On from Young, 2011

Beware the Boats from Tiberias

The Gospel:  John 6:11-23, 24-35  —  The Lectionary is set as Verse 24-35

11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.

22 The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the lake saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ 26Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ 28Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’29Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ 30So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ 32Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ 34They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’

35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 

The key text for this week
From the text notes below:

The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the lake saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.  24So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

What a clumsy way to say the crowd notices Jesus is not there unless we want to focus on boats! Then boats come from Tiberias, a city Herod had established and named in honour of the Emperor. Tiberias is set alongside "the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks." (Thanks is the Greek word from which we get Eucharist.) And the crowd gets into the boats from Tiberias, with the emphasis they themselves. The boats did not come from Capernaum. Nor are these boats the boat that the disciples were in. Clearly, the text is not meant to be taken literally; how many boats would you need for 5,000 people!? Something is being said here about allegiance and about seeing. The question could be as simple as: Whose boat are you in? The boat you are in will affect what you see. 

Beware the Boats from Tiberias
The crowd who follow Jesus to the other side of the lake are ordinary people seeking satisfaction for their hunger. But those who get into the boats from Tiberias end up becoming what John calls οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι. This text has been translated, disastrously, as "the Jews."   The scapegoating and murder of millions of Jesus' people demands we do not use this translation.

James Alison speaks of "the return of the “Judahites” from Babylon."

It is these “Judahites” – that is an observant religious party, that gives its name to the subsection of the Hebrew people known as the “Ιουδαιοι” to whom St John refers, and which we typically translate as “The Jews”. We thus confuse a modern ethnic term with an ancient term closer to a partisan ideological grouping, one that was originally a subsection of the ethnic group of the “Εβραιοι”. 3 Cf John 10, 36. (James Alison "What sorts of difference does René Girard make to how we read the Bible?")

Quoting this article last week I noted that "the iudiaioi read Exodus differently to Jesus." Throughout John we are dealing with arguments between "partisan ideological groupings" within the one people.

While working my way through the verses for the week in the commentary below this reflection, I have remembered the grief of finding myself far distant from some friends and family. Once, we were "one people." These are good people who see large parts of the world in ways which seem an unbridgeable distance from the way I see the world. It is difficult not to let these differences harden into what James Alison called a "partisan ideological grouping," demarcated by walls of scorn and contempt. These are the groupings which are shown, blind to compassion, in John Chapter 5.

I have also remembered Alison's statements on the opening page of On Being Liked.

We always learn to see through the eyes of another. The desire of another directs our seeing and makes available to us what is to be seen. (On Being Liked 2003 DLT pp 1)

The boat we get into will affect what we see— teach us to see. And, of course, talking to people from another boat means what we see will be changed. We might even be contaminated; the insistence on keeping Sabbath in John 5, and the insistence that the healing, even after 38 years in the wilderness of life was wrong, occurred precisely because the healing threatened the infection of rot into the very keel of the boat. The healing contaminated the works of God that defined the community and kept it safe. The Sabbath and the food laws defined Israel. They were how you showed you were serious about God. They were the walls that kept community together and contamination out.

And friends, family, and I, look askance at each other in similar, although less obvious fashion. Those of us who are more reflective wonder if we can afford each other, or risk each other. Will this person be safe, we wonder, or will they bring me undone in some way, or pull me away from God?

The other issue which looms in chapter 6 is that of hunger. All my life, I have been hungry. Writing about weight as a symptom, rather than the problem, I say,

I stopped being hungry.

I have known for decades that weight was not my problem. The problem was that I was insatiably hungry. Some of the hunger was addressed by the bike riding because that took me some way out of the rat race and back into a more meaningful life. In the 24/7 crisis, despite all stress and danger, I was in an artificially simple world where I was fulfilled, doing and being what I am meant to be. Being filled-full, I stopped being hungry, and the body did the rest. (Andrew Prior)

I begin my notes for this week during the feeding sign: When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ (6:12) Jesus, contra Moses, gathers up all the fragments, which is a glorious image.  It bounces off the image of the manna that decayed, an image that would be clear in the cultural memory of John's readers, even though we need to be told about it, and it adds a nuance which is increasingly foreign to our culture: that nothing may be lost. Jesus comes to gather together our fragmentation. The broken bread and fish mimic the way we are, but in this brokenness we can find satisfaction, and... nothing, none of us, will be lost. I am reminded of his word to Nicodemus: Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (3:17)

To eat this food means to escape the notion of our time that it is possessions which "maketh the man." James F McGrath says Jesus' words when the crowd catches up with him "are reminiscent of the Old Testament exegetical tradition relating to the provision of manna, such as is found in Deut.8:2-3, where it is asserted that "man (sic) does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of Yahweh".

We can add words from Andrew Marr to all this:

Our tendency to try to gather more of anything than we need is an indication that we need more than bread but we are trying to meet that need by gathering more bread. Usually what gathering “more” means is gathering more than other people for the sake of having more than other people. Once we want more than others, it is still never possible under any circumstances to have enough because if we already have more than others, we’ll still want more to make sure they don’t catch up.

What Marr has described is not simply hunger for food, not simply hunger for more things, but an insatiable need to win. It is about being in control, being safe; it is a question of deep existential fear of life. My hunger for safety worked itself in my life as a constant hunger for food. At other times it was present in the need to ride faster— always run down any other bike you see on the road in front; present in the need to excel; present in the need to be right, to win the argument, and so on.

Always present was hungering and thirsting. And my effort to satisfy such hunger and thirst was always, and is always, moderated and informed by the desires of others. Mum, Dad, Rev Ivens, Mr Boyce, Frances Schaeffer, Paul Eckert, Sally McFague... all these people, and others, were the boats into which I climbed, trying to get to Jesus' place, Capernaum. Each of them gave me a tow across the lake, some more direct than others, but none of them could answer for me. The question was mine alone: Who is Jesus? How will you respond to him? Will you take him into your boat? (6:21)

When the one who calls himself I am comes to the boat he says, I am, do not fear. We are always afraid. We are especially afraid when we are met by the presence of God; Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle, afraid to be seen by God. (1 Kings 19:13)  We would rather see God's back, for then God is not looking at us. (Ex 33:23) God asks too many questions of us: What are you doing here, Andrew? is the most terrifying question,  for I have to say that this is indeed the prophet who has come into the world, him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, but that I have not believed. (1:45, 6:14)

When the spirit challenges me to believe, to act, to trust, always there is an extra course of food in which I can bury myself— some other project, or another wine to deaden the fear of life; I am afraid. Because to listen to Him means to let go of my protective boundaries. It makes me vulnerable to others. I may not have enough to eat. And then what will happen?

The thing is that when we take him into our boat, it becomes his boat. We find that he has no desire to unmask us, to make us naked and humiliate us, make us unsafe— that's the reason we are so afraid of other people. No, as Alison reminds me, when Jesus says "Fear not," he adds (in Luke) "it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." (Luke 12:32)

What does he ask us to do in all this believing? To follow him. Which means we will learn our seeing and our desire through him instead of in boats from Tiberias. Alison writes

As we learn to desire through the eyes of another, so we are given the heart of another, and what we learn is the extraordinary benign peaceful power of one holding everything in being, liking and delighting in us, without distinction. (Ibid p16)

I cannot like and delight in all people without distinction, but following this Jesus has changed me. The walls are being broken down, and some relationships restored. And I am not so terribly hungry.

 

Notes on the Reading

11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’

People have, at some level, understood what is going on. Verse 14 is a reflection upon Deuteronomy 18:15ff : The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet... 18I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. 16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.

John seems to use the boat as some kind of symbol of his community; other boats will feature in a moment. Verse 20 is literally I, I am... ἐγὼ εἰμί and we will see that later Jesus says, Before Abraham was, I am. (πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί.) (John 8:58) It reflects upon Exodus 3:14, where God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’

Our first impulse is that while Moses parts the Red Sea, Jesus walks on the water; he is greater than Moses. I am changes this altogether. Who is this Jesus who calls himself by the Name of God!? In our Bible Study last week, our congregation concluded with the understanding that John is calling us to answer that question, and another: How will you respond?

The lectionary leaves out the next part of the text, which is a pity, as it primes us for some of what follows.

 The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the lake saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.  24So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

What a clumsy way to say the crowd notices Jesus is not there unless we want to focus on boats! Then boats come from Tiberias, a city Herod had established and named in honour of the Emperor. Tiberias is set alongside "the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks." (Thanks is the Greek word from which we get Eucharist.) And the crowd gets into the boats from Tiberias, with the emphasis they themselves. The boats did not come from Capernaum. Nor are these boats the boat that the disciples were in. Clearly, the text is not meant to be taken literally; how many boats would you need for 5,000 people!? Something is being said here about allegiance and about seeing. The question could be as simple as: Whose boat are you in? The boat you are in will affect what you see. 

25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ 26Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 

Mark D Davis says

“Amen amen” is a phrase that was made known popularly in the KJV’s “Verily verily I say unto you.” It is not a quaint phrase, but an emphatic one. Ἀμὴν is transliterated from the Hebrew term אמן and indicates certainty or truth. In John, it is used very often and always appears as a double “Amen amen” except for the very last word of the Gospel.

It introduces moments of crucial understanding. Jesus uses the words in a statement which echoes the feeding. There, in verse 12, people were satisfied. They had as much as the wanted.  (11) Now he questions what kind of satisfaction is involved, and what sort of insight: because you ate your fill of the loaves. Immediately one thinks of the story of Exodus and the giving of the manna.

15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.16This is what the Lord has commanded: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.” ’ 17The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. 19And Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave any of it over until morning.’ 20But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul.

Exodus 16 leads us to the next verses in John— food that perishes, when it says, 21Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.

There is also a reference to the Exodus story in Psalm 78:

18 They tested God in their heart
   by demanding the food they craved. 
19 They spoke against God, saying,
   ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness? 
20 Even though he struck the rock so that water gushed out
   and torrents overflowed,
can he also give bread,
   or provide meat for his people?’ 

21 Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of rage;
   a fire was kindled against Jacob,
   his anger mounted against Israel, 
22 because they had no faith in God,
   and did not trust his saving power. 
23 Yet he commanded the skies above,
   and opened the doors of heaven; 
24 he rained down on them manna to eat,
   and gave them the grain of heaven. 
25 Mortals ate of the bread of angels;
   he sent them food in abundance. 
26 He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens,
   and by his power he led out the south wind; 
27 he rained flesh upon them like dust,
   winged birds like the sand of the seas; 
28 he let them fall within their camp,
   all around their dwellings. 
29 And they ate and were well filled,
   for he gave them what they craved. 

We have just had a table spread in the wilderness. And we will soon be reminded of water.

27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ 

Eternal life is rather more complicated than something we "get" or go to when we die.

the word that is usually translated ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’ is a complex word. We often think that it simply means “without end,” like something that we have now, going on forever. It can also mean “without beginning,” because it is a Greek philosophical and mythological word that refers to timelessness. [But] there is [not] a consistent concept of pre-existing life or never-ending life in the Hebrew Bible until the 2nd century BCE  (which would include the 2ndhalf of Daniel and many of the Apocryphal books). By the NT time, this is a common way of speaking about life, except among the traditionalists like the Sadducees. Since they only considered the Torah as Scripture, they didn’t accept this new way of thinking.

The word αἰώνιον literally means something like “of the ages.” In John’s gospel – see the language about Lazarus’ death in c.11 for example – the phrase “life age-during” (ζωὴν αἰώνιον) does not mean the same thing as in Greek philosophy. Lazarus is raised from death. It is not simply that his eternal soul was re-acquainted with his previously dead body. Mary awaited the “resurrection” for him to live again. She did not think that somewhere out there he was still living and smiling down on her. When Jesus goes on to say, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he is not responding to the Greek concept of the immortality of the soul; he is responding to the newish Jewish concept of the resurrection. There’s a difference.

The “food that lasts in life age-during” seems to be similar to the “living water” in c.4 (Mark D Davis)

James McGrath's  "Food for Thought: The Bread of Life Discourse (John 6:25-71)" alerted me to the similarity of John's themes of food and water to Isaiah 55.

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price. 
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
   and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
   and delight yourselves in rich food. 
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
   listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
   my steadfast, sure love for David. 
4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
   a leader and commander for the peoples. 
5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
   and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
   for he has glorified you.

McGrath said, "There is much evidence that many if not most Israelites thought of the exilic state  as something continuing into their own time, and which would be brought to a climactic end at the end of the age." (Ibid)

What all this adds up to is that rather than being puzzled over Jesus' involvement in an obscure and impenetrable theological conversation— how much does John seem like that, sometimes? — John's original readers are reading a live and vital conversation about the future of Israel and the fulfilment of God's promises. There is nothing arcane here— no one was skipping over the text; these people are vitally involved, and seriously engaging Jesus about the future of their lives and their nation. We see this from their response:

28Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ 29Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ 

Davis (Ibid) gives us the meaning of the Greek translated as believe: "πιστεύητε : PASubj 2p, πιστεύω, 1) to think to be true, to be persuaded of, to credit, place confidence in  1a) of the thing believed." Where will we place our emphasis between believe as in "to think to be true" on a theoretical level, or as intellectual assent, and believe as in "place confidence in" by actually changing our behaviour in a systematic way? John does not use the word repent; I note that Mark says "repent, and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:15)

30So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’

This is a bizarre verse.  Didn't he do just this yesterday? In the era of "fake news" this is perhaps a key verse. I do not read these people as being obtuse or obstinate. They really don't get what is being said and done. When we read — which also means: observe and interpret — events from a particular viewpoint, other viewpoints are simply wrong, or not even visible.

If we get into a boat from Tiberias, there are certain things we simply will not, and cannot, see.

 32Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ 

McGrath gives us the way to read this text:

The key passage in John 6 is the Old Testament paraphrase (it is not identical to any exact citation), "He gave them bread from heaven to eat", and ... Jesus is suggesting an alternative reading of the Hebrew text, in good rabbinic fashion: 'Do not read 'he [Moses] gave', but 'he [God] gives'. The whole discussion between Jesus and the crowds is then to be regarded as following the typical course of such exegetical discussions...

This is not Jesus simply making things up to suit himself, but finding pointers in the text.

 In this instance, the suggestion is that the Hebrew consonants ntn are being read with a different pointing, so that the word is understood to be 'he gives' rather than 'he gave'. Then a further interpretative suggestion is made, namely that the 'he' in question is not Moses, but God.

Jesus is proposing a new way to read the text, or to interpret the evidence before our eyes. 

The 'bread of God' is then interpreted as a reference to 'he who (or 'that which') comes down from heaven and gives life to the world'... in the Old Testament already and throughout the later Wisdom literature, the manna or bread from heaven is frequently identified with the Word or Wisdom of God. God's Wisdom or Word was also identified with Torah, which by association meant that the manna also became a symbol of Torah. Thus here the Johannine Jesus is making the assertion, not infrequent in Judaism, that the true bread from heaven is the Wisdom or Word of God which comes down from heaven to give life to human beings.

34They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’

This echoes the incident with the woman at the well, in John 4. And the never be thirsty is followed up in John 6:35 with will never be hungry.

3Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 

I am is I, I am. Greater than Moses, he speaks of God as his Father. Although the set reading ends at verse 35, verse 36 refers back to the work of God in verse 29 and implies that despite seeing, they have not come to him and they are in fact hungry and thirsty. 

Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web
John 6:24-35 - Whose Boat are you in? (2012)
John 6:24-35 - Hunger and Thirst  (2012)
John's Bread - John 6:23-35 (2009)

 


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