Jesus was very good at subverting the traditions and values of the culture of his day. In other words Jesus was good at taking the language, the standards, the symbols of meaning and using them in a different way, in a way that revealed the truth of God. What we witness in John 6 is no different. In fact, by doing so Jesus contrasts the kingdom of God, his world, with the world of Rome and the Jews by using their symbols and standards to reveal his truth. This truth of Jesus stands in marked contrast to the truth of Rome and the religious establishment. And so when Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life” he’s saying a lot more than we may realize as 21st century Christians in the West.
Remember that Jesus is speaking to the crowds whom he had just fed near the city of Tiberias. Tiberias was a city full of all types of people from all types of places. It was full of magistrates and poor people and Herod had a tough time luring Jews to it because it was built on an old Jewish graveyard. The people who lived in this city were considered to be rabble rousers and were only concerned with bread and games which was typical of most Greco-Roman cities. Interestingly enough, Roman rulers placated the masses by throwing bread and grains at them. One Roman at the time commented in regards to such people, “you need only throw plenty of bread and a ticket to the Hippodrome, since they have no interest in anything else.” It’s no wonder that right after feeding this crowd they tried to make Jesus king by force. He was giving them their simple desires – entertaining them with miracles that fed them.
But still it goes even deeper. You see the people were preoccupied with bread because the wheat, barely and grain provided over two-thirds of the food eaten by most in the Roman Empire. So if someone was able to produce bread like Jesus was able to then that person was definitely seen as powerful and special. But most importantly, bread was regarded as the gift of Demeter, the goddess of grain, and many assumed that those who ate it should recognize her as its divine source. Hence, Jesus doing this miracle and referring to himself as the “Bread of Life” has some serious implications to the Roman mind. Jesus was taking their imagery, their symbol, their value, their religion and redefining it in his image. Notice the contrast of worlds. What Jesus has done in John 6 is entirely subversive and radical. His audience would have been able to pick up on such things.
When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt many years earlier a similar dynamic was going on. The people had been slaves in the Egyptian empire which was a source of great stability. Pharaoh was believed to be a god protecting and providing for people. Remember how Joseph collected grain during before the famine? And of course when the Israelites enter the desert they resist Moses and begin to remember falsely how great they had it in Egypt. It was then that Yahweh provided them with manna. It was then that Yahweh showed them who was really God, who really had the power to make bread. Again the Israelites had just been in the world of empire in which the Pharaoh was god and although slaves they were in a stable and predictable environment. around them. Now they were in the world of the desert in which there was nothing and yet the true God brought forth water and manna but most importantly salvation and a new Way.
President Obama has said that the last remaining hope for the world is America. When I hear comments like this from leaders such as our president I am reminded that not much has changed since Jesus’ day. Governments and institutions still prop themselves up as the saviors of the world. As if they are the bread of life. It makes me wonder if Jesus would get up today and in his typical subversive nature say “the last remaining hope for the world is me.”
Nonetheless 2,000 years ago he came and gave the people an alternative to what was propagated to be the “good news” of the Roman Empire. He came many years earlier and did the same for the Israelites as well when he brought them out of Egypt. Nonetheless it’s no different today. Today we see two contrasting worlds – both claim to be the bread of life. One is a life of mass accumulation, of self-fulfillment and the American Dream. The other is Jesus Christ, the way of Jesus of Nazareth.
The crowds in John 6 tried to take Jesus by force and make him king but he slipped out of their grasp. They wanted more of the bread, they wanted more of the signs, they wanted their fill. But it was the wrong kind. They wanted to keep things as they were only with Jesus at the helm. But Jesus was a different kind of king who offered a different kind of way. Which is why He said to the people “I am the Bread of Life”. For He is the bread of a whole a new life, a whole new way. And that is brought out by the kind of king he shows himself to be. He does not placate the crowds and tell them what they want to hear. Rather he speaks the truth, enrages some because of it and continues on. He’s poor and he’s not concerned with climbing the social ladder and exhorts the people to look away from themselves. He exhorts us to look away from ourselves and to love others no matter what. He’s about servanthood and he spends time with the poor and the outcast. Heck, he has nowhere to lay his head.
And this different king continues to the Cross, the place where criminals and outcasts are put to death by the Roman Empire. He goes and He lays down his life for you and me. He, the Bread of Life, gives his life for you and me so that we may have life. Hence, He is now the source of our life, he is our bread, our way, our grace, mercy and forgiveness. He is a different king. And as a different king he shows us a different way, a way of love and service, a way that calls us to forgo ourselves for his name’s sake. A way that does not trust in princes and presidents for sustenance and security but in him for he is the way, for He is God, He is the world’s only hope. He is the bread of life and so let us feast on him. Amen.