Thursday, August 06, 2015

"I am the Bread of Life": Readings for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday, we continue our trek through John 6. There are five weeks devoted to this chapter in which we first hear of Jesus' multiplication of the loaves and fish before moving into the famous Bread of Life discourse.

Is the Bread of Life discourse about the eucharist? The language of eating Jesus' flesh and drinking his blood has long been interpreted as a reference to the Christian sacrament.

At the same time, not all interpreters have been convinced. Interestingly, the Council of Trent, recognizing that not all of the early church fathers agreed on the meaning of this passage, decided against using it as a proof for the Catholic understanding of the sacrament.

Just recently, a new book has been released that argues against a sacramental reading of Jesus' teaching in John 6: Meredith J.C. Warren, My Flesh is Meat Indeed: A Nonsacramental Reading of John 6:51-58 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015).

Here we cannot address every aspect of the debate. Indeed, the reading from John 6 continues into the next couple of Sundays, so some of the key passages involved in the discussion (e.g., John 6:63) won't be read until next Sunday.

In this commentary, then, I'd like to look specifically at the passages in view and highlight the relationship of the Gospel to the First Reading.

FIRST READING: 1 Kings 19:4-8
Elijah went a day’s journey into the desert,until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath it.
He prayed for death saying:“This is enough, O LORD!
Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
He lay down and fell asleep under the broom tree,but then an angel touched him and ordered him to get up and eat.
Elijah looked and there at his head was a hearth cakeand a jug of water.
After he ate and drank, he lay down again,but the angel of the LORD came back a second time,touched him, and ordered,“Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”
He got up, ate, and drank;then strengthened by that food,he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.
In this Sunday's first reading we hear the story of Elijah's journey into the wilderness. The Gospel, of course, will highlight the story of Israel receiving the manna in the wilderness, the story highlighted in last Sunday's First Reading. So what connection is there between Jesus' teaching that he is the new manna, and this story from 1 Kings?

Let us first back up here and look at the larger context of the Gospel account. The Bread of Life Discourse comes on the heels of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. Although some have argued against seeing this story as a miracle account, the plain sense of the text would militate against such skepticism, which inevitably must establish their meaning by reading something into the story.[1] A few considerations:
  • The author of the Fourth Gospel understood that the story related a miracle is clear from the fact that he refers to it as a sēmeion (cf. John 6:14), “sign”, a term he uses for miracles (cf. John 2:11; 4:54). 
  • The Fourth Gospel explicitly states that the fragments left over which filled twelve baskets came “from” the original five loaves (John 6:13: ek tōn pente artōn tōn krithinōn).[2]  

Moreover, the likelihood that the story should be seen as relating a miraculous event is further strengthened by the observation that the episode is almost certainly meant to evoke the miracle worked by Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42–44.[3] In fact, scholars have recognized numerous parallels between Elisha and Jesus in the Synoptic tradition.

It is no surprise, then, that the lectionary would have us turn in the First Reading of this Sunday’s lectionary selections to a story about Elijah. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is often identified with Elijah (cf. Matt 16:14; Mark 8:28; Luke 9:19). Elijah and Elisha are sort of a package deal—the two are closely united. For one thing, Elisha is clearly identified as Elijah’s successor, having been promised a “double-portion” of his spirit, which he receives when Elijah is taken up at the Jordan (cf. 2 Kgs 2:9–15). Furthermore, in the narrative of 2 Kings, Elisha performs several miracles reminiscent of those worked by his mentor.[4] It should be noted though that while he performs miracles similar to those of Elijah, Elisha’s miracles are more numerous and impressive![5]

We still, however, haven’t talked about the manna connection. Why does the lectionary link a story about Elijah to Jesus’ teaching about being the true manna from heaven? Here’s the key: Elijah is presented by the narrative of 1–2 Kings as “a New Moses figure”. 

First, like Moses, Elijah fasts for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness (cf. 1 Kgs 19:8; Exod 32:28).

Second, Elijah parted the waters of the Jordan, an act reminiscent of Moses’ parting of the Red Sea (cf. 2 Kgs 2:8; Exod 14:16, 21–22).

Third, and most important for our purposes, as God provided “manna” and “quail” each morning and evening for Israel in the wilderness through Moses, Elijah is miraculously provided “bread” and “meat” in the morning and in the evening in the wilderness (cf. 1 Kgs 17:6). 

Elijah is thus described as a New Moses.[6]    In fact, like Moses (cf. Deut 18:15, etc.), Elijah was associated with hopes for the future restoration of Israel in the messianic era (e.g., Mal 4:5–6; Sir 48:10–11).[7] The story of Elijah thus works well with the New Exodus and New Moses imagery found in the wider context of John 6.

GOSPEL: John 6:41-51
The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said,“I am the bread that came down from heaven, ”and they said,“Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?
Do we not know his father and mother?
Then how can he say,‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Jesus answered and said to them,“Stop murmuring among yourselves.
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him,and I will raise him on the last day.
It is written in the prophets:'They shall all be taught by God.'Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.
Not that anyone has seen the Fatherexcept the one who is from God;he has seen the Father.
Amen, amen, I say to you,whoever believes has eternal life.
I am the bread of life.
Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died;this is the bread that comes down from heavenso that one may eat it and not die.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven;whoever eats this bread will live forever;and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
The allusion to the manna story and the description of the crowds "murmuring" against Jesus contain obvious echoes of the Exodus story--prior to receiving the manna the people "murmured" against Moses. 

But what about the meaning of the Jesus' identity as the Bread of Life? Is it a metaphor for faith (as some early fathers understood it) or is it about the eucharist (as other fathers thought)? In his commentary on the Fourth Gospel, Raymond Brown made a major contribution that I believe will stand the test of time. He argues that the Bread of Life discourse of Jesus can be divided into two parts: 6:35-47 and 6:48-58. Both sections begin with Jesus statement: "I am the bread of life" (6:35, 48). 

Brown argued that the first part of the sermon concerns faith. It's no wonder that many have seen the bread of life as talking about the necessity of faith--that's exactly what Jesus says: whoever believes has eternal life. Moreover, Jesus emphasizes that faith is a gift: No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him. 

After emphasizing the need for faith in the first part of the sermon, Jesus' language regarding being the bread of life begins to emphasize the importance of eating him: whoever eats this bread will live forever. This second part of the Sermon, Brown contends, is the section which draws on eucharistic imagery

Now some have called into the question the eucharistic reading. Without getting into the verses in the next section of the reading (see the commentary next week), let's just make something abundantly clear: the Bread of Life discourse immediately follows the multiplication of the loaves and fish, a miracle that, in the Synoptic Gospels, is clearly linked to the institution of the eucharistic at the Last Supper. 

Jesus performs the exact same fourfold action over bread (“taking,” “blessing,” “breaking,” and “giving”) in both stories.[8] Some have disputed the presence of an allusion to the Last Supper by claiming that such actions were typical of Jewish meals. Yet this does not explain why Jesus’ actions over the bread are not mentioned in other accounts of his table-fellowship.[9] The miracle was thus most likely related in some way to the Last Supper.[10]

Readings that downy play a eucharistic referent in Jesus' teaching in John 6--such as that found in Warren's book--fail to recognize how the Sermon fits into the larger context of the chapter. They also privilege possible backgrounds (e.g., Homeric imagery) instead of seeing how the language of the discourse relates to themes that run throughout the book. 

For example, in John, Jesus is identified as the "lamb of God" (John 1:29). Specifically, Jesus' death is linked to the Passover celebration. A key element of the Passover was eating the lamb. In fact, John 6 is set against the backdrop of the Passover (cf. John 6:2). Thus, in John's narrative, this is chapter takes place one year prior to Jesus' death. On the next Passover, Jesus will be sacrificed. 

The Passover imagery makes sense of the larger imagery. Jesus is not only the new manna, he is also the Passover Lamb--he is sacrificed, but he also must be eaten. (Interestingly, Warren notes all sorts of sacrificial allusions and the connection between sacrifice and meals but fails to see how Jesus' teaching fits within this wider Jewish matrix, which is signaled at the very beginning of the chapter). 

So why begin the Bread of Life discourse with an emphasis on faith? Because receiving the eucharist is predicated on faith. It is not enough to simply go through the ritual.

Is there any evidence that some early Christians were prone to this kind of temptation. Actually, yes. Paul addresses the problem of Christians receiving the eucharist in a thoughtless way in 1 Corinthians 11. 

As Catholics, we are reminded this Sunday that the eucharist is not simply a work of "magic". Yes, Catholics speak of the sacraments working ex opere operato: literally, "by the very fact of the action's being performed" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1128). This refers to the fact that the efficaciousness of the sacrament is not dependent on the worthiness of the minister (i.e., the priest). 

This does not mean, however, that the sacraments are efficacious apart from the disposition of the recipient. Faith is necessary. Spiritual preparation is necessary. In fact, even Paul explained, "Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (1 Cor 11:28). 

Let us especially take the time to prepare ourselves to receive the Lord in the liturgy this Sunday, asking the Father to draw us to Christ. In particular, I'd like to close with a remark on the importance of prayer by spiritual theologian, Jordan Aumann:

Those who aspire to sanctity by giving themselves completely to the active life while neglecting the life of prayer may just as well forget about Christian perfection. Experience proves that there is absolutely nothing that can supply for the life of prayer, not even the daily reception of the Eucharist. There are many persons who receive Communion every day, yet their spiritual life is mediocre and lukewarm. The reason is none other than the lack of mental prayer, either because they omit it entirely or they practice it in a mechanical and routine fashion. We repeat that without prayer it is impossible to attain Christian perfection, no matter what our state of life or the occupation to which we dedicate ourselves.—Jordan Aumann, Spiritual Theology, ch. 12


[1] The most famous example being the interpretation which holds that the crowds were secretly hiding their food away but were moved to share what little food they had upon seeing the generosity exemplified by the sharing of the loaves and fishes. This interpretation traces itself back to Heinrich E. G. Paulus [Das Leben Jesu, als Grundlage einer reinen Geschichte des Urchristentums (2 vols.; Heidelberg: C. F. Winter, 1826), 1:349–57. See the discussion in Colin Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind, 113, 121.
[2] We might also point out that the miraculous element clearly illustrates the larger point made throughout the Gospel—what the earthly “flesh” is incapable of, the supernatural power of the Spirit is able to accomplish. See the discussion in Keener, John, 667–69.
[3] This was recognized as early as Tertullian, Adv. Marc. 421.
[4] Like Elijah, Elisha works a miracle making oil last indefinitely (cf. 1 Kgs 17:8–16; 2 Kgs 4:1–7), parts the waters of the Jordan (cf. 2 Kgs 2:8, 13), and raises a child from the dead (1 Kgs 17:17–24; 2 Kgs 4:32–37). For a fuller discussion of the relationship between Elijah and Elisha as well as the literary unity of the narrative in 1-2 Kings see the great discussion and the plethora of references in Thomas Brodie, The Crucial Bridge: The Elijah-Elisha Narrative as an Interpretive Synthesis of Genesis Kings and a Model for the Gospels (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 1–27.  
[5] See Colin Brown, “Miracles,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (4 vols.; ed. G. W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 3: 373, who explains that after Elisha receives a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit, we read about “miracles greater and more numerous than those performed by Elijah.” Here he sees more than the Elijah-Elisha succession, but also Moses-Joshua imagery.
[6] See C. C. Broyles, “Moses,” in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed. J. B. Green, S. McKnight, I. H. Marshall; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 561 [560-2]. Again, the most comprehensive treatment of the themes in Matthew is found in Allison, New Moses, 137–328.
[7] Such hopes appear present at Qumran (cf. 4QMessianic Apocalypse [4Q521] 2 3:1; 4QVisionb ar [4Q 558] 1 2:4) and in the Rabbinic tradition (cf. m. ‘Ed. 8:7). It is also is likely present in the later book of 4 Ezra (cf. 6:24–26).   
[8] See George H. Boobyer, “The Eucharistic Interpretation of the Miracle of the Loaves in St. Mark’s Gospel,” JTS 3 (1952): 161–171; Robert Fowler, Loaves and Fishes (SBLDS 54; Chico: Scholars Press, 1981), 137–47; Gundry, Mark, 330–333; Green, Luke, 364–365 n. 36; Bock, Luke, 1:834.
[9] Meier (Marginal Jew, 2:1032) writes, “. . . anyone who wishes to deny a eucharistic reference in the Gospel feeding stories must explain why all the evangelists bother to spell out in detail Jesus’ actions over the bread―a point that is a fortiori a problem for those who stress that these were the common actions of a host at a formal Jewish meal. If they were so common, why are they spelled out in this story in particular? Moreover, if we dispense with any eucharistic reference, we are hard-pressed to answer an obvious question: Why was this one miracle story so important to the early church that three different versions developed in the oral tradition and six versions appear in the Gospels?” (citing also Bastiaan Martinus Franciscus van Iersel, “Die wunderbare Speisung und das Abendmahl in der synoptischen Tradition [Mk vi 35–44 par., viii 1–20 par.],” NovT 7 [1964]: 167–69. Likewise, see Nolland, Luke, 1:437: “. . . while Boobyer is quite right to identify the individual elements as part of Jewish practice, he cannot point to any Jewish text that assembles these elements into an actual account of a meal. For a Jewish meal they would be assumed; here they are reported because they parallel eucharistic practice.” Along the same lines, see Marshall, Luke, 357–58. 
[10] Fitzmyer concludes, “. . . the parallels between the various Synoptic accounts of the feeding and the eucharistic institution are too close to be explained otherwise” (Luke, 1:764). In addition, see Meier, who explains that given the many affinities with the Last Supper tradition already attested in 1 Corinthians 11, “I find it difficult to believe that version of the miracle of the feeding of the multitude could have been told in a first-generation Christian community without reverberating with eucharistic echoes” (Marginal Jew, 2:964). We concur with Meier.


The Will Dill....about nothing said...

Excellent work.

Justin Gaudet said...

I really enjoy all the wonderful work that God does through you! While I loved your explanation, I take issue with the final paragraphs of your blog, wherein you quote Jordan Aumann (I am aware that I don't know his full context since I've never read his work). Yes, faith and Eucharist cannot be separated, but neither can prayer and sacrifice. For both the ancient Israelites and pagans, the two latter actions went hand-in-hand to so great an extent as to almost be one; a perfect unity. I don't deny that we, as Christians, are living sacraments, Sons within the Son, Gods within God, and, therefore, we should constantly pray, daily, in unity with our sacrificial nature, but I don't agree with how Aumann falsely subordinates the Eucharist, as great as he says it is, to mental prayer, or to prayer in general. The Eucharist is the only prayer and the only sacrifice. Our daily, individual, unity of prayer and sacrifice finds fulfillment in the Eucharistic Unity of communal prayer and sacrifice. Aumann's comments, then, kind of sound like a contemporary form of Messalianism, which the Church condemned.

I think that the reason many Christians are not properly prepared to receive the Eucharist with Faith, Hope, and Agape is not because of a lack of individual prayer, but because they are really really communally, covenantally, biblically, source-traditionally ignorant, and because of a lack of proper leadership in the Church. Ignorance and bad leadership, like prayer and sacrifice, here are also a unity; there is not many Fathers who raise and educate their children in the house of Faith. How many parishioners, after all, know that the Eucharist is the prayer and the sacrifice, and that both sacrifice and prayer are never divided from one another, even in the Old Covenant world of shadows. Bishops, and the ordained priests that they appoint in their place, do not unveil to the faithful such realities, even to the fact of the communal prayer/sacrifice experience being greater than that of the individual. All they "unveil" for us is philosophical morality at one end of the spectrum, or, at the other end, that we are to be loving (in the sense of nice, non-judgmental) and are cute, unique "snowflakes." If it wasn't for a foundation of EWTN, an unveiling through Scott Hahn, you, and Brant Pitre, a deepening by means of a degree in Eastern Christian Studies, and the Eucharistic Lord and I, lonely and together, constantly purifying and synthesizing all such knowledge and experiences...I'd have nothing.