Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:41-51 – NRSVCE)
1. The expression “the Jews” sounds very harsh to our twenty first century ears. We hear this expression more than sixty times in the Gospel of John. Sometimes it is matter of fact. For example: “there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews” (3:1); “the Passover of the Jews” (3:13); “salvation is from the Jews” (4:23); “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him” (11:45); “When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus” (12:9-11). More often than not, however, the expression implies antipathy, a blunt naming of the opponents of Jesus and anyone who would not believe in him. For example: “The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’” (2:18 and elsewhere in this passage); “the Jews started persecuting Jesus” (5:16 and elsewhere in this passage); “Then the Jews began to complain about him” (6:41); “The Jews took up stones again to stone him” (10:31); “The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God” (19:7) and so on.
a. Francis Moloney writes: “Uncritical reading has led to two dangerous consequences directly related to the misunderstanding of what is meant by ‘the Jews’ in the Fourth Gospel: (1) The Gospel of John has been accepted as the inspired and infallible Word of God that roundly condemns the Jewish people because of their rejection and eventual slaying of Jesus of Nazareth. For centuries this interpretation of the Fourth Gospel has legitimated some of the most outrageous behavior of European Christian people, including pogroms and the attempted genocide of the Holocaust. (2) It is also possible to come to a different, but equally damaging conclusion. It could be claimed that the language used to speak of the Jews is so violently anti-Semitic that the Fourth Gospel should not be used in today’s Christian churches, that it is time to lay the Gospel of John quietly to rest.
b. Moloney continues: “Inflammatory rejection of the Jewish people has marked much of the history of European Christianity and, because of this, of European culture as a whole. The Christian involvement in—or at best non-opposition to—the Holocaust, and a large part of European history and culture, including the European theological tradition, are but indications of the immeasurable damage that has resulted from the misreading of one of Christianity’s foundational texts. However, there is a rich and significant presence of the Fourth Gospel in Christian life, spirituality, and both Western and Eastern liturgical traditions. It has inspired Christian iconography, being outstandingly present in the many paintings and statues of the crucified Jesus, his mother, and the Beloved Disciple (cf. 19:25–27), and has inspired music from J. S. Bach to Arvo Pärt, both of whom have written unforgettable renditions of the Johannine passion account. There can be no wholesale rejection of the Fourth Gospel, as neither the condemnation and persecution of “the Jews” nor the elimination of the Gospel of John from Christian literature can claim to be based upon a correct reading of the Fourth Gospel.” (The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 9-10.)
c. The varying ways in which the Gospel uses the expression “the Jews” suggests there is complexity here. Clearly it does not refer to the Jewish people as such. We need to be careful with our interpretation. Jesus was a Jew, the author of the Gospel of John was almost certainly a Jew, Jesus’ first disciples were Jews.
d. There are two facts of history that than can bring some clarity to our interpretation. First of all, we know there was a dispute in the Jewish community as to Jesus’ true identity – some said he was the Messiah, others opposed that view. This disagreement is evident in today’s text. Secondly, we also know that before the end of that first century – before John’s Gospel was written down – the Jewish religious authorities had banned Jesus’ followers from the Synagogues.
e. Again Francis Moloney writes: “‘The Jews’ are those characters in the story who have made up their minds about Jesus. They are one side of a christological debate, and this language was forged within the Johannine community, that formed the other side of the debate. The conflicts between Jesus and “the Jews” are more the reflection of a christological debate at the end of the first century than a record of encounters between Jesus and his fellow Israelites in the thirties of that century. They do not accurately report the experience of the historical Jesus. The Johannine community had come to believe that Jesus was the one sent by God, the Son of God, and as such the expected Messiah (cf. 20:31). This is the authorial point of view portrayed in Jesus’ actions, words, death, and resurrection. The Gospel exists because an author wished to express this viewpoint by means of a gospel. However, while one group in the story is passionately committed to this viewpoint there is another group equally passionately committed to the belief that Jesus is not the Messiah. This group casts out the man born blind from the synagogue (9:22, 34); some of its members are afraid to confess that Jesus is the Christ lest they too be cast out of the synagogue (12:42); and Jesus warns his disciples that they will be thrown out of the synagogue and even slain by people who regard their actions as rendering praise to God (16:2). Because these people believe that Jesus’ claims are false (7:10–13, 45–52) and that he is a blasphemer (5:16–18; 19:7) they are portrayed as systematically rejecting him and those who believe and follow him. This is the point of view represented by “the Jews.” (Op cit, 10)
2. The Exodus theme continues. Jesus is “the bread of life”. The people ate the manna in the desert and died. The New Exodus is offers the people something radically new: “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” See Notes for Gospel of Eighteenth Sunday for further reflections on the relationship between the Exodus and Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel.
The question of Jesus’ identity is present throughout the Gospels. Sometimes it is implicit, sometimes explicit, but never far away. The question functions at two main levels. First of all, it is a messianic question: Is Jesus the Messiah? Secondly, it is a more fundamental question: Who is Jesus?
The first question is theological and applies only to Jesus, though with immense implications for us. We are the descendants of those Jews who believed that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. The second question is existential and applies to each of us. It is this second question that I would like to reflect on a little more.
The sociocultural worlds that we construct can be – indeed, should be – avenues to ultimate reality beyond those sociocultural constructs. Our experiences of those human-made structures ought to be experiences of freedom in which we discover who and what we really are. They can also be prisons in which we become who and what we are not. For example, the “look of the other” can play a dominant and perhaps oppressive
role in shaping our sense of ourselves. (Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, translated by Hazel E Barnes, Methuen & Co, 1943/1957 – see especially 259-260.) The Hasidic master, Rebbe Mendel of Kotzk said:
“If I am I because I am I and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.” (See Abraham Twerski, Successful Relationships at Home, at Work and with Friends: Bringing Issues Under Control, Shaar Press, 2003, 89.)
Jesus refused to let the people, events or things of his world determine who and what he was. Jesus said to his disciples: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (4:34). Jesus’ identity comes from the Father. We become part of that same reality when Jesus is our “food”. Who and what I am is given by God, not fabricated by me.
“One must learn to live and act not merely on the basis of ideological principles which seem to suit one’s own sense of identity and which enable one to make plausible adjustments between ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ One must live as a Christian, act as a Christian, with a life and an activity which spring from the unconditional ‘yes’ of Christ to the Father’s will, incarnated in our own unconditional ‘yes’ to the reality, truth and love which are made fully accessible to us in the Person and in the Cross of Christ. This means that my life and my actions are seen as ‘justified’ by the love of Christ for the world and for the father. My life and action seek their meaning in a world which has been reconciled with its own truth and its origin by Christ’s love for it and for His Father. My acts are meaningful, not merely when I do what I consider right (still less when I do what I imagine will let me be at peace with myself) but when my acts accord with the goodness and blessedness which are in man and in the world by reason of Christ’s love.” (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Image Books, 1989, 267-268.)