Sunday, February 20, 2022

The Gospel of John, Chapter 6:22-71: Belief = Belove

The Gospel of John, Chapter 6:22-71

Read Chapter 6 here

Is it a bit comical that the crowd now traipses off to follow Jesus again?  My! people come and go so quickly here!

I struggled with this part of Chapter 6.  It includes most of what I haven’t liked about this gospel. 

1) continued use of broad metaphors. 

2) continual emphasis on believing in Jesus.

3) continued use of the pejorative “The Jews”

The great parts

1) lots of traipsing about on boats (and also, some walking on water)

2) The famous words “I am the bread of life.”


This gospel, perhaps more than other parts of the Bible, is extremely metaphor heavy.  Having gotten this far in this gospel I am astonished that anyone could read the Bible and say that it all must be taken literally.  There is almost nothing that Jesus has preached on so far in this gospel that is not related to a spiritual metaphor.  I am viewing this gospel as “permission granted” to read any part of the Bible as metaphor or allegory, just as the ancient Christian scholars did.


To modern ears, the word “belief” / “believe in” seems to mean “I am going along with a certain set of axioms about life.”  In practical terms, belief could be inconsequential.  The crowd asks Jesus “What must we do to perform the works of God?” and Jesus said, “Believe in him whom he has sent.”  The way we define belief, it doesn’t involve any work at all. Belief seems to us to be the thoughts that churn around in our minds and that come out of our mouths, not what we do.  

Diana Butler Bass recently wrote about this, in her essay “I Believe Ted Lasso and Marcus Borg.”  I don’t know what yinz think about Marcus Borg, but this quote in Butler Bass’s article speaks to me:

Prior to the seventeenth century, the word “believe” did not mean believing in the truth of statements or propositions, whether problematic or not. Grammatically, the object of believing was not statements, but a person. Moreover, the contexts in which it is used in premodern English make it clear that it meant: to hold dear; to prize; to give one’s loyalty to; to give one’s self to; to commit oneself. It meant. . . faithfulness, allegiance, loyalty, commitment, and trust.

Most simply, “to believe” meant “to love”.  Indeed the English words “believe”and “belove” are related.  What we believe is what we belove.  Faith is about beloving God…. To believe in God is to belove God.  Faith is about beloving God and all that God beloves.  Faith is the way of the heart.

The Message translation prefers to translate Jesus’ admonishments to “believe in me” as “align with me”.  Or ‘be loyal to me”.   That makes more sense to me.  Going forward in my reading of this gospel, I will try to substitute “belove God and all that God beloves” when it talks about believing in Jesus.

The Jews

The author’s use of “The Jews” as the term for Jesus’ enemies still seems anti-Jewish to me.  I have not seen anything so far to dissuade me from my view.

The Boats

For all the high and lofty speechifying Jesus does, for all his speaking of himself obliquely, for all the annoyances of the anti-Jewish language, there is the story.  Just picture it - these people are so taken with what Jesus is saying that they are continually chasing after him in boats.  Across the sea one way, and then back.  Jesus is constantly on the move.

The Bread

Jesus said:

“I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  - John 6:35

Throughout the centuries, these have been comforting words to believers.

* * * * * 

My description of the story, for those who want more

The Gospel of John, Chapter 6:22-71

In the previous verse, the disciples and Jesus had escaped the crowd during the night, by crossing the Sea of Galilee back to Capernaum.  Now it’s the next day and the crowd, finding Jesus missing, commandeers some boats, setting off for Capernaum to look for Jesus. 

The crowd finds Jesus, who says to them, you are only looking for me because I fed you.  Jesus again talks about food as a metaphor for eternal life.  The crowd asks “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 

Jesus replies, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  Or maybe you prefer The Message:  Jesus said, “Sign on with the One that God has sent.  That kind of a commitment gets you in on God’s works.”

The crowd asks for a sign, so that they can believe him. Oy, even though he had just done the gigantic sign of feeding them all, using just a few loaves of bread & some sardines.  Maybe they are just trying to get some breakfast sandwiches out of him.  

The crowd, who know their Bible stories, remind Jesus that their ancestors “ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”  Jesus replies, “It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Now, reminiscent of Jesus’ speech to the woman at the well in Chapter 4, Jesus makes this famous statement:

“I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  - John 6:35

This is one of the “I am” statements featured in this gospel.  It is perhaps meant to recall the moment when Moses asks God what God’s name is, and God says to Moses “I am who I am.”  (Exodus 3:14)  

In the next verse, Jesus gives a fair assessment of the crowd:  “But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.”  

Jesus then makes a speech that eventually ends up with: believe in me so you may have eternal life.

Jesus’ speech in verses 37-40 is one that confounds me, as is often the case in the Gospel of John. It uses small, easy words, but is hard to add up.  Here it is in the NRSV:

37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away;  38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.  40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

I find it easier to understand The Message interpretation:

“…Every person the Father gives me eventually comes running to me. And once that person is with me, I hold on and don’t let go. I came down from heaven not to follow my own agenda but to accomplish the will of the One who sent me.

39-40 “This, in a nutshell, is that will: that everything handed over to me by the Father be completed—not a single detail missed—and at the wrap-up of time I have everything and everyone put together, upright and whole. This is what my Father wants: that anyone who sees the Son and trusts who he is and what he does and then aligns with him will enter real life, eternal life. My part is to put them on their feet alive and whole at the completion of time.”

Okay, so Jesus essentially calls himself the bread of heaven, equating himself with God.  Guess who doesn’t like that?

Enter “The Jews” - the Bad Guys Of The Gospel of John.  (Let’s remember that Jesus, the disciples, and probably most of the crowds are Jews.  But this is not what the author means by “The Jews”.)  “The Jews” say that Jesus is just a regular guy, the son of Joseph; how can he say he has come down from heaven?  Jesus repeats the speech he gave to the crowd.  Jesus offers himself as the living bread: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Some of the verses seem to support the Calvinist notion of “the elect” - God picks you, not the other way around.

Verse 44:  “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.”

“The Jews” take it literally, but Jesus is speaking metaphorically.  Jesus takes it a step further, saying provocatively, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;.... Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”  (verses 6:53-57)

I take this passage as permission to interpret the Bible (any part of it) as metaphor, as allegory, as poetry.  Interpreted literally, this passage is just glorifying cannibalism, and completely misses the point. Already in the previous chapters, Jesus has taken to task those who blindly interpret what he says literally.

Four times, Jesus has said ‘eat my flesh; drink my blood.’  It’s like he’s rubbing their face in it.   The disciples even have trouble with this blunt statement equating Jesus with the bread of heaven.  Some of them give up being his disciples.  But the twelve main disciples say they are sticking with Jesus.  Jesus says, I chose the twelve of  you, but one is a devil.  This is foreshadowing - he is talking about Judas.

The top ten most frequent words in Chapter 6:22-71 are (in order)
bread, Jesus, life, come, Father, one, heaven, give, believe, and eat.

Whew.  That was long.

Metaphors:   bread, flesh, blood

Images and themes: bread of heaven = bread of life

People/Beings:   the crowd, Jesus, “The Jews”, the disciples, Judas.

Places: Sea of Galilee, boats, the synagogue at Capernaum

The Gospel of John, Chapter 6:1-21: Loaves and Fishes

The Gospel of John, Chapter 6:1-21 

Read Chapter 6 here

Chapter 6 is really long, so I’m going to split it up.

We turn from Jesus’ sermon about his authority to a new scene.  Jesus leaves Jerusalem and goes to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. There are crowds following him, because he has healed the sick.  It is implied that Jesus tries to escape by going up a mountain with just the disciples.  But the crowd follows.

Passover is approaching - I guess the implication is that shops will be as bare as they are here just before a snowstorm hits, with all the bread and milk bought out.  Jesus is omniscient here - he asks the disciples, how are we going to feed this crowd? even though Jesus knows how to feed them.  “He himself knew what he was going to do.”  Unlike in previous chapters, Jesus seems to be speaking about food practically, not metaphorically.  The disciples focus only on how much it would cost to buy food for everyone. 

The text doesn’t point this out, but I think there are possibly numerous miracles that occur here. The disciples are observant. That’s the first miracle.  They have seen that in the crowd there is a boy with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.   That’s the second miracle.  The third miracle is that the disciples are able to get the entire crowd to sit down, all five thousand of them.  Anybody who has gotten on a commercial airplane knows how long it takes just 100 people to be seated.  

The fourth miracle is that the boy was willing to share his loaves and fishes (or was he? The text doesn’t say.).  The fifth miracle is that, after Jesus gives thanks, that tiny amount of food is able to feed the entire crowd, and (sixth miracle!) there are leftovers.  

The gospel author tells us that the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is another “sign”.  The people know that this means Jesus is “the prophet who is to come into the world.”  

Jesus sees that the people (I assume that “they” means the people of the crowd) want to make him into a king.  So he again tries to escape the crowd by going to a mountain, but this time he does not take the disciples with him.

From this miracle we can draw some lessons on how to think about scarcity.  We could learn that if we share what we have and each person only takes what they need, and no more, there can be enough for everyone.  We could learn that by being calm (everyone sitting down) and distributing things methodically, there can be enough for everyone.  

I can’t help but point out that this scene is downright socialist.  We could learn that if everyone puts a little bit into a big pot of loaves and fishes called Medicare, then we can have enough for everyone (even those under the age of 65) to have at least basic medical care. (It’s true, though, that to implement that, we would have to sit down in a grassy field for a few years, waiting nervously for a completely new method of distributing medical care to take shape.)

But perhaps the biggest lesson the author is trying to impart is that Jesus can provide us with enough.  In past chapters, Jesus has used food as a metaphor, so I think it is fair for us to read this story as saying once again, that metaphorically, Jesus meets our needs.  It’s a reinforcement of the living water metaphor Jesus offered the woman at the well, and of the “bread of life” metaphor that is coming up later in this chapter.

After Jesus goes off by himself, the disciples get into a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee back to Capernaum, even though night has fallen.  It’s dark, the sea is rough, and the wind is strong.  The text does not say, at this point, that the disciples are terrified.  They are rowing, and are about 3-4 miles from shore, when they see Jesus walking on the sea. That is the point when they are terrified, and rightly so.  Jesus tells them, it’s me, don’t be afraid.  And then magically the boat has reached the shore.

We also see in this chapter that Jesus does not want to be an earthly king, and that he is desperate to be by himself, away from the crowds.  

Metaphors:  There is no explicit metaphor, but we can easily read the feeding of the crowd as representing food meeting our needs, and the stormy waters as the vagaries of life.

Images and themes: crowds, loaves, fishes, boat(s), a storm, walking on water.

People/Beings:   Jesus, the large crowd, the disciples (including Philip and Andrew), a boy with food.   

Places:  the Sea of Galilee, and both its shores; a mountain, a grassy area; in a boat; Capernaum.  

The Gospel of John, Chapter 5: Healing Waters

The Gospel of John, Chapter 5

Read Chapter 5 here.

This version includes verse 4.

There is a Jewish festival in Jerusalem, so Jesus goes to Jerusalem.  It’s not clear that the disciples went with him.

Jesus goes to a place with a pool of healing waters (the “Pool at Bethesda”), with lots of invalids hanging around hoping to be healed. One man had been there, sick, for 38 years.  Jesus asks him “Do you want to be made well?”  The implication is, here you are at the place of healing, for many years, but you have not gotten well.  This could be a deep insight into human nature.  Often it is far easier for us to stay in the bad place we are in, because it takes a lot of effort to get out of the bad place, and after that we have to manage an unfamiliar situation.  A lot of times, our answer is “no, I don’t really want to be made well.”

Or maybe the man’s answer to Jesus’ question indicates the sick man’s disadvantages.  He has no friends to help him get to the water, and he is too slow getting there himself.

I must pause to point out that the NRSV, NIV, NLT, NASB (etc) translations skip verse 4.  The footnote says:

Other ancient authorities add, wholly or in part, waiting for the stirring of the water; 4 for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.

“Ancient authorities” means various ancient manuscripts.  

The sick man says to Jesus, I don’t have anyone to carry me to the healing water, and when I try to get there myself, someone else gets there before me.  Jesus, dispensing with the need for the healing water, simply says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”  And the man is immediately healed, stands up, picks up his mat, and walks.

This is wonderful!  Except, as the author points out next, this healing happened on the sabbath.  “The Jews” immediately object, saying to the newly cured man, it’s against Sabbath laws for you to carry your mat on the Sabbath.  The gospel author sets up “The Jews” to be the bad guys.  The Jews ask the healed man, who told you to carry your mat?  But he doesn’t know the identity of his healer.

Jesus meets up with the healed man later, in the temple, and exhorts him to sin no more.  The healed man tells “the Jews” that it was Jesus who healed him.  They confront Jesus, who replies by equating himself with God.  The gospel writer tells us that “The Jews” sought “all the more to kill him.”  

I am not a scholar, but rabbis have told me that in Judaism in general, healing is lawful, even on the sabbath. It is imperative to save a life if it can be done, no matter what day it is.   Strictly speaking, in our passage, the law broken is the law against carrying something on the sabbath.  But in verse 16 it is made clear that “The Jews” persecute Jesus because he is “doing such things on the sabbath.”  Perhaps it is a direct rebuke of the law against work on the sabbath when Jesus says “My Father is still working, and I am also working.”

Jesus embarks on a long speech, doubling down on equating himself to God.  He says, whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. … The Father has given the power of judgment to the Son.  Those who hear and believe the Son will have eternal life.  Then Jesus switches from third person (“the Son”) to first person, saying, my works show that the Father has sent me.  

Jesus then makes the stark accusation: “But I know that you do not have the love of God in you.  I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me…”

The story of the healing at the pool is beautiful, and could have deep lessons for us.  But this chapter also contains a lot of disturbing elements.  We must recognize the gospel as a polemical text.  It is easy to see how this chapter could be used to foster anti-Jewish sentiment and action.

The contrast continues between those who believe and those who don’t.  

Metaphors: almost none? There is the metaphor of a lamp, referring to John the Baptist.

Images and themes: healing on the Sabbath, helplessness, working, Jesus equating himself with God, judgment, testimony, resurrection.

People/Beings:   Jesus, the sick man at the pool, “the Jews,” God, the dead who will hear God’s voice.

Places: The pool at Bethesda in Jerusalem, the temple in Jerusalem.

Friday, February 4, 2022

The Gospel of John, Chapter 4: Living Water

The Gospel of John, Chapter 4

Read Chapter 4 here.

It turns out it is not Jesus himself, but his disciples, who have been doing some baptizing.  It seems the Pharisees view this baptizing as a threat.  Jesus decides to leave Judea and travel to Galilee, via Samaria.  

It’s the middle of the day, so the disciples go into town to buy food, leaving Jesus at a place called Jacob’s well, somewhere in Samaria.  Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman, even though Jews and Samaritans are not supposed to mix.  

Jesus is tired.  He asks for water from the well, but the woman says, hey, you’re a Jew, and Jews and Samaritans don’t talk to each other.  Jesus offers to the woman “living water”, i.e. eternal life.  Jesus is omniscient - he can tell the woman has had 5 men in her life.  His words sort of imply condemnation, but he clearly finds this woman worthy of further conversation. Jesus seems a little less snarky and a little more compassionate with the woman than he was with Nicodemus.  He then speaks in very high language about worshiping “in spirit and in truth,” (whatever that means)  and he reveals that he himself is the Messiah.

The disciples return with food.  First they have to get over the fact that Jesus is talking to a (gasp) woman.  But they don’t say anything to Jesus about it.  Instead, they urge Jesus to eat something.  Jesus uses food as a metaphor, which confuses the disciples.  Jesus says, “the fields are ripe for harvesting,”  using apocalyptic language about sowing and reaping to refer to eternal life.  The metaphors are flying about now.

Because of the woman’s testimony to her fellow Samaritans, many of them come to believe in Jesus, and he stays in Samaria for two days.  All in all, this is a beautiful story in which Jesus overcomes a major cultural divide. 

Then Jesus & Co. go to Galilee, to the town of Cana, where Jesus had turned the water into wine.  Jesus heals a little boy, the son of an official in Capernaum, without even going to Capernaum.  The gospel author tells us this healing is the second sign.  It is this gospel’s first story about a physical healing.

The theme continues: understanding and accepting testimony versus not getting it and unbelief.  Jesus continues to speak mainly in metaphors. The gospel author continues to portray him as omniscient, but Jesus’ humanity also shows, in his tiredness and thirst, in the story of the Woman at the Well.

Metaphors: living water, food, fields ripe for harvest.

Images and themes: eternal life, belief, healing.

People/Beings:   Jesus, his disciples, a Samaritan woman (The Woman at the Well), the people in the Samaritan city, Galileans, a royal official, a sick little boy, the official’s slaves. 

Places: Samaria - a city called Sychar, Galilee - back to the town of Cana.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

First Lines: January 2022 edition

Below are the first lines of the books I finished reading in January. 


Book 1

Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street

Turtle Bay, November 12, 1957

For some weeks now I have engaged in dispersing the contents of this apartment, trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to scatter and leave me alone.  It is not a simple matter.  I am impressed by the reluctance of one’s worldly goods to go out again into the world. 


Book 2

Soviet Union – 1942

The priest presiding over my wedding was half-starved, half-frozen and wearing rags, but he was resourceful; he’d blessed a chunk of moldy bread from breakfast to serve as a communion wafer.



Book 3

Democracy’s Failing Light

While we’re still arguing about whether there’s life after death, can we add another question to the cart?  Is there life after democracy?  What sort of life will it be?  By “democracy” I don’t mean democracy as an ideal or an aspiration.  I mean the working model:  Western liberal democracy, and its variants, such as they are.



Book 4

From: Lisa Brown <>

To: Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt <>

Sent: Thu, 9 December

Subject:  Meeting Tomorrow at Romance House (!)

Book 5

Agatha Raisin arrived at Heathrow Airport with a tan outside and a blush of shame inside. 


Book 6


Introduction to a Life

Too soon.  Too angry.

Too smart.  Too stupid.

Too honest.  Too snobbish.

Too Jewish.  Not Jewish enough.

Too loving, too hateful,

Too manlike, not manlike enough.


The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

Essays of E.B. White, by E.B. White, published 1977 (essays were first published in various publications from 1934 through 1977).   346 pages.

Excellent writing.  Some prescient observations. 


Book 2

The Things We Cannot Say, by Kelly Rimmer.  Published 2019.  467 pages.  

A WWII/holocaust story that is told from the perspective of two women: Alina, a young woman in Poland on the cusp of WWII, and Alice, a woman with a detached husband, an intellectually curious child, and a child with autism.  I read it for book club.  Most of the characters have some impediment to saying what needs to be said.  Some of the group had trouble reading the book, mostly because of the subject matter being too harsh to read.  


Book 3

Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers, by Arundhati Roy.  Published 2009.  209 pages.

I speed-read this.  Arundhati Roy is a brave writer, speaking out against many wrongs in her country, India.  The title refers to grasshoppers as a bad omen, their arrival indicating horrible events to come.  The current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, was at the time of these essays the Chief Minister in Gujarat state.  Roy accuses him and the BJP Party of carrying out a genocide against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.  It seems things have gone downhill for democracy in India, and elsewhere, since then.  This book of twelve essays feels dated.  I am only slightly familiar with events and politicians in India in the past 20 years, so it was not easy to see lessons for our own situation. 


Roy notes that there have been several genocides carried out by the United States (and its predecessor colonies), in her view.  The first: the decimation of the Native Americans by colonials, via smallpox.  The second: the millions of deaths that occurred during the slave trade.  The third: the bombing of Japan in WWII.  The fourth:  the invasion of Vietnam.



Book 4

The Matzah Ball, by Jean Metzger.  Published 2021.  416 pages.

A fun, light-hearted romance.  Repetitive, as romance novels usually are.  The characters repeat to themselves, and the reader, that he/she just has to have/do X, or else.  But the plot and characters were still amusing.


Book 5

Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet. By M.C. Beaton. First published 1993.  224 pages.  Audio book, narrated by Diana Bishop.

I needed an audio book to listen to, while recovering from having my eyes dilated.  When I read the first book in this lengthy series, the story was fine but there were some atrocious typos in the printed version.  I thought an audio version might work better for the next one in the series. This version I borrowed from the library claims to be 5 hours listening time.  That’s about right – I was able to finish it in two days.  But I did fall asleep at certain points, not because it was a boring book, but because that’s what I do when listening to the spoken word while prone and keeping my (dilated) eyes closed. I liked the narrator’s voice and the plot was fine.  The main character is a bit obnoxious.  There is a funny scene in a bathroom. 



Book 6

The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth, by Ken Krimstein.  A graphic biography. Published 2018.  233 pages.

Hannah Arendt is known for delving into the causes of totalitarianism. I have always been fascinated by her observation that evil is banal, but have never studied that thought, her other thoughts, or her life.


This book is an overview of Arendt’s life, which includes a dizzying pantheon of famous thinkers, artists, and smart folks – mostly men.  The artist highlights Arendt in the drawings with a green shading, a good choice.  

[Spoiler alert, but not a big spoiler]

As the Nazis came to power, Arendt escaped from Germany to France, then endured the round-up of Jews at the Vel d’Hiv in Paris, escaped from an internment camp in France, and eventually came to the U.S.  

Here are a few quotes from the book, which is written in first person from Hannah Arendt’s point of view:


[Hannah, talking to herself] 

-   Hannah, this is just normal human behavior.

No, Hannah, this is a new kind of human.

-   How so?

This is a person who is put into concentration camps… by their foes… and into internment camps… by their friends.

-   You make a good point. 

– p. 108


[After World War II is over.]

Yes, the war is won.  But for me, it’s still raging.  I can’t ignore the shattering of tradition.  I must understand.  I must find the answer.  There is something at work in the world that causes people to cannibalize their own freedom, and in so doing, turn other people into landfill.   What is it?  How does it work?  Why? 

 – p. 163


[Arendt observes the trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann]

As hard as I try, I cannot see a monster in the glass booth.  I see a bore, a careerist former vacuum cleaner salesman spouting empty sales pitches.  He’s ordinary, which makes his crimes even more horrible than a Frankenstein fantasy.   If we turn Eichmann into a demonic monster, we somehow absolve him of his crime, and all of us of our potential crime, the crime of not thinking things through.  The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.

– p. 220.



A book I didn’t finish:  

Sword Stone Table: Old Legends, New Voices, compiled by Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington.  Published 2021.  465 pages.

This is a collection of short stories riffing on the legend of King Arthur and the Round Table.  Some of the stories I really enjoyed.  The ones I wasn’t enjoying I (gasp) skipped.