Bread and true liberation
May 6 — John 6:22-35; May 13 — John 10:7-18By Ted Grimsrud
With John 6, we once again encounter Jesus doing “signs” — and people not understanding. As with the wedding at Cana (2:1-11) and the healing of the son of the “royal official” (4:46-54), Jesus here miraculously brings life, displaying the nature of his ministry.
And as with his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (4:9-15), here Jesus’ audience has difficulty understanding the difference between literal nourishment (water in chapter 4, bread here) and Jesus’ deeper meaning.
He gives bread to 5,000 people (6:1-14), and the people marvel at the “sign”: “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14). But they profoundly misunderstand what kind of prophet he is. They even seek to make him an earthly king (6:15). The people long for liberation from under the thumb of an occupying empire. Here’s one who can lead them.
However, Jesus goes much deeper than simply offering bread so that he might become a king (Messiah) who would imitate other kings in exercising dominating power. Jesus offers a different understanding of bread — and power.
He understands that their interest in him as king is not due to recognizing that he comes from heaven to bring eternal life. They don’t look to him because they saw signs of God’s true life-giving love, but because their stomachs were filled (6:26). They need to understand that Jesus comes to fill their hearts with transforming love that will help them in a more deep-seated way break free from the empire that dominates them.
As God gave manna to the children of Israel in the wilderness after their liberation from slavery in Egypt, now God offers the bread of life to effect a new work of liberation (6:31-32). And, in fact, Jesus himself is that bread (6:35) who offers genuine life. This genuine life is not about the people going away to heaven; it’s about heaven entering their world and transforming it (6:33). A genuine revolution.
In John 10:7-18, Jesus gives two more images that define his identity. Throughout the Gospel, the central ways Jesus understands himself are presented in sayings beginning with “I am …” This “I am” phrase links Jesus with the liberating God of the Exodus (who told Moses, “when they ask who sent you, say ‘I am’ has sent me to you” [Ex. 3:14]).
Jesus first uses this saying in 6:35 (“I am the bread of life”). Here in chapter 10, he uses it twice, evoking his role as life- giver.
First, Jesus states, “I am the gate” (10:7). The sheep (those who respond to Jesus) enter into life through him. Others will try to enter apart from linking with the love and compassion of Jesus; they are “thieves and bandits” (10:8). Jesus likely has in mind people such as the religious leaders who callously sought to separate the man Jesus healed from his community in chapter 9.
Then, “I am the good shepherd” (10:11). The gate image emphasizes Jesus’ care for those who would follow him; so too does the shepherd image. This image links with Ezek. 34:11-16, which emphasizes, among other points, the shepherd’s special care for vulnerable sheep in his care.
Jesus goes on to reflect more on the extent of his love as God’s embodiment: He says he is so committed to bringing light that he will even lay down his life for those he is caring for. And these who are cared for will be many, including even “other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (10:15). His transforming love is for all who will receive it.
Ted Grimsrud teaches theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
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