Commentary on Joshua 24:1-2,15-18; Ephesians 5:21-32; John 6:60-69
TODAY WE HAVE THE FIFTH AND FINAL reading from the 6th chapter of John’s gospel. Next week we will go back to reading from Mark’s gospel.
Today’s passage is really a parallel between the scene in the Synoptics where Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is. John, as often happens, puts it in a more dramatic way.
Jesus’ disciples are being presented with a crucial choice. It contrasts with the scene at Shechem from the end of the book of Joshua in today’s First Reading. God’s people have just entered the Promised Land. The people already living there have their own gods, gods who will seem very attractive to the Israelites.
Joshua has called together the elders, leaders, judges and scribes of Israel and presents them with a choice:
either they can continue to serve the God who brought them out of Egypt and through the desert to the land where they are now settled; or they can adopt the gods of the Amorites whose land they have conquered for themselves.
The people make a clear choice for Yahweh and endorse the covenants that have been made in the past by Moses and their ancestors. In fact, however, they will not always be faithful to this promise and will fall away many times. In that, they were not so unlike us.
Too much to take?
We saw last week how shocking were the words of Jesus if they were heard literally: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." Now, not only the religious leaders but Jesus’ own disciples are deeply scandalised: "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" And, taken literally, how could any civilised person accept such a statement?
We, of course, know that the words are not to be taken in a literal sense. It is Jesus’ dramatic way of saying that we must accept him totally, without any conditions or reservation. His thoughts and attitudes, his values, his life-view must become totally ours. Above all we are to identify with him in the offering of his flesh and the pouring out of his blood on the cross, the symbol of God’s unutterable love for us.
And, in the Eucharist, with which this chapter is closely linked, we recognise in our going to communion the accepting of that challenge to be totally one with Jesus. It is not enough for him to come to me; I also have to go all the way to him, with him. When the minister says, offering the Bread: "The Body of Christ", I respond with a total "Yes!" That ‘Yes’ is not just an act of faith in the Real Presence but a total commitment of myself to Jesus in the community of which I am a member.
Flesh and blood
There is then an ironic twist in what follows, when Jesus says: "It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh has nothing to offer." The words of Jesus are spirit, they are life-bearing. To hear what he says about his "flesh" and "blood" literally is to hear with ears of flesh. It is only when we hear Jesus’ words in the spirit, that they take on their real meaning, that they become, so to speak, flesh and blood. And, in their real meaning, they make radical demands.
Eating human flesh is repugnant but we could do it (and it has been done in extreme situations). The total assimilation of Jesus’s spirit and outlook into our lives is far more challenging. And it was a challenge that some of Jesus’ disciples were not prepared to face. And the reason? "There are among you some who do not believe, do not trust me."
Only with a deep, unconditional trust in Jesus will we have that deeper insight into the real meaning of Jesus’ words. It requires an absolutely open mind ready to receive what is there, not what we put there. And this is a gift of God: "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father."
As if to prove the truth of Jesus’ words the Gospel comments sadly: "Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him." Those words "turned back" are very sad. The word "con-version" means a turning towards [God]; this is an "a-version", a turning away, even worse, a turning back to their old blindness. They no longer shared his life and his light.
These are among the saddest words in the Gospel. This happens to many and it could happen to any of us. It happened to Judas, to the disciples in today’s Gospel and it almost happened to Peter.
Will you also go?
It is then that Jesus turns to the inner circle of the Twelve. Is there anxiety in Jesus’ question or is it a challenge? "Do you also wish to go away [from me]?" In words that remind us of the scene at Caesarea Philippi in the Synoptics, Peter, speaking for all, says: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God."
"Lord, to whom shall we go?" Perhaps we too will feel like leaving Jesus, leaving his Church. We may some experience serious doubts about our faith. Perhaps we have had that experience already. It can be very painful and disconcerting. There are many reasons why this can happen:
- poorly instructed in the Christian faith so that we go around with a distorted understanding of the Gospel message
- negative witness, scandalising behaviour from other Christians – be they priests or lay people
- conflicts with other Catholics or Christians
- the powerful attraction of a seductive world which is not compatible with the Christian vision
- a serious and conscientious choice of another life vision, joining another Christian or non-Christian faith.
On the other hand, many have reflected that, in spite of the difficulties and doubts, there is really no viable alternative to the way of life that Jesus proposes. It is a way of life that is not invalidated by the scandalous behaviour of some of Jesus’ followers. We learn to make a clear distinction between the essence of Christ’s vision and the messy way in which his followers try to live it.
Faith is not a given. It is not simply a set of ideas to be held on to. It is a living relationship with a Person and his vision of life. It is a relationship that needs to grow and be deepened with the years. It is a relationship that has constantly to be re-appraised in a constantly changing world. To be a Christian in the 21st century makes different demands from being a Christian in the 1970s or the 1950s.
A good example is today’s Second Reading. Proponents of "women’s liberation" may not be very happy with some of the things said about marriage and wives in that passage. We cannot change the passage which has many beautiful things in it but we do need to sift what is the Word of God and what reflects Paul’s being a man of his times.
The parallel between the relationship of a husband and wife and that of the Church and Jesus its Lord is full of meaning. Perhaps we have problems with the wife having to submit to her husband "in everything". But it is a submission of love not of inferiority and the same is required of husbands, who are to "love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy".
Husbands are to love their wives "as they love their own bodies". They are to give at least the same level of care to their partner as they would to themselves. This clearly involves a mutual bonding of deep intensity and commitment which leaves little room for domination or exploitation by either partner.
Simply to "turn back" on Jesus and the Gospel because of a too literal reading of some words in this passage would seem out of proportion. While the message of the New Testament does not change, the way in which it is to be lived out has constantly to be adapted to a changing world and a changing me.
Many committed Christians have from time to time to grapple with serious faith difficulties in their lives. It is almost a necessary experience as one’s faith matures at different stages of life. Each time one finds oneself coming up with Peter’s response, "Lord, to whom [else] can I go?" Even in doubt, one realises that a more satisfactory vision of life than that offered by Jesus in the Gospel had not been found.
The search for meaning
We all want, we all need meaning in our lives. At times that meaning can become quite obscure. There can be times when the Church’s presentation of it simply does not convince. Emotions like fear, anger, resentment, passionate love can all get in the way. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall SEE God."
There are other great visions of life and millions follow them: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam. They have undoubtedly brought people to a very high degree of union with God. Personally we here have opted to walk with Jesus’ vision. We will continue to do so unless a more convincing vision presents itself. If one were to find such a vision, one would have no option but to follow it. To do so would be a new conversion. Probably, that has not happened to us – so far. And, somehow, it is not likely to happen. But we do need to respect it happening in others.
What today’s Gospel warns us against is not being newly converted to what seems a deeper truth but to revert back to a former state of blindness and darkness.