Jesus feeds the crowd by Painted by Eric Feather

"Come, Eat my Bread ..." - John 6:1-15, 24-35

Kathleen Rushton reveals the deep scriptural resonances that the Johannine community uses to describe Jesus as bread of life.

The Latin imperative “Fiat panis — Let there be bread” with the letters FAO encircling a head of wheat make up the emblem of the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations. This simple logo goes to the heart of the FAO goals: 

“the eradication of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition; the elimination of poverty and the driving forward of economic and social progress for all; and, the sustainable management and utilization of natural resources, including land, water, air, climate and genetic resources for the benefit of present and future generations.” 

The FAO imperative links with the well-known scriptural invitation of Wisdom-Sophia: “Come, eat my bread and drink my wine.” In the layered narrative of John 6, Jesus is portrayed as Wisdom- Sophia.

Come eat of my bread

When the early Christians were trying to make sense of the death-resurrection of Jesus, they reinterpreted familiar figures, images and characters from their Sacred Scriptures. The earliest readers of John’s gospel, would have recognised Jesus being presented as Wisdom-Sophia, a female personification of God found in the Wisdom Books (of the First Testament). Like Wisdom-Sophia they understood Jesus too as with God from the beginning co-creating, being sent from above, pitching a tent among us, being intimate with God and crying out publicly creating a division among hearers — of acceptance or rejection.

By chapter six of John’s gospel Jesus is established in the narrative as Wisdom-Sophia and evokes this female figure who gathers her disciples: “Come, eat my bread and drink my wine.” (Proverbs 9:1-6). As John’s gospel has no story of the institution of the Eucharist, John 6 is often seen as the counterpart of Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Last Supper accounts. At the story level, John 6 begins with Jesus feeding a large crowd (Jn 6:1-15); then Jesus comes to his disciples walking on the sea (Jn 6:16-21); a discourse on the Bread of Life follows (Jn 6:22-59) and finally a conversation between Jesus and the disciples (Jn 6:60-71).

The feeding of the 5000 in John differs from the other three gospel accounts. Near the time of the Passover, it is Jesus, not the disciples, who looked up, saw the large crowd and not only asked how they were to be fed but later, after he had given thanks (eucharistein), distributed the bread himself. This difference comes from the Wisdom-Sophia influence. And it recalls the synoptic gospels’ Last Supper stories where Jesus himself distributes the bread and acts in this sequence — Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks (eucharistein) and distributed them.

Providing daily bread

In the first century as today, the word “bread” meant both bread and food in general. Behind “bread” in all its senses is men’s and women’s hard work and the self-giving (sacrifice) to provide for their families. In ordinary life a meal and sacrifice are linked. Bread, in its particular and widest sense, comes from the soil and the water that irrigates it.

What of the bread — barley loaves — used in John, the only gospel to mention them? Grain, and the products made from it, was by far the most important of the three staple food commodities of grain, oil and wine. Wheat was considered to be superior to barley which tasted less desirable and was cheaper. Barley ripened more quickly than wheat, required less water, was less sensitive to soil salinity and so it became the major crop in the arid areas of the Mediterranean world. Barley was the food of the poor and slaves and was also fed to animals. Apart from the hard work of growing barley, it needed to be milled. It could take about three hours to provide enough for a family of five or six — about three kilograms.

The mention of barley loaves evokes Elisha feeding them to a multitude in 2 Kings 4:42-44. The 12 baskets left over are also anchored in Scripture. God says to Elisha: 

“Give it to the people and let them eat … they shall eat and have some left.” 

In the Exodus wilderness feeding they gathered up twelve baskets of left-over manna. This provision for all gathered and some left over is a recurring description of biblical meals. Jesus’ words: “Make the people sit down,” are expressed using a Greek verb meaning to stretch out for a meal — reclining was the customary position for eating. The description of “a great deal of grass” suggests the assurance of Psalm 23:1: 

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.”

I am the bread of life

Jesus went up the mountain (Jn 6:3) and then after feeding the large crowd “he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (Jn 6:15). As the disciples headed back by boat from that place near Tiberias to Capernaum during the night, Jesus comes to them over the water. The next day, some of the crowd come there by boat from Tiberias looking for Jesus. A long intricately-structured dialogue occurs in which Jesus responds to the crowd’s five questions (Jn 6:25, 30, 34, 42, 52).

The prologue of John (1:1-18) gives a summary of the gospel story. The reader knows that “in him was life” (Jn 1:4). As characters, “the crowd” do not understand that Jesus himself is the bread that sustains life. The agents, through which God is revealed in the signs in John, are non-human elements: earthen pots filled with water; a mat carried by one who had not been able to walk; and in this story, bread and 12 stout, wicker baskets. God encounters persons in unexpected ways.

The crowd asks: “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (Jn 6:25). Characteristically, Jesus does not answer their question but moves the conversation to another level because he knows they just want another meal. Jesus talks of the contrast between physical bread and the bread of life which he offers. That is not to say that Jesus negates the need for bread. Jesus and his disciples had money and used some of it for the needs of the poor (Jn 12:5-8; 13:29). Jesus initiates an exchange with Philip about money to buy food for the crowd. (Jn 6:5-6). There is need for bread for physical hunger and for openness to the One who gives bread (manna) and is God (cf. Exodus 16:4). This is an ongoing need. God gives (Jn 6:32) not in a past event but in a present and ongoing one.

The eucharistic tones in this account of the feeding of the 5000 and the bread of life discourse emphasise the Eucharist as a meal. Later in the chapter the tone changes to the Eucharist as sacrifice and self-giving (Jn 6:41-69). This seems foreshadowed by the only mention in the New Testament of Tiberias (Jn 6:1, 23), a town built by Herod Antipas and named for the emperor Tiberius. In bold contrast to the tax-sucking Roman empire, Wisdom-Sophia is imagined as building her house and filling it with provisions for all.

Published in Tui Motu InterIslands July 2015.