Studies in John’s Gospel—Bible study lesson 15
by Reta Halteman Finger
On my bookshelf is Hiking the Jesus Trail, a travel guide to the trail that wanders throughout Galilee for many miles. * Had I checked that before writing the previous lesson, I would have situated the feeding story on a different mountain. Jesus was actually on the east side of the Sea of Galilee (see map). Otherwise the following pericope makes no geographical sense.
We left Jesus wandering the mountain alone, resisting the temptation to allow the people “to make him king” (6:15). In his absence, his disciples decide to get into their boat and row home to Capernaum, a small fishing village on the shore of the sea about three or four miles away (6:17-19). This is the town from which Jesus called his fishermen disciples, and it remained his home base throughout his ministry. The disciples probably were familiar with Jesus’ periodic need for solitude.
Terror and relief
All four Gospels include this story of Jesus walking on water, but our author underplays the Synoptics’ emphasis on the fierce storm and Jesus’ power to calm the sea. The disciples are nevertheless terrified, so Jesus reassures them with, “It’s me—don’t be afraid.” The Greek, ego eimi, literally reads “I am,” perhaps hinting at the “I am” sayings that follow later in this Gospel. Verse 21 says, “Then they wanted to receive him into the boat.” The Greek word for “receive” is the same one used in John 1:12 for “all who received him…he gave power to become children of God.” “Thus we observe a reunion, not just a passing meeting,” comments Jerome Neyrey in his New Cambridge commentary. “The union of master and disciple stands out as the key element,” not the calming of a storm. This emphasis on intimacy will increase as we continue through John’s narrative.
A persistent crowd that won’t disperse
But the crowd is not so easily put off. Some of them stay there all night to wait for more action in the morning—are they anticipating a free breakfast after the bountiful meal of bread and fish the day before? But the place is deserted, so when more boats come from Tiberias, a Roman town on the southwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, they embark and head for Capernaum (6:24). Here are questions for readers: what did the crowd know and when did they know it? They had seen the disciples leave for home in the boat without Jesus (6:22), so what were they expecting? Did they assume he had magical powers for flying or walking on the water? Or walking around the lake as an ordinary person? When they ask Jesus, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (6:25), does calling him Rabbi (Teacher) imply anything about their view of him? If you as a reader were part of this crowd, what would you be thinking?
By 6:26 we know what Jesus is thinking. Remember from Lesson 6 that he is a Spiritual Director who does not entrust himself to crowds “because he knows all people and needs no one to testify about anyone, for he himself knows what is in everyone” (2:24-25). Just as many in Jerusalem believed superficially because of Jesus’ signs (2:23), with no clue as to what they signified, so it is with this crowd. “I tell you the truth; you are looking for me not because you know how to read signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” (6:26-27).
The story with a different ending
This postlude to the feeding story of our last lesson is totally different from what happens in the Synoptic parallels. In Mark and Matthew, after the miracles of meal and walking on water, Jesus continues to heal many people, who now see him as a wonder-working rock star (Mk 6:53-56; Mt 14:34-36). The author of the Fourth Gospel, however, is more focused on the meaning and significance of what is happening. Wisdom/Sophia Herself stands before the crowd—the Bread which offers eternal life. Each member of the crowd is invited into a satisfying and intimate relationship with the Son of Humanity upon whom “God the Father has set his seal” (6:27).
Alas, the crowd reminds us of Nicodemus (Lesson 7) who always interpreted Jesus’ words on an earthly level and thus missed their true significance. In this case, “works” and “food” have double meanings. The crowd asks, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” no doubt thinking of how they might earn their next meal of bread and fish. Yet all they need to do is put their trust in, and give total loyalty to, the One whom God has sent (6:29).
Questions for discussion and reflection:
1. A mission worker once told me, in effect, that one cannot offer only heavenly Bread to those who have insufficient earthly bread. Jesus clearly fed poor and hungry people with actual food before he invited them into something more profound and permanent. But that intimate relationship with Jesus involves sharing earthly goods with others, as well as encouraging spiritual hunger. How can we best do this without being patronizing or acting holier-than-thou?
2. Have you had scary experiences when Jesus said to you, “It’s me; don’t be afraid”?
* I’m proud to say Hiking the Jesus Trail was written by my niece and her husband, Anna and Dave Landis, who presently live in Israel. (back to top)