52The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. 60 Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”
As we discussed in the previous section (read here), our approach to this text will be that of acknowledging the author of the sacred scriptures to be both the Father and the King. Therefore, we can come to this and all other texts with our God given inquiring minds, together with honesty, trust, and faith.
Let us return to the text and to our main questions. Did Jesus make a rhetorical error by comparing the earthly real union with him (communion/eucharist) to eating flesh and drinking blood? If not, our question is, knowing the risk, why did he do this. Could the answer be obvious? Could it not be that Jesus chose the hardest metaphor possible in order to make sure that only those who perceived its true meaning, and were not afraid of being misunderstood, would have the privilege of being called his followers? I think there is some truth to this theory. However, I think that Jesus’ main reason for making such a radical pronouncement was simply because it was true. Let me restate it differently, I think he said it because nothing else could have possibly described that which he was seeking to make clear.
In other words, in God’s intended sense, Jesus’ body and blood are indeed the true food and the true drink, no matter how difficult a concept this may seem to us. Even though I agree that this is a difficult saying, I think there are some things that must be kept in mind. Let us continue thinking together.
I will argue here that Jesus’ point here is no different than what those who read the Bible should already be acquainted with – a move from the present to the ultimate. Here one example comes to mind, but there are others.
Do you remember the biblical prohibition against swearing, together with the affirmation that Israel must swear only by God himself?
We read in Matt. 5.34-35: “I say to you, do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.”
But we read in Deut. 10.20: “You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear.”
In Hebrews 6.13 “For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself.”
There is no apology. The reason Jesus forbids his followers to swear is not because he thinks swearing is unethical in all cases, but because there is no reason to swear about things that first, are not important, and second, call inferior things as witnesses. If one must swear, one must swear by the ultimate – Israel’s God himself.
Now let us ask a different type of question. Did Jesus expect his disciples to understand his “body and blood” speech and accept it? Or was it so “out there culturally and religiously” that only those who could “close their eyes to it” could be expected to remain with him? I am persuaded that Jesus expected them to understand and fully accept it. That was not the difficult part. Let me explain.
The ancient Jewish Middle Eastern society was a physical one. The human body was fully associated with the person to whom the body belonged. This is clear when you read the Psalms of David. Reading the Bible today we sometimes don’t fully follow its logic. Let me illustrate. When the psalmist thought of his own death and burial, he thought of himself (not just his body) going down into the grave. In Ps.30.9 we read “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” This was so, because there was no separation between the body and the soul as in Western societies today. We are very much at home with the body and soul distinction. This was not the case in biblical times.
Moreover, the Hebrew Bible declared that the life of the flesh is in the blood, which is why it strictly forbade Israelites to drink animal blood when they consumed animal flesh as food:
10 “If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. 11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. 12 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. (Lev. 17:10-12)
Animal blood was symbolically poured on the altar of the Jerusalem Temple to make atonement for the Israelites. It was meant for God. It was meant to be consumed by Him and by Him alone. This may sound strange to modern ears, but this is exactly how the ancients thought of sacrifice. The ancient Israelites were not exceptional in this understanding of sacrifice. They offered to God (and sometimes gods) food for holy consumption. Did Israel’s God need sacrifices in order to survive? Did he need the flesh and the blood of animals? Of course not. But in the ancient mind, the slaughtered sacrifice was meant to symbolize a fully dedicated life offered to the deity worshiped. No questions asked.
So, what is happening here? I think it is something like this – Jesus says: “Now the tables will be switched. It is God’s turn to offer you all that He is. Just as you offer him the sacrifices symbolizing the whole life, so is he offering you Himself in the person of his son.” Paul also will say something similar “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom.8.32)
Therefore, when Jesus referred to his body and blood he meant that the bread and wine should become, in the minds and hearts of his followers, fully associated with him in the entire spectrum of his life: his person, his teachings and his works. In other words, Jesus expected to be fully understood and received through active participation by faith. By faith in Him the believer would partake of salvation that is found in Jesus alone and is offered freely to all. That was the point.
So let me summarize. Jesus’ statement about his body and blood is true and no other picture could have made it clearer. His flesh and his blood, meaning Jesus Himself – the whole Jesus – is the only thing that can sustain a human being to life everlasting (Jn.1.1, 14).
But there is one more intriguing question here. In the context of the Gospel of John (and if you have read my comments from the beginning you will know what I mean) Jesus is polemicizing with the current rulers of Israel, based in Jerusalem. They say: “We are in control. We must approve everything. If Jesus is the Messiah, he must tell us (emphasis is mine) clearly.” They are saying: “We are the gate-keepers. We are the way to the Father”. Jesus’ view is different. He challenges their authority through his prophetic speeches and signs. Jesus says: “I and the Father are one. I am the way to the Father and I am Bread of Heaven that can sustain Israel to life eternal. I am the way, the truth and the life. If someone eats and drinks me, he will live forever.” You must a choice.
What then was the hard saying? (Jn.6.60) Was it that Jesus told the people to eat his flesh and drink his blood? Or was the hard saying the implication of what Jesus said about the body and blood? I think it was the latter.
My view is that the disciples understood him perfectly. It was not the Jerusalem Temple, the High Priest and Sanhedrin-led leadership, but Jesus who was the way to the Father. By Him life is given and is sustained. The disciples were smarter, than they looked. Jesus could not be possibly accepted by those already in the position of power and influence. They realized the storm was coming.
What do you think? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Why?
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