In Australia, we call it the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome, where individuals who are thought by their neighbours to have too big a sense of their own worth compared to others, are brought sharply back down to earth, they’re told they need to learn humility and know their place. It is unkind and comes out of envy and fear.
In John’s Gospel reading (6:41-51), we hear the debate with Jesus over his origins, his preaching and healing skills is becoming more contentious and provocative. The questions offered and answers provided between the crowd and Jesus are focused and specific. Those who are critical of Jesus are firming up their arguments. They want to make sure Jesus doesn’t claim to be more than he is; particularly because they know who he is: he is Joseph and Mary’s son, he’s local and not special. They are outraged at his claim to come from heaven when they know his father, Joseph.
They are not listening to Jesus, who throughout this conversation has identified God as his father. The crowd has misidentified Jesus’ father. They don’t want to listen or hear a different answer, and in so doing, they are denying God’s relevance and presence in this story.
This is a significant moment for both Jesus and the crowds. This debate points to an escalation in the grumbling resistance against Jesus, his message and his relationship with God.
As usual, Jesus answers a different question to the one being asked by the crowd about his family. Jesus is instead speaking about the relationship between the grace of God and human free will.
No-one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.John 6:44
Jesus tells them they would not even be there doubting, arguing and confused if it wasn’t for God’s loving presence in their lives in the first place. Jesus describes to them how God is working. It is God who sent him; and only those who God draws can come to Jesus. While helkyse (Gk v.44) is translated as ‘draw’ in the bible, it also means to be ‘dragged forcefully’ even ‘violently’. Jesus argues God must first ‘drag’ a person to Jesus and only then will Jesus raise the person up.
It is important for us to recognise, accept and understand God has already done this ‘dragging’ with us too, and the opportunity now exists for every one of us, to come to Jesus. Jesus points back to Isaiah 54:13, a prophecy of hope where God promises to those in exile their children will be taught the ways of God. Here in John 6, Jesus assures us God’s ancient promises are being fulfilled, the ability for all to come to Jesus depends simply on each person hearing, learning and stepping into relationship with God and in so doing, being taught.
The state of confusion, argument and doubt which the crowd think is a stumbling block, and clear evidence Jesus cannot be who he says he is, is rather a blessed reminder of how God is actively drawing people closer to Jesus. We do not have to see God, understand God, or be clear about what is happening, to receive the grace of God.
In thinking about what Jesus is saying to us, I remembered the statement: ‘the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.’ (Lamott 2006:256-257) So often people are so immoveable and sure about a particular argument, unable to imagine nor willing to hear any different or new ideas, just like those arguing with Jesus. The ‘tall poppy’ reaction was actively being canvassed in the crowd. It was much easier for the crowd to respond with rejection, contempt and self-righteousness.
This crowd knew Jesus was Joseph and Mary’s son and anything else was ridiculous and outrageous. Yet the metaphor of bread and eating, and the comparison with Moses and manna provided by God in the wilderness starts to shake us all up. It tests our certainty and perhaps in spite of our resistance, we begin to listen to the argument.
I wonder if you are with the crowd unable to make sense of what is happening, pulling back and agreeing with their certainty, or are you following Jesus’ words with curiosity. Jesus said:
This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’.John 6:50-51
The way Jesus and his contemporaries ate was radically different from the way most of us eat today. No utensils were used. A person ate with their hands. Bread was usually used to dip into the food and bring the food from the plate to the mouth. In fact, the bread used for dipping was the way everyone was able to share in a meal. Jesus even describes this for us when he identifies his betrayer as:
It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.Mark 14:20
Today we use utensils to move food from a plate into our mouths. Bread is often served at meals, but on a side plate, and may not even be eaten. However, Jesus was reminding his listeners how critical bread was to the process of eating. The bread of life was not an optional extra.
According to John’s Gospel, this means the incarnation is the way we too can access and partake of the life God offers to us. Jesus’ body is bread broken into pieces and shared with everyone to use and be fed, so we may become whole. His life is offered so we who receive it may live. Our uncertainty, confusion and doubt are not an opportunity to complain, reject or confirm our preconceived ideas, rather we are being taught by God and are already recipients of grace before we ever realised it.
Jesus does not argue his opponents have no access to God either. Rather, like everyone else, they live in God’s present time, where God is ‘dragging’ people to Jesus to listen and be taught by God. We receive this grace not because of what we have done or who we are, we haven’t earned it or been particularly meritorious, but because God loves each of us as we are.
The bread, which is Jesus is how we can understand what is being offered. ‘Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, and they died,’ said Jesus. Now something different and better is being offered:
Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.John 6:47-48
Sisters and brothers, let us enjoy the feast together in this family of God.
Reference: Lamott, A. 2006. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. New York, Riverhead Trade