July 1, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: He is the bread of life

See John 6:22-71

The day after Jesus fed the multitude with only five loaves and two fish, he was back in Capernaum. When the crowds found him there, they couldn’t help but wonder how he got there since they saw the Apostles leave without him the day before. He didn’t bother telling them that he had walked on the sea during the night, but simply replied that they were looking for him because he had filled them with bread.

“Bread” then became the key for what he next told them. At first, it was just a conversation about Moses and the manna that the Israelites ate in the desert. Jesus pointed out that Moses didn’t give bread from heaven, it was God. But then he went on to say that he himself was the bread from heaven and that he was “the bread of life.”

Up to this point, “bread of life” was a figure of speech for God’s revelation in Jesus. But then he got more explicit, saying that he “came down from heaven,” sent by his Father. This was the first time he made such a claim. It was a bit much for these people, who knew perfectly well that he grew up in nearby Nazareth. He didn’t explain how the same person, already existing in heaven with his Father, could also be born of a human mother on earth.

And he didn’t stop there. What he said next seemed outrageous: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” He said it not once, but a half-dozen times, and the word he used for “eat” was not the verb used for human eating, but that of animal eating: “munch” or “gnaw.” Then he said that they were also to drink his blood!

We today know that he was promising the Eucharist, his true body and blood in the appearance of bread and wine. But how could his listeners know that? They had to be scandalized. After all, Jews were forbidden to eat meat until all the blood had been drained out. Did Jesus now want them to eat him cannibalistically and then drink his blood? Some of what he had said before sounded like blasphemy, but now he sounded like a crazy man. It’s no wonder that many of his disciples stopped following him.

Jesus let them go. He didn’t call them back and say that he was speaking figuratively. Figures of speech are used to clarify obscure ideas, not to make clear ideas obscure. He meant what he said. He acknowledged that the Apostles were shocked, but simply asked, “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”

The Twelve, though, remained, even after Jesus asked if they, too, wanted to leave. It was then that Peter, for the first time acting as spokesman for the Twelve, replied, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” That is why we, too, follow him. †


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