Jesus lifts us above the ordinary

  • August 6, 2009
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Aug. 16 (Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58)

When we hear the word “banquet” it often triggers thoughts of rubber chicken and tedious speeches. Not so in the Bible: both Testaments employ the banquet metaphor to describe an invited encounter with a gracious God.

Wisdom, Isaiah and the Gospel of Luke all speak of feasting with the very best of food and wine as a manifestation of God’s kindness and abundance. Last week in John’s Gospel Jesus referred to Himself as “the bread of life” and the source of eternal life to all those who open their minds and hearts to God. But there is something special in this passage from Wisdom. In a similar fashion, Lady Wisdom prepares a banquet and offers life-giving bread and wine. The invitation is extended to “the simple,” meaning those who have a relatively clear vision of life — not too sophisticated or jaded to receive divine teaching.

In much of the wisdom literature of late Judaism wisdom is equated with God, using some of the symbolism and language applied to Jesus in the New Testament. Wisdom is the right hand of God, the divine artisan, the mirror image of God and was present with God from the beginning. And the gifts of wisdom — insight and understanding that gives life — are given to those willing to receive them. God’s desire to share the divine nature with humanity is not unique to the New Testament but was part of God’s plan from the beginning. But only those who are not mired in a material way of understanding will be able and willing to respond. Human beings are offered a luxurious banquet but often settle for crumbs and scraps or even things that do not nourish at all.

The author of Ephesians would agree: wisdom consists of knowing how to live in ways that are life-giving and God-oriented. He exhorts his community not to succumb to the temptations of living in ways that cloud the mind and soul. Living in a fearful, insecure and violent time as we do can be oppressive, dragging the spirit down and creating a sense of pessimism and futility. But feasting on things of the spirit and living in gratitude give joy and lightness of heart.

The “bread of life” discourse of Jesus in John 6 is long, repetitious and somewhat rambling. Because of its importance it shows signs of extensive reflection and editing by John’s community. But now his metaphors are intensified to the point of becoming shock language. It is not enough to be the bread of life: now Jesus insists that anyone who wants eternal life must eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood. In addition to the human abhorrence to eating human flesh, Jewish tradition had a strong prohibition against ingesting any kind of blood, since blood is the bearer of life. Jesus hammers home the point repeatedly that His flesh and blood are true food and drink since they are eternal and they enable the believer to abide in Him.

The image must have been shocking and disgusting to His audience. But as with the rest of John’s Gospel, ambiguous language and symbolism is used to separate the spiritually astute from those of a more earthbound awareness. He is making a statement of His own role in the life of the human race: He is the one who can lift them above ordinary human limitations and plant the divine presence within them. We cannot achieve or generate this on our own — it must come from above.

It is not enough merely to worship Jesus or to admire Him as a teacher. The Christ — the word made flesh — must be assimilated just as ordinary food, becoming part of our very makeup. Our heartbeat, breath, thought, speech and actions are then transformed and joined to one sent from above. There are many ways to be nourished by the flesh and blood of Christ — the Eucharist, prayer, meditation, study, loving words, thoughts and actions, and openness to the action of the Spirit. The meaning of the enigmatic words of Jesus in John’s Gospel can never be exhausted — there is always something dancing just at the limits of our understanding and awareness that challenges us to plunge deeper into the divine mystery.

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