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Wrestling with the Word, episode 32: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (August 2, 2009), July 20, 2009

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Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

We have a tendency in our Western culture to distinguish, if not separate, what is spiritual from what is worldly. The rational distinctions we make about these realms of life inevitably lead us to separate the work of God the creator from the work of God the Son and both from God the Holy Spirit. We have some things to learn from the lessons for this day about the spiritual and the material. Neither God the Father nor God the Son speak of relating to, and sustaining, people apart from the gift of food that people actually chew and swallow.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 32: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B.


Psalm 78:23-29

The psalm is a reflection on the history of the people of Israel. This historical summary is not the usual sense of presenting God’s actions on behalf of the people but in the unusual sense of indicating how the people remained hard-hearted in spite of God’s clear and unambiguous actions on their behalf. The psalm, in fact, appears as a wisdom psalm, calling the people to give heed to this teaching which consists of a number of riddles from history. The primary riddle is that of Israel’s sin against the graciousness of the Lord. At the conclusion of the psalm, we realize it is also a polemic against the northern kingdom Israel. The Jerusalem tradition that gave us this psalm asserts that Yahweh “chose instead the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion which he loves.” Our section of the psalm simply deals with the goodness of God in providing food for the people in the wilderness. The food, poured from “the sky above” through “the doors of heaven,” is variously called “manna,” “the grain from heaven” (degan-šāmayim [LXX arton ouranou] ), “the bread of angels,” “flesh,” and “winged birds.” This section serves as a meditation on the gift of food in Exodus 16.


Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

In the wilderness time between salvation and the Promised Land, God provides for the physical needs of the people, in spite of their complaining.


Exodus 1–15 tells the story of the deliverance from the place of bondage, the land of Egypt. Running through these chapters is the notion that through the plagues the Pharaoh and his people would learn the identity of the Lord. Having accomplished the victory over Pharaoh, the Lord now brings the people into the wilderness. This tradition continues through chapter 18, breaks for the Sinai tradition, and resumes at Numbers 11.

Key Words

V. 2.  wayyillînû … ‘al-mōše we‘al ’aharôn = “they murmured against Moses and Aaron”:  The  so-called “murmuring tradition” began a few verses earlier at 15:24 where the people complained about the lack of drinkable water. It continues through this chapter concerning the food supply and returns to the water problem in 17:1-7 where the verb “murmur” is joined by a synonym rîb = “to contend.” In Numbers 14–21 the verbs appear frequently. Note the problem behind their complaint about nutrition is a rejection of God’s saving event they had just experienced at the sea.

V. 4. hinenî mamtîr lākem lechem = “Behold I am raining food upon them”: Note that Psam 78 speaks also of God’s raining down “manna” and “flesh” (vss. 24, 27).

V. 4.  lema‘an ‘anassennû = “in order to test them”:  While God’s testing appeared in connection with Abraham (Gen. 22:1), the wilderness was regarded as a time of particular divine testing of Israel (see the continuation of the tradition at Deut. 8:2). While such a divine test is appropriate according to the writers, Israel’s testing of God is not (see 17:7; note Ps. 78:41).

V. 12. wîda‘tem kî ’anî YHWH ’elōhêkem = “so that you may know that I am YHWH your God”: Throughout the plague stories and the sea event the priestly writer used this formula (or one similar to it)–for the people of Israel (6:7 followed by the act of deliverance; 10:2), for the Egyptians in terms of acts of judgment (7:5; 14:4, 18), specifically the Pharaoh (7:17; 8:22; 9:14, 29). The priest Ezekiel also used the formula for the Lord’s salvation from Babylon (Ezek. 37:14). Here, then, the goal of the feeding is to make known the identity and authority of God as the savior and sustainer of Israel.


Ephesians 4:1-16

In order to attain the unity of the Spirit-called community, God has endowed the church with a variety of gifts for the work of ministry.


The passage begins the second half of the epistle that consists of a series of admonitions based on the purpose of the letter:  the unity of the church under the leadership of Jesus Christ. The obvious issue throughout the epistle is the division between Jewish Christians and gentile Christians.

Key Words

V. 1. “a prisoner for the Lord”: Asserting himself as the Apostle Paul, the author picks up a theme from other letters of Paul regarding the cause of his imprisonment: his calling to be an apostle of Christ. See Phil. 1:7, 13.

V. 1. “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called”: Again, the Apostle Paul uses the responsibility connected with the gift at 1 Thess. 2:12. In Col. 3:12-14 appears a list of virtues appropriate to the calling that is similar to those in verse 2.

Vss. 4-6. hen … hen … mia … eis … mia … hen … eis … “one”: Three different Greek words announce to the readers that their different backgrounds as Jews and Gentiles become unified in a common body, Spirit, hope, Lord, faith, baptism, and God. The seven-fold oneness rings familiar chimes with the seven-fold gift of the Spirit at Isa. 11:1.

V. 8. The OT quotation is from Psalm 68:18 (v. 19 in Hebrew). In the psalm, however, the content is different. There God comes from Sinai and ascends the new holy mountain, Zion in Jerusalem. God is leading captives who will bring God gifts of submission. Here, Christ is the one who ascended after descending to hell, and Christ is the giver of the gifts. The gifts here are diversity of talents and responsibilities, similar to 1 Cor. 12, that make the one community “for the work of ministry” (v. 12).

V. 16. “from whom the whole body”: Christ is the one who brings oneness to the people who were originally divided into Jews and Gentiles.


John 6:24-35

The multiplication of food is a gift of God’s care for the hungry and an indication of Jesus’ identity as one who identifies himself as the free lunch.


According to John, this feeding of the multitudes takes place on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee rather than on the other side, as the synoptics indicate. The disciples crossing the Sea in order to get to Capernaum (vv. 16-17) confirm this location. A larger problem is whether the audience to whom Jesus speaks in our pericope is the same as the one at the miracle in vv. 1-14. They, or some of them, were looking for a king (v. 15); these people consider Jesus to be a rabbi (v. 25).

Key Words

V. 25. Rabbi, pote hōde gegonas = “Rabbi, when have you been here?”:  A deeper theological meaning is possible, namely, about Jesus’ origin, but the wording for that issue is different:  pothen estin = “where he (comes from)” at 7:27, 28. Perhaps the issue is the speed with which Jesus and the disciples arrived at Capernaum (“immediately” at v. 21).

V. 26. zēteite me ouch hoti eidete sēmeia = “you seek me not because you saw signs”: The purpose of signs in John’s Gospel is to bring people to faith. This event is one of the signs in the Book of Signs (1—12) but once again the people fail to get beyond their stomachs. Their refusal to accept Jesus’ miracle as a sign betrays their stubbornness—chips of the old block of ancestors (Exod. 16 by way of Psalm 78).

V. 29. touto estin to ergon tou theou, hina pisteuēte eis hon apesteilen ekeinos = “This is the work of God, that you believe in he whom God has sent”: The work of God in this passage is to appropriate to oneself the gift of eternal life that Jesus brings to people.

V. 31. arton ek tou ouranou edoken autois phagein = “He gave them bread from heaven to eat”: The quote is not exactly the same but is similar to two verses from the first lesson (Exod. 16:4, 15), the psalm for the day (LXX Ps. 78:24), and Wisdom 16:20. The people of Israel had eaten manna for the first time during the days of Moses and for the last time on the plains of Jericho during the days of Joshua (Josh. 5:10-12). Recall that Jesus is the Greek form of the name Joshua.

V. 33.  ho gar artos tou theou estin ho katabainōn ek tou ouranou kai zōēn didous tō_ kosmō = “For the bread of God is the one who/that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”: The personal or impersonal is possible, but in light of the whole question about the identity of Jesus in this passage, the personal seems to be preferred. Jesus makes an equation with himself “the bread of life” at v. 35 and with “the bread of God” at v. 38. The life promised here is the “eternal life” mentioned in v. 27. Interestingly, the “water” that Jesus gives also results in eternal life” (3:14). Further, the recipient of the life-giving “bread” is not limited to Israel but extends to the whole world.

V. 35. egō eimi ho artos tēs zōēs = “I AM the bread of life”: Jesus’ words pack a double wallop. The egō eimi is a divine title used in the LXX at Isa. 43:10, 25; 51:12; 52:6. Jesus repeats the whole expression at v. 48 and extends the expression at v. 51. The words “bread of life” appear as “bread of God” at v. 33. That Jesus identifies himself with the bread of life sounds like the claim of “wisdom” at Sirach 24:21 (cf. Isa. 55:1-3). Of special significance is that Wisdom and Word appear as virtually synonyms in Sirach—both the means by which God reaches out to people in action and in teaching.