This is one of the stories from the Elijah cycle. Elijah has reached a crisis in his career; the opposition of King Ahab had driven him to flee. In his despondency, he requests that he might die, but he is supernaturally provided with food to sustain him on the journey to Horeb, the mountain of God, where he will receive a theophany.
In Christian usage this passage has a twofold interest: (1) it is a type of Jesus’ fast in the wilderness and of the Church’s Lenten fast (this passage forms the Old Testament lesson for Friday in the first week of Lent in Lesser Feasts and Fasts of the Episcopal Church); (2) it forms a type of holy communion considered as the food of pilgrims on their way to the mountain of God (it is used as the fifth alternative Old Testament reading for the votive Mass of the Holy Eucharist). On this Sunday it has obviously been chosen to parallel the continuation of the discourse on the bread from heaven in today’s Gospel.
Responsorial Psalm: 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
Of this psalm the Jerome Biblical Commentary states: “A wisdom psalm, though it is widely classified as a psalm of thanksgiving.” Chiefly because of verse 8a, which serves as the refrain (“Taste and see the goodness of the Lord”), this psalm was used in the early Church during the time of communion. It goes suitably with the Old Testament reading and the Gospel today.
This passage continues the parenesis of Ephesians. The baptismal references are again clear (“the Holy Spirit ... in whom you were sealed” and “put away”). Once again, the imperatives are grounded in indicatives. Christians are to forgive one another because Christ has forgiven them, and they are to walk in love because Christ loves them with a love that expresses itself in sacrificial terms.
It is interesting to find the “Jews” (usually a symbol for the unbelieving world in the Fourth Gospel) “murmuring” at the discourse on the bread of life, just as the children of Israel did in the wilderness. The use of this same verb can hardly be accidental, and it calls further attention to the manna/Eucharist typology.
They murmur because of another typical Johannine supposed misunderstanding. They know where Jesus came from, they know his parentage. (The reference to Jesus as “son of Joseph” has no relevance to the question of the virginal conception; it simply reflects the undoubted fact that Jesus passed for the son of Joseph, whether this evangelist knew of the virginal conception or not.)
The evangelist has worked in a tradition from the story of Jesus’ rejection in the synagogue at Nazareth as given in the Synoptists.
Jesus’ reply to the misunderstanding asserts that a knowledge of his heavenly origin is possible only to those who are “drawn to him” in faith by the Father. To be drawn is further defined as hearing and learning from the Father.
The earthly origins of Jesus are not denied, but faith sees beyond them to his heavenly origin, just as the Creed asserts not only that Jesus was born of Mary but also that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The one level is historical fact, the other a confession of faith.
Faith is not, however, just abstract, notional insight; it involves participating in “eternal life.” Faith is also paradoxical: on the one hand it is a free decision, but on the other hand it involves an element of predestination (the Father must draw believers to the Son).
The great “I am” is repeated twice here: “I am the bread of life” (Jn 6:35) and “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.” Once again there is a typical Johannine repetition of the manna typology (Jn 6:49).
The last clause of John 6:51 introduces for the first time the theme of the flesh of Jesus, which, as we saw last Sunday, may be the beginning of the passage added by the Johannine redactor.