Updated: Aug 16, 2021
If you preached the lections of The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary last week, the sequence set for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time is an important context for this Sunday’s pericope. In John 6:51-58, John offers us the core images that will become the “hard words” of which many of Jesus’ disciples murmur and complain (6:60). Therefore, it may serve well if the exegetical notes from the 20th in OT are reviewed as we take up this finale to the Bread of Life Discourse. (The “Homiletical Exegesis” from last week dealing with 20thin OT remains on the website.) By way of review, then, these “hard words” involved Jesus’ speech in which he shifted from the metaphor of eating his body (a familiar Jewish image for consuming the wisdom of a rabbinic leader) to the literal and Eucharistic image of eating his flesh. Moreover, the scandalous assertion is intensified along two trajectories. On one hand, those who eat the flesh of Jesus will have life in them (6:53). On the other hand, a strong eschatological note is sounded: Jesus announces that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood “have eternal life” (54). Finally, we noted that John further intensifies the controversy between Jesus and his listeners by shifting the verb “to eat” to a verb associated with the way animals feed (“munch”). All of the above leads to the opening of the Gospel lection for this 21st Sunday in OT.
Several meanings are packed into John’s description of the reaction of the crowd to Jesus’ words. First, the statement has a chiastic shape to it. Two versions of the word “to hear” are offered, one at the beginning and the other at the end. But the meaning changes significantly. The translation, “who were listening,” Raymond Brown notes, has a connotation of hearing without acceptance while “at the end of the verse it means to hear with acceptance.”[i] (Literally, the final meaning of ἀκούειν translates “who is able to hear?”) We also note that those who raise strong objections to these “hard words” Jesus has just spoken are “many of his disciples.” Only when we arrive at the brief narrative that follows the Bread of Life Discourse will we hear for the first time in the Fourth Gospel of “the Twelve.” Up to now, certain disciples have been named, beginning with Andrew, but their number has remained indeterminate. Jesus has foreknowledge of these murmurings among the “many disciples” (The Evangelist once again employs the word used in v. 41 that translates “to murmur.” Addressing the numerous disciples, Jesus asks, “Does this shock you?” The word in Greek is “to scandalize” and has a connotation of being a barrier to faith and belief. At this point, Jesus boldly returns to direct eschatological speech, asking a “What if…?” question. Once more, the clear signal that we are in an eschatological mode of discourse is provided by the Divine title, “the Son of Man.”
The question--with its “What if…?”--specifically focuses on that Divine figure “ascending to where he was before.” Brown adds that “This ascension to the Father is through crucifixion and resurrection” (296). Without awaiting any response from these “many disciples,” Jesus makes a pronouncement: “It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.” Clearly, as preachers of this lection, we will distinguish between the “flesh” of the Lord which gives life “to the age” and this notion of “the flesh” that is of no avail. “The ‘flesh’ in the prologue sense of the ways of earthly cultural thinking 1:13), ‘profits nothing’…” as Wes Howard-Brook observes.[ii]
A compact sequence follows building on the alternative between the spirit and the worldly notion of “flesh.” Emphatically, Jesus announces,
The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life. But there are some of you who
do not believe.
This pronouncement stands as the counterpoint to the words in the prologue: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (1:12). St. John adds that “Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him.” Brown clarifies that “This is not the beginning mentioned in i:i where the pre-existence of the Word is involved, but the beginning of the ministry or of the disciples’ call…” (297). Given this pre-knowledge, however, it is reaffirmed that “no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” Not all receive this gift of the Father. Some will simply not believe; one will betray Jesus. In spite of this heavy knowledge, Jesus will continue to do the work of his Father.
At this point, the Bread of Life Discourse comes to an end. There is a sense of the Passion here along with the recurring bass note that in Jesus there is granted the Spirit and life. Now St. John returns to a narrative rhetoric in a brief conclusion to the Discourse. Those unnamed “many disciples” now make their decision as to whether they will become children of God. On one hand, many “returned to their former way of life.” Literally, they turned or went “away to the back.” Clearly, they, and we, do not show forth the work of the Spirit by this return to some old, former “way of life.” On the other hand, “they no longer accompanied him.” Here, literally, they “no longer with him walked.” Howard-Brook summaries, “The opposite of following is withdrawal, retreating, returning to what ‘was’ rather than continuing on the path of what is ‘coming to be’.”[iii] Perhaps our homily for this Sunday in Ordinary Time can “flesh out” the opposition of these two ways.
Finally we arrive at the heart of the matter, of the outcome for us all. “Jesus then said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’” The progression now centers on the Twelve and no longer on the crowds, the Jews, or those “many disciples.” Peter responds on behalf of the apostolic church,
Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God. (69)
Only with the Holy One of God—a new designation for Jesus—is a community becoming children of God to be found. “For all our sinfulness and lack of faith, our efforts to bond our lives with one another through the mystery of Jesus’ flesh and blood find no counterpart in the secular world.”[iv] Jesus has the words of eternal life.
[i] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii) (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 296. (Henceforth cited in text.) [ii] Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 167. [iii] Ibid., 168. [iv] Ibid., 1`69.
20th Sunday OT B Homiletical Exegesis: John 6:51-58 -Alternative Readings ~ Rev. Richard Eslinger
The material in John 6: 51-58 both resumes the Bread of Life Discourse found in 35-50 and introduces new imagery and thematics. Both pericopes (6:35-50 and 6:51-58) elaborate the meaning of Jesus as the Bread of Life, both share pointed controversies between Jesus and “the Jews,” and both present Jesus as witnessing to the eschatological meanings of sharing in his Body. At the literary level, as Raymond Brown notes, the material in 51-58 has “extremely close parallels to 35-50.”[i] On the other hand, while the earlier section of the Discourse possesses a dominant sapiential theme, verse 51 marks a strong and permanent shift towards the Eucharistic. In particular, the intensification of the rhetoric of the Discourse in 51-58—“body” now denoted as “flesh” and “eat” now revised as “munch”—leave any metaphorical interpretation out of consideration. Moreover, the eschatological themes held in common between 35-50 and 51-58 are similarly presented in a much bolder way. Again, as noted in the exegesis on OT 19, the sapiential and Eucharistic dimensions of Jesus’ gift of life are not in any way in competition. Rather, the sapiential dominates the Discourse in 35-50 while containing a secondary Eucharistic element and in the latter pericope, the Eucharistic theme takes center stage. As Brown noted, the two are in juxtaposition not only in the Bread of Life Discourse but in the very shape of the liturgy of Word and Sacrament. We now turn to a close reading of the alternate lection for the 20th Sunday in OT:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” A second variant of this first “I AM” (Ego eimi…”) statement in the Gospel. In 6:35, we read “bread of life.” These alternatives, Brown notes, parallel the variant expressions, “water of life” and “living water” in Revelation and the Fourth Gospel. Brown adds, “Jesus never identifies himself with the living water”(282). “Came down” is couched in the Greek tense that signals an action completed in the past. However, the whole sweep of the Incarnation as sung in the Prologue is reflected here.
“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever,…” Once more, Jesus announces that by eating this bread, the faithful are feeding on the source of life. Then, too, the Discourse clarifies that God gives to the Son, this bread of life, the power to be the source of “true” life, in this world. Finally, the Father gives to Jesus the power to raise up the faithful “at the last day”(6:54).[ii]
“The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” With this statement and its radical shift of imagery from “body” to “flesh,” we are now in a new place in the Discourse. On one hand, it is clear that the Fourth Evangelist is no longer presenting us with metaphoric speech as to the ways in which God teaches us through Jesus. This is sacramental turf here! However, it is also ground upon which faithful Jews have not and will not tread. The eating of human flesh (sarx) is forbidden by Torah, as is the drinking of blood. Wes Howard-Brook notes that to “eat flesh” in the Hebrew Scriptures has no positive connotations, “it is the work of vultures…and evildoers…”[iii] Put simply, this word is scandalous.
“The Jews then disputed among themselves…” Given this scandal, the assembled Galilean crowd finds itself both in division and in acrimony. The term translated “disputed” may well be too mild an English equivalent to the Greek. Brown, for one, insists that the term conveys a sense of “violent dispute”(Brown, 282). People are coming close to physical blows over this scandalous speech of Jesus!
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”. Signaled by the “Very truly, I tell you…” preface to the statement, something grave and profound is about to be spoken. Here, the scandal is expanded by the phrase “and drink his blood.” The dual imagery of eating flesh and drinking blood will remain center-stage through the middle of this pericope (through v. 56). Then, the Discourse reverts to a single focus on eating Jesus’ flesh. The use of “Son of Man” reintroduces a strong eschatological note here. With Neyrey, the second of the three-fold eschatological themes is evoked here: life is given through the Eucharistic feeding on the bread of life.
“…and I will raise them up on the last day.” The Greek translated “will raise” is “anestēsō,” a term whose conventional meaning is the act of standing up or rising from a recumbent position. However, the Fourth Evangelist employs the term to speak of Christ being raised from the dead (cf. 20:9). Again, the eschatological note here now relates to Neyrey’s third level of meaning—lit., “in the last day.”
“…for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” In v. 32, Jesus responded to the crowd that is was his Father “who gives you the true bread from heaven.” The context of that statement centered in disputes concerning Manna, Moses and Jesus, and the true teaching of God. However, the valuation now claims a sacramental kind of truth. Brown adds that the term, alēthēs, could be translated “the only real” (Brown, 283). The only other use of the word in the Fourth Gospel occurs in the Last Supper account, again strengthening the Eucharistic meaning in play here.
“Those who eat my flesh…” We now hear a further and perhaps even more scandalous speech from Jesus. In the midst of this shift from the sapiential associations with eating his body to now feeding on his flesh, the word for “eat” is changed. Thus far in the Discourse, we have encountered the conventional Greek word for eating, “phagein.” But now that verb is left behind and is substituted by “trogein,” a word that “connotes a graphic sort of eating done by an animal…”[iv] Any interpretative space is now withdrawn; only the sacramental remains.
“Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats (trogon) me will live because of me…But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” Finally, all three aspects of “true” or “only real” life are folded into one extended proclamation. The eschatological power given by the Father to the Son is then offered to those who “munch his flesh.” Now we see the fullness of these words:
“The Son Gives Life.”
“Life in Himself.”
“Resurrection and Life.”[v]
If the occasion provides for a liturgical setting other than the Feast of the Assumption of the BVM, this further section of the Bread of Life Discourse provides some distinctive opportunities for the preacher. To be sure, the dominant theme of the lection is Eucharistic, but the particular focus here is eschatological. Given that for the Gospel of St. John eternal life is a quality of life in Christ that already blesses those becoming children of God, a homily on this lection potentially offers the listeners much deeper insights into the Mystery of which they are a part. A homily could be shaped that explores one or more of the eschatological facets that Fr. Neyrey has discerned in the lection. Of course, the words and actions embedded in the Mass provide rich sources for imaging these three thematics (“The Son gives life,” “Life in himself,” “Resurrection and Life.”). However, a homily is not a lecture on future hope themes of the Eucharist. It is a proclamation of the Gospel and not “a talk given on the occasion of a liturgical celebration.”[vi] Given the context of the church in the midst of a culture of death, it becomes important to develop a brief, but concrete counterpoint to the life-giving promises of Christ in this Gospel Lection. Certainly not as a closing move, but perhaps offered as evidence of “trouble” in the world that is then countered by naming the grace in the text.[vii] One further caution: it can be a real temptation to “name trouble” with more immediacy and in more detail than our dealings with the grace in the Scripture. We will exert needed discipline to present the worldly context of this Word with realism and particularity. But the homily is not to remain with such depressing and enervating bad news. It is Good News we preach, and St. John has shared with us Christ’s amazing grace that “the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
[i]Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii) (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 291. (Henceforth cited in text.) [ii] See: Jerome H. Neyrey, The Gospel of John in Cultural and Rhetorical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), 186. [iii] Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 164. [iv] Ibid., 165. [v] Neyrey, 186-87. [vi] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Fulfilled in Your Hearing, 1982, accessed September 12, 2014, https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/vocations/priesthood/priestly-life-and-ministry/upload/fiyh.pdf. [vii] See: Mary Catherine Hilkert, Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination (New York: Continuum, 1997).