Setting the scene from what would have been last week’s Gospel reading if not for the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, Jesus is preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum using realist language telling his followers that they would have to eat his body and drink his blood to have life in them. (John 6:51–58)
In Leviticus 17:11–12 it says:
For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.
So it is no wonder in the first line of this reading many of his disciples call this a hard saying that it can’t be listened to. The realist language Jesus used did not leave room for a metaphorical interpretation. When Jesus did use hyperbolic or metaphorical language in the past the disciples were generally aware of it. When the Apostles were confused on such interpretations, Jesus corrected them such as in the case when they misunderstood the leaven of the Pharisees.
When Jesus ask them if they take offense at this, once again Jesus is referencing the Israelites in the wilderness and their grumbling in connection with the manna. He is not asking them what point must be clarified. Over the course of this discourse Jesus has been ratcheting up his language, not softening it. To think that this was only meant to be symbolic is to say Jesus was aware of their grumbling, but as a teacher failed to correct their misunderstanding.
Instead Jesus asks them a rhetorical question, “what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” Jesus is pointing to his divinity and the fact of his authority. That he has the ability to carry out what he says and that they had to lay down their previous understanding in light of this fact. How often do we think we understand something and its limits and when confronted by something that seemingly contradict this, we are not open to new information. The false conservatism of “this is how we have always done it.”
Chrysostom. (Hom. xlvii. 2.) He does not add difficulty to difficulty, but to convince them by the number and greatness of His doctrines. For if He had merely said that He came down from heaven, without adding any thing further, he would have offended His hearers more; but by saying that His flesh is the life of the world, and that as He was sent by the living Father, so He liveth by the Father; and at last by adding that He came down from heaven, He removed all doubt. Nor does He mean to scandalize His disciples, but rather to remove their scandal. For so long as they thought Him the Son of Joseph, they could not receive His doctrines; but if they once believed that He had come down from heaven, and would ascend thither, they would be much more willing and able to admit them.Catena Aurea
Verse 63: “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” For modern ears this phrase seems to give an out regarding the realism of what Jesus was teaching. Partly because in more modern parlance “spirit” can imply a symbolic underpinning. Spirit is never used in this way in scripture. Brant Pitre says: “For First Century Jews, and for Christians throughout all of history, the Spirit is not less real than the material, it’s more real than the material because God himself is pure spirit.”
It is odd to think of Jesus as a teacher who would spend so much time building up the language regarding consuming his body and blood and then to dispel it all in one sentence. “I’m just kidding guys!” Besides if this was true, why would so many disciples still leave if he had actually dispelled them of their misunderstanding? The next point is that when Jesus speaks of the flesh being of no avail. He is not speaking of his flesh as he specifically used “his flesh” multiple times in this discourse. The flesh [ho sarx] is more properly understood as judging by appearances or by the standards of the fallen world. Anybody who believes that Jesus death on the cross is salvific acknowledges that his flesh was indeed of avail to us.
Chrysostom. (Hom. xlvii. 3.) He does not speak of His own flesh, but that of the carnal hearer of His word. [Catena Aurea
One of the foremost ways to understand what God is teaching us is with humility. Case in point is Peter’s answer to this question from Jesus.
67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
If we start from the premise to reject what we don’t understand, we have just made our world much smaller and inverse connected to the circumference of our ego. St. John Henry Newman said in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua: “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject; difficulty and doubt are incommensurate.” It is fine to wrestle with difficulties and have plenty of questions regarding what we do not understand. Those that walked away did not have this humility thinking they already knew the answer and actively doubted Jesus’ words. Peter here is showing a humility he did not show in other places were he would restrict what God can and can’t do. He is being guided by the Holy Spirit here.
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- Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers: St. John] ↩