in that wilderness place, may come to understand what John is getting at here.