Gospel for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (12 August 2018)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:41-51 – NRSV)
A note on the expression, “the Jews”, in John’s Gospel:
“Frequently during the Johannine story of Jesus the opponents of Jesus are bluntly called ‘the Jews’. After initial hints that all is not well between Jesus and ‘the Jews’ (cf. 1:19; 2:13–22) they gradually enter into public conflict (5:16–18), and a decision is made that Jesus must be slain (5:18). From that point on ‘the Jews’ are presented as hostile to Jesus and to all who would confess that he is the Christ (cf. 9:22; 12:42; 16:2). They plot against him (cf. 11:45–53) and browbeat Pilate into handing him over to them for execution (18:28–19:16). Even after his death, when Pilate ironically places the title, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’ on the cross, they reject this claim (19:17–22), and on the day of the resurrection the disciples are huddled behind closed doors ‘for fear of the Jews’ (20:19). Uncritical reading has led to two dangerous consequences directly related to the misunderstanding of what is meant by ‘the Jews’ in the Fourth Gospel.
“Inflammatory rejection of the Jewish people has marked much of the history of European Christianity and, because of this, of European culture as a whole. The Christian involvement in—or at best non-opposition to—the Holocaust, and a large part of European history and culture, including the European theological tradition, are but indications of the immeasurable damage that has resulted from the misreading of one of Christianity’s foundational texts. However, there is a rich and significant presence of the Fourth Gospel in Christian life, spirituality, and both Western and Eastern liturgical traditions. It has inspired Christian iconography, being outstandingly present in the many paintings and statues of the crucified Jesus, his mother, and the Beloved Disciple (cf. 19:25–27), and has inspired music from J. S. Bach to Arvo Pärt, both of whom have written unforgettable renditions of the Johannine passion account. There can be no wholesale rejection of the Fourth Gospel, as neither the condemnation and persecution of ‘the Jews’ nor the elimination of the Gospel of John from Christian literature can claim to be based upon a correct reading of the Fourth Gospel.
“The expression ‘the Jews’ in this gospel must always be placed within quotation marks because it does not represent the Jewish people. A critical reading of the Johannine Gospel makes it clear that ‘the Jews’ are those characters in the story who have made up their minds about Jesus. They are one side of a christological debate, and this language was forged within the Johannine community, that formed the other side of the debate. The conflicts between Jesus and ‘the Jews’ are more the reflection of a christological debate at the end of the first century than a record of encounters between Jesus and his fellow Israelites in the thirties of that century. They do not accurately report the experience of the historical Jesus. The Johannine community had come to believe that Jesus was the one sent by God, the Son of God, and as such the expected Messiah (cf. 20:31). This is the authorial point of view portrayed in Jesus’ actions, words, death, and resurrection. The Gospel exists because an author wished to express this viewpoint by means of a gospel. However, while one group in the story is passionately committed to this viewpoint there is another group equally passionately committed to the belief that Jesus is not the Messiah. This group casts out the man born blind from the synagogue (9:22, 34); some of its members are afraid to confess that Jesus is the Christ lest they too be cast out of the synagogue (12:42); and Jesus warns his disciples that they will be thrown out of the synagogue and even slain by people who regard their actions as rendering praise to God (16:2). Because these people believe that Jesus’ claims are false (7:10–13, 45–52) and that he is a blasphemer (5:16–18; 19:7) they are portrayed as systematically rejecting him and those who believe and follow him. This is the point of view represented by ‘the Jews’.
“Historically, these opponents of the Johannine point of view were doubtless ethnically Jewish people with a fierce commitment to the religion of Israel, especially as it was being established after the devastations of the Jewish War (66–73 C.E.). They were locked in bitter conflict with Johannine Christians. We cannot be sure how widespread this conflict was. There is evidence, both in the New Testament and outside it, that Jews and Christians clashed. Some scholars have attempted to associate the experience of the Johannine Christians with Rabbi Gamaliel II and a formal separation between Jews and Christians in the eighties of the first century (Martyn, History and Theology; W. D. Davies, “Reflections on Aspects of the Jewish Background of the Gospel of John,” Exploring the Fourth Gospel 43–64), but the evidence linking the decisions of Gamaliel II with the eventual breakdown of relationships between Jews and Christians is hard to evaluate with certainty (cf. P. W. van der Horst, “The Birkat ha-minim in Recent Research.” ET 105 [1993–1994] 363–368). The situation behind the Fourth Gospel may have been a very local affair. Whatever may have been happening in the Mediterranean world at large, the Fourth Gospel comes from a situation where those who believed and confessed that Jesus was the Christ were forcibly excluded from the synagogue (9:22; 12:42). It is most likely that the separation from the synagogue was now behind the Christians, a thing of the past, but the memory of the pain and anger it generated is still very present. The fact that the Johannine Christians were being ejected from the synagogue indicates that many members of the Johannine community were also ethnically Jewish, and committed to the religion of Israel.
“Jewish people as such are not represented by the term ‘the Jews’, and the Fourth Gospel must not be read as if they were. Both ‘the Jews’ and many members of the Johannine community were Jews, and the expression ‘the Jews’ in the Gospel indicates those people who have taken up a theological and christological position that rejects Jesus and the claims made for him by his followers. Thus they also reject his followers. The expression ‘the Jews’ does not represent a race. Indeed, the expression could be applied to anyone of any age and any nation who has decided, once and for all, that Jesus of Nazareth is not the Messiah, but a sinner whose origins are unknown (9:24–29). As a recent important study of the Fourth Gospel has said so well, one must ‘recognise in these hot-tempered exchanges the type of family row in which the participants face one another across the room of a house that all have shared and all call home’ (J. Ashton, Understanding the Fourth Gospel 151). Over the centuries since the appearance of the Fourth Gospel this text has been used violently to demolish one of the families in that row. This has greatly impoverished those who claimed to have unique rights to the home.” (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998, 9-11.)
There is irony in this passage. When they did not know Jesus they followed him very happily. Now that they are told who he is, they are unwilling to follow.
the Jews. “This is the first time in John that the people of Galilee have been referred to as ‘the Jews’, a term which generally refers to those hostile to Jesus at Jerusalem. It cannot be said that these are visiting leaders from Jerusalem (as in Mark 7:1) because they know the local details of Nazareth village life.” (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes, New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 270.) The “details of Nazareth life” include the knowledge of Jesus’ parentage. “He is one of us!” However, what really spikes their rage is Jesus’ claim to be “from heaven”. Mark 6:2-3 and Luke 4:22 note that Jesus met resistance in his home town of Nazareth. Again, the irony comes through as these Galilean Jews speak with confidence of Jesus’ paternity when in fact they know nothing of it – see John 4:22, 8:19 & 55, 15:21, 16:3 and 17:25. This is an ongoing conflict and it becomes particularly confrontative when Jesus tells “the Jews” that their father is the “father of lies” (John 8:42).
No one can come to me unless he is drawn by the Father: There is a subtle and hidden agenda here that so easily takes over. Jesus is proclaiming the kingdom, a state of being where the Father is in charge. Jesus is summoning the people to a whole new way of thinking. In fact it is a whole new way of being. The Law – with its implication that human effort is the source of victory – has been superseded by the Jesus who is “the bread from heaven”. R H Lightfoot writes: “So long as a man remains, and is content to remain, confident of his own ability, without divine help, to assess experience and the meaning of experience, he cannot ‘come to’ the Lord, he cannot ‘believe’; only the Father can move him to this step, with its incalculable and final results.” (R H Lightfoot, St John’s Gospel: A Commentary, Oxford University Press, 1956, 160–161 cited by D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 293.)
Pope Francis’ comments on two modern day versions of the ancient Christian heresies of pelagianism and gnosticism are relevant: “This worldliness can be fuelled in two deeply interrelated ways. One is the attraction of gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings. The other is the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. These are manifestations of an anthropocentric immanentism. It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity.” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #94.)
A complex issue arises here. There is a tension between grace and nature, between, on the one hand, “the Father’s drawing” and, on the other hand, the human choosing and responding. It is not a tension to be resolved abstractly – it must be worked out in daily travail for it is “both/and” rather than “either/or”. The tension must remain. Carson sums up: “The thought of v. 44 is the negative counterpart to v. 37a. The latter tells us that all whom the Father gives to the Son will come to him; here we are told that no-one can come to him unless the Father draws him (cf. Mk. 10:23ff.). And again, it will be Jesus himself who raises such a person up at the last day. The combination of v. 37a and v. 44 prove that this ‘drawing’ activity of the Father cannot be reduced to what theologians sometimes call ‘prevenient grace’ dispensed to every individual, for this ‘drawing’ is selective, or else the negative note in v. 44 is meaningless. Many attempt to dilute the force of the claim by referring to 12:32, where the same verb for ‘to draw’ (helkyō) occurs: Jesus there claims he will draw ‘all men’ to himself. The context shows rather clearly, however, that 12:32 refers to ‘all men without distinction’ (i.e. not just Jews) rather than to ‘all men without exception’. Yet despite the strong predestinarian strain, it must be insisted with no less vigour that John emphasizes the responsibility of people to come to Jesus, and can excoriate them for refusing to do so (e.g. 5:40).” (D A Carson, op cit, 293.)
Carson continues: “Jesus proceeds to explain what kind of ‘drawing’ (v. 44) the Father exercises. When he compels belief, it is not by the savage constraint of a rapist, but by the wonderful wooing of a lover. Otherwise put, it is by an insight, a teaching, an illumination implanted within the individual, in fulfillment of the Old Testament promise, They will all be taught by God. This is a paraphrase of Isaiah 54:13, addressed to the restored city of Jerusalem that the prophet foresees: ‘All your sons will be taught by the LORD, and great will be your children’s peace.’ The passage is here applied typologically: in the New Testament the messianic community and the dawning of the saving reign of God are the typological fulfillments of the restoration of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile.
“In fact, this need for internal illumination is a commonplace of both Testaments. Jeremiah looks forward to a new covenant when God will put his law in the minds of his people, and write it on their hearts (Je. 31:31–34). In Ezekiel, God promises a new heart and a new spirit (Ezk. 36:24–26). The prophet Joel anticipates the time when God will pour out his Spirit not only on Jews but on all people (2:28ff.). In the Fourth Gospel, the new-birth language of John 3 announces the fulfillment of these prospects (cf. notes on 3:5). Jesus in the Farewell Discourse promises the coming of the Holy Spirit—with a teaching role (14:26–27; 16:12–15). This is equivalent to the ‘anointing from the Holy One’ (1 Jn. 2:20, 26–27). Cf. also 1 Corinthians 2:9–16; 2 Corinthians 3:4–4:6; Hebrews 8:6–10:18. Even the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi owed everything to the revelation of the Father (Mt. 16:17 par.). ‘Those who receive this divine illumination and respond to it show by their coming to Christ that they are children and citizens of the new Jerusalem, as the prophet foretold’ (Bruce, p. 157).” (D A Carson, op cit, 293-94.)
The tension may be lived creatively – not resolved – in the “experience” of God being with us. “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me”.
N T Wright reminds us: “Do you know what the most frequent command in the Bible turns out to be? What instruction, what order, is given, again and again, by God, by angels, by Jesus, by prophets and apostles? What do you think—‘Be good’? ‘Be holy, for I am holy’? Or, negatively, ‘Don’t sin’? ‘Don’t be immoral’? No. The most frequent command in the Bible is: ‘Don’t be afraid.’” (N T Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, SPCK, 1994, 56.) This is a corollary of the great promise given to Moses (cf Exodus 3:1-15) and repeated throughout the Bible: “I am with you!” The prophet Isaiah sums it up beautifully: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). The pastoral advice given by the Founder of the Marist Fathers – Jean Claude Colin (1790-1875) – is as relevant as ever: “Once people have tasted God everything else will look after itself!”
I tell you most solemnly etc: Jesus is the ultimate teacher, his authority is final. Jesus is able to speak authoritatively because of his origin: “The question of origins (vv. 41–51): The unspecified crowd (ho ochlos), Jesus’ interlocutor thus far, suddenly becomes ‘the Jews’. Once this group emerges from the crowd hostility increases. Their ‘murmuring’, recalling the behavior of the Israelites in the wilderness (cf. Exod 15:24; 16:2, 7; 17:3), indicates rebellion. Jesus’ claim to be the bread from heaven in vv. 35–40 is challenged. How can he make that claim (vv. 41, 42b) when his human father and mother are known (v. 42a)? The theme of this section of the discourse has been struck: Jesus has made claims that can be understood only in terms of his origins: a descent from his Father above. His opponents will not consider such a possibility; they know his father Joseph. Moses had warned the murmuring people of Israel, ‘Your complaints are not against us, but against the Lord’ (Exod 16:8). Jesus repeats this process as he reproaches the murmuring of ‘the Jews’ (v. 43) by pointing to the Father, and explaining his role in terms of his origins with the Father. The Father sends Jesus, the Father draws believers to him, and the response of those drawn to the revelation of the Father in the Sent One will be the measure of their everlasting life. It is Jesus who will raise up the believer on the last day (v. 44). While God determines the process, the encounter between the human being and the revelation of God in Jesus determines life, death, and everlasting life. This is only possible because Jesus is not the son of Joseph (vv. 41–42) but the Son of the Father.” (Francis J Moloney, op cit, 217-218.)
The tension between grace and nature is sustained but it is through him and with him and in him. We do not do it on our terms – that would be shifting the balance to nature. Nature must find its fulfilment in grace. Grace perfects nature.
Attraction is a great motivator. Everything is so much easier when we are drawn to it – work, food, daily tasks, relationships etc. It is better to be drawn than driven. And we are more likely to be happy if we are drawn rather than driven. The delight that draws us and is manifest in us is likely to be attractive to others also. This applies to the Christian life. Being a faithful disciple of Jesus does not demand grim joylessness. This surely is a major theme in Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium – “The Joy of the Gospel”!
The question then arises: How do we facilitate this state of affairs? There is nothing like getting to know the Father. He loves you. He cares infinitely for you. He is saying to you all the time, in every experience, “Let me love you! Infinitely! You do not have to ‘earn’ it, you cannot buy it. It is free!” But you have to listen. Pay attention. Let go of the compulsion to perform – even if it is done under the guise of “holiness”. Immerse yourself thoughtfully in the liturgy. Pay attention to people and what is happening in and around you. Expect to encounter God in those people, events and things of your days. But remember, God is a master of disguises!
The Father has been longing to embrace you ever since the thought of you came into his mind before time began. The Founder of the Marist Fathers – Jean Claude Colin (1790-1875) – said that once people have “tasted God” everything else will look after itself.
This is at the very heart of Christian discipleship. St Paul sums it up well when he writes to the community in Philippi: “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). And again: “Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12). The Greek verb is katalambanō. It is a strong verb, literally meaning “grasp” or “lay hold of”.
So we read in today’s Gospel (John 6:41-51), “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me”. Be careful that you hear what this does say rather than fabricate what it does not say. What it says is what we have outlined above. It does not say, “Stop applying yourself” or “There is no need for discipline, effort and commitment” or “Fold your arms, God will take care of everything”. The point is that all our efforts are to enable God’s efforts, all our striving is to facilitate God’s grace, all our application is to listen and hear so that we can respond. Those higher qualities to which we aspire – compassion, care, kindness, generosity, honesty and so on – come to us as fruits of the Spirit rather than achievements of will power. The essence of life is learning the art of being mastered by love.