The simple picnic that gave rise to a massive shake up

All four Gospels recount Jesus’ miraculous feeding of five thousand people with a boy’s lunch of five bread rolls and a couple of sardines, after which all twelve apostles collected a wicker tray [Greek kophipos] of leftovers (Matthew 14:13-20; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:5-14).  (Matthew 15:32-39) and (Mark 8:1-9) also recorded a second picnic at which he fed four thousand with ‘seven loaves’ and ‘a few small fish’, after which seven hampers [Greek spuris] were filled with scraps – each ‘basket’ big enough that Paul could travel in one down over a city wall (Acts 9:25).

Why are two such similar events so close together?

Hints that the five thousand were Jews and the four thousand foreigners would hardly have conveyed a lesson of any significance to the original readers. But John’s detailed narrative implies a valid reason for the follow-up miracle meal. Many disciples left Jesus after that first outdoor miracle, offended by his challenge about its meaning. In fact, even ‘the twelve’ hesitated before deciding to stay the course with Jesus. Therefore he reassured them by repeating the miracle soon after in another venue, implying: ‘We’ll carry on where we left off. “Plan A” is still on target, and I’ve never had a “Plan B”.’

The challenge: ‘Drink my blood!’ 

‘A large crowd was following him [even before the first miracle lunch], because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick’ (John 6:2). And after the event, Jesus said, ‘Truly … you are seeking me … because you ate your fill of the loaves’ (John 6:26). ‘You’ve come [across the lake in lots of boats] looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs – and for free’ (John 6:25, The Message). It was time to expose the uncommitted.

Of course, what shocked so many into abandoning him was Jesus’ deliberate use of a crude metaphor: ‘Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life [now, in his innermost being] and I will raise him up [with a glorious resurrection body] on the last day’ (John 6:53-54). But over and over again he also made it perfectly clear that he literally meant: ‘come to me’ and ‘believe in me’ in order to receive these blessings (John 6:29, 35, 40, 47 – every five or six verses). But they chose to take his metaphors as literal, cannibalistic feasting (yet Middle eastern folk even today delight in using metaphors), while treating his sayings about faith and obedience as merely figurative.

They were following Jesus, as some still do now, only for the temporal, emotional and social benefits. ‘Throw your lot in with the One that God has sent. That kind of commitment gets you in on God’s works. I am the bread of life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever’ (John 6:29, 35, The Message).

‘Do you want to go away as well?’ (John 6:67)

Like Peter, after the superficial followers had left, let us robustly confess: ‘You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God’ (John 6:68-69, The Message).

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