Studies in John’s Gospel—Bible study lesson 14
by Reta Halteman Finger
If John’s Gospel were a stage play, a dramatic scene shift would occur between chapters 5 and 6. Acting as his own lawyer in Jerusalem (5:30-47), Jesus now dons a Red Cross hat as he heals many on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee (6:2). This draws a huge crowd, who, out of need or curiosity, forget to pack a lunch. In 6:3-15, the Great Physician becomes Mother Jesus as he personally distributes food to his dependents. For once in their lives, these peasants eat until they can eat no more. For once, there are leftovers.
The economics of food
But not today. Government cuts to food stamps (SNAP) are now taking meals away from some of the poorest Americans. Today ten million Filipinos hunger and thirst because they have lost everything in what may be the worst storm in recorded history. In any society, the farther down people are on the wealth/poverty scale, the more central food and water become. Is it any wonder that all four Gospels include the story of Jesus feeding a massive crowd of people? (See Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-44; Luke 9:10b-17.)
Most inhabitants of first-century Palestine were sharecroppers trying to subsist on what was left after the rich landowners took their two-thirds. Galilee’s wealth was continually redistributed upward to the Roman occupiers, who used it for luxury goods and to maintain their military control. It was a delicate balancing act: squeeze as much as possible out of the laboring peasants, without making life impossible and risking violent rebellion. (Does this sound eerily similar to conservative capitalist economics in our society today?)
In such a subsistence economy, the Gospels are permeated with stories of food and meals. For habitually eating across social classes, Jesus is called “a glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). Luke associates Jesus with a meal in almost every chapter. The Last Supper is memorialized as the central ritual of the Jesus Movement. And in John 6, introduced by this “feeding of the 5000,” Jesus becomes the Bread of Life himself.
Unique details in a familiar story
Scholars debate whether John’s version of the feeding account is independent or based on the Synoptic versions. I lean towards independence. News of such a public event would have spread far and wide. In any case, John shapes this story for his own purposes.
First, in 6:3, “Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.” This echoes the way Matthew begins the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1), but John insists on food first, sermon later. In verse 4, only John notes that the Jewish festival of Passover was near. Passover was the “feast of breads,” commemorating both the deliverance from slavery in Egypt and the miracle of manna in the desert for the hungry Israelites (see Exodus 13-16). This Gospel portrays Jesus attending many festivals in Jerusalem, but this time he creates his own “feast of breads” in Galilee with a crowd who clearly could not afford to celebrate in Jerusalem on Mount Zion. Instead, “the mountain” of 6:3 reminds us that Jesus is the New Moses. Like the Hebrews’ original savior, who met God on a mountain and as a mother provided food and water for them, Jesus is about to do the same.
Second, Jesus is in control of the situation. Though he asks Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” we are assured this was just a test because “he himself knew what he was going to do” (John 6:6-7). Later, after taking the loaves and giving thanks, Jesus distributes the food himself, even though the Synoptics more realistically delegate this task to his disciples. These actions remind us of Lady Wisdom who knows all things (see Proverbs 8:22-31 and John 1:1-17 in Lesson Two) and the “capable wife” of Proverbs 31.
Third, this Gospel adds human interest. Two of the lesser-known disciples are named—Philip and Andrew. Philip hails from Bethsaida, probably the closest town in the area, and may be concerned about the crowd looting its grain stores. Andrew finds a young boy with a lunch of five small barley loaves and two dried fish (John 6:8-9). This should remind us that behind this miracle of multiplying food is a mother who provided that lunch for her son. Because of her care and the generosity she must have instilled in her son, Jesus was able to mother a hungry crowd of followers. We can also be sure that this mother’s household was poor, since those with more wealth would have baked wheat, not barley, bread.
Fourth, like changing water into wine, John calls this feeding a “sign.” For this crowd, it signifies that Jesus is not only a prophet like Moses but would make a marvelous king! As they try to “make him king” (John 6:15), Jesus withdraws alone. Here he confronts and resists the same political temptations the Synoptics describe Jesus struggling with in the wilderness after his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). Omitting that event, John instead shows Jesus—right in the midst of his busy ministry— resisting the temptation to turn stones into bread in order to become a popular king of the world.
For discussion and reflection:
1. John’s “5000” are Matthew’s “5000 men besides women and children” (14:21). Who may be more accurate? more inclusive?
2. Is wealth being redistributed upward in our society today? Explain.
3. Food is political. What current policies and practices work against low-income people having sufficient nutritious food?