Know Jesus: context

John 6+crowd+feeding1After this, Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee (of Tiberias). 2 A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick. 3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish feast of Passover was near. 5 When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little (bit).” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people recline.” Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. 12 When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” 13 So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat. 14 When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.” 15 Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.

Context. There are two contexts for this week’s Gospel: (1) the liturgical sequence of Year B’s readings in which the Gospels are primarily drawn from the Gospel according to Mark, and (2) the scriptural setting of the Gospel according to John. There is a high degree of overlap, but then again, each sacred writer has his own emphasis, a different way of telling the larger story of Jesus, and a distinctive lexicon of language.

The Liturgical Context. Most recently in Liturgical Year B we have been reading from Mark chapters 4 through 6. In those chapters Jesus calmed the storm at sea (4:35-51), healed the woman with the hemorrhage and raised Jairus’ daughter from death (5:21-43), returned to his home town to be rejected (6:1-6), sent the apostles out on mission in his power and authority (6:7-13), and then received them at the end of the mission and intended to take them to rest (6:30-34). The Markan narrative next recounts the miraculous feeding of more than 5,000 people. Mark recounts the miracle in 10 verses, sparsely worded, and to the point. It is at this point in the liturgical cycle that we turn to John and his account of the event of the sign given in the “Bread of Life Discourse.” The Johannine narrative recounts more of the people’s reaction to the sign, is more expansive in Jesus’ explanation of the sign, and seems to be intended to explain the theological and Christological significance of Jesus’ action. All of this is as you might expect for a gospel written some 20-30 years after Mark’s narrative.

The Scriptural Context. John 6 marks the beginning of a new section in the Fourth Gospel narrative. In 2:1-5:47 there was a cycle which includes the revelation of Jesus’ glory and the rejection of that glory. These chapters contain miracles and discourses by Jesus that point to the authority of Jesus’ words and works—the wine miracle at Cana (2:1–11); the cleansing of the Temple (2:13–22); two healing miracles (4:46–54; 5:1–9); Jesus’ conversations with Nicodemus (3:1–21) and the Samaritan woman (4:4–42)—and so fulfill his promise to his disciples that they would see “greater things” (1:50). Yet this cycle also contains the first story of Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish authorities (5:9–47), a conflict that includes the decision to kill Jesus (5:18). This first cycle establishes the themes and tensions that characterize Jesus’ public ministry in John—from the manifestation of Jesus’ glory (2:1–11) to the rejection of that glory (5:9–47).

The second cycle of Jesus’ public ministry follows the same pattern as the first—it begins with a miracle in Galilee, the feeding of the five thousand (6:1–15), and concludes with hostility to Jesus and renewed intention to kill him (10:31–39). The difference between the two cycles is that the urgency of that question is highlighted as the hostility to Jesus increases. There are no new theological themes introduced, instead the same themes are replayed in a new context: Jesus’ authority and relationship to God, Jesus’ ability to give life and judge, the consequences of faith or unbelief. [O’Day, 519] And, as you might imagine, the antagonism in response to Jesus’ words and deeds only grows. The second cycle poses the same basic question as the first: Will people receive the revelation of God in Jesus?

For the this and the following four Sundays our gospel is taken from John 6. So, perhaps it is best to see what lays ahead:

John 6 follows the same basic pattern noted in chapter 5: miracle/dialogue/discourse. This pattern is more intricate in John 6 because the chapter narrates Jesus’ self-revelation to two groups: the crowd and his disciples. As such John 6 contains two miracles: one performed before the crowd and the disciples (6:1–15) and one performed in front of the disciples alone (6:16–21). This dual focus is reflected in the discourse material as well. John 6 can be outlined as follows:

Verses Sunday Content
6:1–15 17th Miracle (with crowd)
6:16–21 Miracle (with disciples alone) – miracle at sea cf. Mark 4:34 and following
6:22–24 Transition
6:25–34 18th Dialogue (crowd)
6:35–59 19th / 20th Discourse (crowd and disciples)
6:60–71 21st Conclusion (disciples alone)
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