This week concludes the liturgy selections from Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel on Jesus’ words about the ‘Bread of Life’. Combined with the first reading, today’s emphasis is on the choice every person has to make about responding to the call of God.
Joshua 24:1-2, 15-18
Joshua was the leader of the Jewish people who took over after the death of Moses, and was responsible for settling the people who had made the Exodus out of Egypt into the Promised Land. Our selection is at the end of the book, Joshua’s farewell to the people before his death. He issues a challenge to continue in the faith and service of the Lord, despite the temptations from the other gods they find in the areas where they now live. The first words of the selection are the introduction to his speech; in the part of his address omitted in the mass, Joshua summarizes the history of the people chosen by God from the time of Abraham to the present.
Then he issues a call to commitment and states his own choice. The people respond with their decision: they too will not desert the Lord. It foreshadows the choice at the end of today’s Gospel, but the whole hearted acceptance of the Jewish nation, is a contrast to those who would ‘walk no more’ with Jesus.
Psalm 33/34:2-3, 16-23
We continue with the psalm of the last few weeks, with more promises of God’s care even when the situation seems desperate.
This kind of family advice has been called the ‘Household Code’. It reflects the social conditions of the time and the position of women in that society. It bothers some modern women – and men, too –when it says a wife should ‘submit’ to her husband. It is interesting, however, that the author spends far more time in talking about the responsibilities of the husband to love his wife as himself even of to the point of sacrifice, in imitation of the love Christ had for the Church. This is often ignored by the kind of man who wants obedience without such a commitment. For us today, the challenge is to decide what this advice means in a different time and culture. We can take some guidance from what comes next: a stress on unity of all people in Christ. (This has been a major concern of all the readings from Ephesians.) ‘Giving way’ to another is a task laid on all in the first verse, so that putting others first becomes the choice of all Christians, and not just a matter for husbands and wives.
In the previous week Jesus stressed that the Eucharistic bread and wine are truly his flesh and blood, ‘real food’ and ‘real drink’. Taking the bread and wine means that we receive Jesus into the depths of our being. And further, ‘anyone who eats this bread will live forever.’ It is these statements that were such a scandal to the crowd in today’s reading that some of the disciples ‘left him and stopped going with him’.
At the beginning of today’s reading after Jesus has insisted on his words of eating his flesh and blood, there are further grumbles and objections. Once again, I find the translation in the missal misses some shadings of the Greek text. ‘Intolerable language’ is literally ‘a hard word’ or ‘hard saying’. The point is not that the language is faulty in some way, but the reality of what Jesus has said is hard for them to accept. He answers them with a question which is a veiled promise of the future: what if they should see him rising to God as he had come down from God? Next comes a strong contrast between flesh and spirit, and stressing that these words, ‘hard’ as they seem, are truly life-giving.
Seeing many leaving him, Jesus lets them go rather than change his words. John always shows Jesus’ deeper knowledge, and here he stresses that Jesus knew which ones would leave. But that does not mean that he did not feel the pain of their rejection, which seems to me is behind his words as he turns to the Twelve – those closest to him in his ministry – and asks if they too want to leave. Simon Peter speaks for all of them, in recognizing that indeed his words are life. There is an interesting step here in Peter saying first ‘we believe’ and then ‘we know’. This progression has been also been the experience of later Christians, as their first faith in Jesus leads on to greater and greater conviction.
‘The Holy One of God’: In the Old Testament this title was used for those especially consecrated to God. R. E. Brown in his commentary on this Gospel notes that in John 10:36, Jesus speaks of himself as the one ‘God has consecrated and sent into the world’. It appears that Peter’s choice of this title means he has gone beyond seeing Jesus as the Messiah/Christ others expected in those times. In the beginning of the Gospel, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, had used that title for Jesus (John 1:41). Now Peter makes a commitment that shows deeper faith.
Our mass readings of John’s chapter 6 contain the challenge for listeners today to choose whether or not to follow Jesus. That reflects back on the call to choose God or pagan idols of the first reading from Joshua. Making a commitment whether to accept or reject what God has revealed is a choice facing every generation.