Misunderstanding Jesus: “they came to make him a king” (John 6; Pentecost 9B)

At this time of the year, every Year B, the lectionary offers us five weeks of readings from John 6, revolving around the motif of Jesus as “the living bread which came down from heaven”. The story of the feeding of the crowd of “men … about 5,000 in all” (John 6:1–14) replicates the story omitted from the last week by the lectionary, where the crowd also comprises “5,000 men” (Mark 6:44).

The Gospel offering provided by the lectionary last week omitted the feeding narrative (Mark 6:35–44) and provided only the surrounding sections (Mark 6:30–34, 53–56). It also omitted the account of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45–52)—a story paralleled in Matt 14:22-33 as well as John 6:16–21.

In doing this, the lectionary had excised the important reference to Jesus crossing over “to the other side”, from the Decapolis across to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45). In this Gospel, Jesus had left Jewish territory earlier, when he crossed “to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes” (5:1), then returned “to the other side” (5:21), where he visited “his own country” (6:1) before venturing again across “to the other side” (6:45–52). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/07/14/whats-in-and-whats-out-mark-6-pentecost-8b/

In the book of signs, the Gospel of John, Jesus moves freely between Galilee and Judea, a number of times; but there is no indication that he visited Gentile territory, despite the question of people in Jerusalem, “does he intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” (John 7:35).

The story of feeding the crowd is also retold by the other two evangelists. In the book of origins (Matt 14:15–21), the crowd comprises “about five thousand men, besides women and children (Matt 14:21). In the orderly account of things fulfilled (Luke 9:12–17), the crowd is recorded, as in the Markan source, as being “about 5,000 men” (Luke 9:14). The Johannine version, as we have seen, also estimates the total number of men present as being “about 5,000” (John 6:11).

So the early sections of John chapter 6 tell of incidents that are told also by the authors of the Synoptic Gospels: feeding a crowd (6:1–14) and walking on the water (6:16–21).

Woven through this long chapter, however, are a series of encounters that Jesus had with people around him—the crowds in Galilee (6:2, 22), his own disciples (6:3, 16, 60, 66-67), and a group of leaders who had come north from Judea into Galilee, to hear and see him (6:41, 52).

Note: Most translations describe this latter group simply as “the Jews”. The Greek word used, however, can equally be translated as “the Judeans”. There is a good case that has been mounted that the way the word is used in the fourth Gospel means that it should be translated as “a group of Jewish leaders who exercise great authority among their compatriots and are especially hostile to Jesus and his disciples … it refers to certain authorities rather than to the people as a whole.” See D. Moody Smith, “Judaism and the Gospel of John”, accessible at https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/sites/partners/cbaa_seminar/Smith.htm

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel thus offers a series of encounters that reveal misunderstanding, antagonism, and conflict in the ways that people relate to Jesus, even whilst he sets forth this significant teaching that he is “the bread of life” (6:35, 48).

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The first of these encounters takes place in the opening scene of this chapter, near to Passover, when Jesus and his disciples are gathered with “a large crowd” beside the Sea of Galilee (6:1-15). The issue, of course, is how to feed the large crowd; the scene thus provides the pressing situation which enables Jesus to speak, at length, about the gift of living bread that he offers.

The scene, as we have noted, is reminiscent of the Synoptic scene of feeding recounted at Mark 6:32-44, Matt 14:13-21, and Luke 9:10-17; and also the parallel scene of feeding “4,000 men” recounted at Mark 8:1-10 and also at Matt 15:32-39; although Matthew indicates that there were “4,000 men, besides women and children”.

In each of those cases, the accounts provide the opportunity for Jesus to model the traditional pattern of a Jewish meal, as he “looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people” (Mark 6:41; Matt 14:19; Luke 9:16; and again at Mark 8:6 and Matt 15:36), prefiguring the familiar pattern from the last supper (Mark 14:22; Matt 26:26; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24; and see also Acts 20:7, 27:35).

In John’s Gospel, the last supper (13:1 onwards) does not contain any such remembrance of bread (and wine); whatever Eucharistic overtones are contained in the book of signs appear later in chapter 6, with references to “feeding on my flesh and drinking my blood” (6:63-58).

In the opening scene, nevertheless, there is an allusion to this pattern in the description of Jesus as he “took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated” (6:11)—although this is immediately followed, not by drinking wine, but by distributing fish (6:11b).

The miracle that is experienced by “the large crowd”—five barley loaves and two fish (6:9), which not only feeds the crowd (6:12) but also provides twelve baskets of left-overs (6:13)—is, understandably, interpreted by the people as a prophetic sign (6:14).

Jesus is this described as “the Prophet who is to come into the world”, alluding to the eschatological expectation of “the prophet to come” (Deut 18:15–18; Mal 4:4–6). Prophets were know to be capable of performing signs, following the model set by Moses (Acts 7:36; Exodus 4:1–17; Deut 34:10–12).

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The insight that Jesus was a prophet has already been expressed by the woman of Samaria, beside the well (John 4:19). In that encounter, the woman moves from a recognition of Jesus as prophet, to an awareness that he is Messiah (4:25-26, 29), and then to her testimony that he was the saviour of the world (4:39-42). So the initial response of the crowd is positive, affirming Jesus as “the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (6:14)

Immediately, however, it turns sour: “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” (6:15).

To make him king: this is the first misunderstanding of Jesus that can be identified in this chapter. (There are a number of other misunderstandings that can be noted in the remainder of this chapter.)

The appointment of a king in Israel was contested, according to the narratives included in 1 Samuel. The prophet Samuel did not wish to anoint a king (1 Sam 8:6) and argued against this before the people (1 Sam 8:10–18). But the voice of the people (1 Sam 8:5, 19–20) prevailed; Samuel duly anointed the first king, Saul (1 Sam 10:1) and begrudgingly declared him to be king (1 Sam 10:17–24). So Israel had kings, and they ruled for some centuries.

Of course, by the time of Jesus, the institution of the monarchy had been well established, and had flourished under David and Solomon, Omri and Josiah. Then the monarchy had been dismantled through the violence of foreign invasion and the upheaval of large scale movements into exile, from 721 BCE in the northern kingdom, then from 587 BCE in the southern kingdom.

The accounts that we have of the role of kings in Israel (in 1–2 Kings, and 1–2 Chronicles) comes from later, after the return from exile on the 6th century BCE. The vision of the king in these documents was highly romanticised; the tradition about David and Solomon in particular had minimised their numerous faults and strongly valorised their virtues (1 Chr 18:14; 2 Chr 9:13–28).

In Christian tradition, this trajectory continues. Jesus is acknowledged as King of the Jews (Mark 15:2 and parallels) and even has a feast day in the liturgical cycle named after this: Christ the King. The author of the book of signs knows the irony of the fact that this is where Jesus will come undone: from the moment when Pilate put to Jesus the notion that he might be “the King of the Jews” (18:33). The very claim was enough to ensure that he would be scorned and ultimately crucified (19:3, 19-21).

To the Romans, a king was not a position to be valued. The terrible experience they had with Julius Caesar, the one-man ruler called rex, was enough to turn them away from having a king for centuries. There was a political naïveté in the Jewish crowd’s actions in acclaiming Jesus as king, at least in terms of how the Romans would have viewed him.

And to a pious Jew like Jesus, it was clear beyond doubt that only God was king over Israel (Ps 72)—indeed, over the whole earth (Ps 47). Jesus definitely wants to avoid such an acclamation about him at this point. The crowd are misunderstanding him. So he withdraws.

The author includes this clear indication, dripping (as is typical in this Gospel) with irony. The one whom the crowds excitedly wanted to crown as king, will be savagely put to death by the Romans as “King of the Jews”, pretender and aggravant.