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Aug 26, 2018

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Gospel JN 6:60-69

Many of Jesus’disciples who were listening said,
“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this,
he said to them, “Does this shock you?
What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending
to where he was before?
It is the spirit that gives life,
while the flesh is of no avail.
The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.
But there are some of you who do not believe.”
Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe
and the one who would betray him.
And he said,
“For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me
unless it is granted him by my Father.”

As a result of this,
many of his disciples returned to their former way of life
and no longer accompanied him.
Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
Simon Peter answered him, “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.”


Reflecting & Living God’s Words

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
(JN 6:60-69)



(Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Psalm 34; Ephesians 5:21-32; John 6:60-69)

It is going to be impossible to ignore the second reading today, with its glaring opening line, "Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord." In our modern setting women will immediately bristle upon hearing these words, as will a lot of men. The initial impact of the passage will confirm some people’s impression of the Church, that it an outmoded institution "not with the times."

The Ephesians reading indicates that the early Christians took the household codes of their day, which came from the surrounding Hellenistic world. These were codes based on subjection, setting forth the duties of members of the household – husbands, wives, children, slaves. In the New Testament these codes were "Christianized," usually by adding terms like, "in the Lord" or, as in Ephesians today, "out of reverence for Christ."

But Ephesians breaks out of the cultural mold and sees marriage as a parable for the relations between Christ and his Church. So, the author begins with the usual household code’s teaching, "Wives should be subordinate to their husbands...." Then, elaborating in a more Christian sense, the author calls for the husband to love his wife without reservation. Now the emphasis shifts to the responsibility of the husband to love his wife. So, the author (it’s not certain it’s Paul), while not changing the marriage institution in the Greco-Roman world at the time, asks Christians to live in a fundamentally different way. It’s there in the opening statement, "Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ." In other words, live in a different way than those in the world around you. Imagine, the husband, the master of the household who owns all the property and has all the power, is to subordinate himself to the one who is regarded as powerless. Indeed, he is to see his wife as higher than himself!

How can the author ask such a world-shattering way of behaving? Because Jesus is the model of such behavior who, though he was Lord, freely humbled himself and submitted himself out of love for us. Some Christian traditions, based on the one verse "Wives be subject to your husbands," take this verse out of context and apply it literally to the relationship between husband, wife and children. But, in its context, we can see that the complete text requires mutual self-sacrificing love, service and sharing. That being said, let’s move on to the other readings.

We know that the first reading and Gospel are chosen to dialogue with one another. While the first is unique unto itself still, it helps us understand the gospel in light of the biblical tradition.

The question Jesus asks his disciples, "Do you also want to leave?" is similar to what Joshua proposes to the people. He is asking the people to choose again if they want to renew their covenant relationship with God. He knows where he stands, "As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." Joshua does what we religious leaders, whether domestic or ecclesial, must do. He sets a clear and determined example which challenges others to decide where they stand before God.

This passage is very important in the biblical tradition. It has remnants of a covenantal renewal ritual. Whom will the people worship? They would choose the God who acted so definitively on their behalf in the past: brought them out of slavery; "performed great miracles before our very eyes"; "protected us along our entire journey." It would be foolish to choose any other god. Joshua’s challenge prepares us to ponder the choice Jesus puts to his disciples, "Do you also want to leave?"

Hearing today’s gospel reading will give people the impression that they are walking in at the end of a conversation. And they are. Today’s passage comes right after last week’s, which narrated the misunderstanding over what Jesus meant by eating and drinking his flesh and blood. Some of Jesus’ disciples find his words very difficult to believe. As, in our first reading, a decision is required. Peter’s response to Jesus’s challenge is similar to what the Israelites said to Joshua. Like the Israelites the disciples also experience God’s saving power, now present to them in Jesus.

At this point of the discourse, the emphasis has shifted back to an earlier theme (vs 35-50), which presented Jesus as God’s revelation, the "bread from heaven." His disciples found this hard to accept. At this point it is not the eucharistic teaching that the disciples struggle with, it is Jesus’ claims to be the life-giving revelation of God. Many of his disciples cannot accept his claim.

John’s community must have been finding it hard to accept some of the teachings about Jesus and so were leaving the community. Isn’t that true today, as well? The church’s teachings run contrary to what our society finds acceptable behavior. One example is the pushback Pope Francis has received to his encyclical on the environment, even by some Catholic politicians. Others pertain to abortion, the death penalty, protection of refugees, concern for the poor of the world and the challenge to the economic policies of developed nations.

What Jesus says today about the spirit giving life, "while the flesh is of no avail," could feed a kind of spirituality that negates the body and the material world for an otherworldly focus. Jesus did speak about the flesh and the spirit, but they are not two, they are one. It’s hard to imagine that Jesus, who produced all that wine at Cana, could consider the flesh or material creation as evil.

He seems to be saying that we can’t separate spirit and flesh, as some of those medieval saints did when they scourged and punished their bodies. Rather, we can’t make personal and material decisions just based on practicalities, expediency, advancement, etc. independently of our spiritual values, which must consider the consequences on other people and whole nations.

Today’s the last of the Sundays devoted to John 6. It focuses on the response of the disciples to Jesus’ hard teaching. In the discussion between Jesus and his disciples we are reminded that his teachings are not easy to accept and divisions among his followers were there at the very beginning in the community and not just between the first Christians and Jewish authorities.

What made the decision to accept Jesus so difficult? Perhaps they thought Jesus literally meant to eat and drink his flesh and blood. Or, maybe it was the connection they and the early church saw between "eating and drinking" the flesh and blood and accepting his teaching about taking up his cross. To follow Christ is to "eat and drink" the crucified Christ and to participate in his death, so as to share his life.

We cannot accept his difficult teaching on our own. But Jesus says we are not on our own, we have the words he spoke to us which give "spirit and life." To try to live Jesus’ by the flesh alone, is "of no avail."

Jesus is already facing unbelief and rejection of his message by those close to him. Which is a challenge to us as well. When we eat and drink the meal offered us at this Eucharist do we realize the choice Jesus gave his disciples is also put before us? But the very fact we come forward to eat and drink is a sign of the Spirit’s life in us and that Spirit will enable us to say what Peter said, "To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."

Fr. Jude Siciliano, OP