Week 21, Sunday. Words of THE WORD.

“Turn Your ear, O Lord, and answer me; save the servant who trusts in You my God. have mercy on me, O Lord, for I cry to You all the day long. (Psalm 86:1-3)

O God, Who cause the minds of the faithful
to unite in a single purpose,
grant Your people to love what You command
and to desire what You promise,
that, amid the uncertainties of this world,
our hearts may be fixed on that place
where true gladness is found.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God,
for ever and ever.

RESPONSORIAL PSALM (click for full Psalm)
Taste and see the goodness of the Lord. (Psalm 34:9).

GOSPEL EXCERPT (click for all readings)
“Then many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard (σκληρός, skleros); who can accept (ἀκούειν, akouein) it?” Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock (σκανδαλίζει, skandalizei) you? … We have come to believe and are convinced (ἐγνώκαμεν, egnokamen) that you are the Holy One of God. (John 6:60-61. 69)”

After being fed and taught at length about the meaning of the feeding, it does come down to a decision. Jesus’ Self-proclaimed identity, “I AM the living bread come down from heaven,” is a make-it or break-it: it is a life changer. As Jesus saw the disciples leaving, He had every opportunity to stop them and ‘change’ His words to a more poetic or metaphoric meaning. He didn’t. True, to the Jewish ear of Jesus’ day, one can certainly appreciate where many of them are coming from. The Kosher dietary laws strictly forbade the consumption of another being’s blood. Many cultures that ‘rubbed shoulders’ with Israel in her ancient history practiced blood drinking. Drinking the blood of a bull or an ox was thought to endow a person with that animal’s remarkable strength. For Israel, blood was sacred because it was believed to be the ‘carrier’ of the Divine Life Breath that made each being a living being. So culturally, one can appreciate where the disciples are coming from when they tell Jesus that His teaching is “hard.” Not only did Jesus mean what He said, there is another piece to the puzzle worth considering.

σκληρός (skleros), the Greek word translated here as “hard,” has another facet of meaning especially in the first-century world of the Gospel. We might be tempted initially to say that the disciples’ declaration is a knee-jerk response to their cultural background. Yet σκληρός, especially in the Gospels, addresses a level of responsibility on the part of the receiver. In other words, Jesus’ teaching is “hard” – not just because of their background but also because, on some level, the disciples have chosen not to receive the teaching. To go a bit further – the disciples not only say that Jesus’ teaching is “hard,” but they pose a question, “who can accept it?”
Translated here at “accept,” ἀκούειν (akouein) is the Greek verb that fundamentally means “to listen.” This is an action that goes far beyond the physics and biology of ‘noise’ hitting the tympanic membrane and registering as some comprehensible or incomprehensible sound to a person. Biblically, ἀκούειν is intimately involved in ‘coming to Faith (Saint Paul)’ and is the necessary action to understand the “signs” that Jesus performs. One might argue that the disciples have become ‘hard’ to Jesus’ teaching because they have not listened (Sound familiar, it’s what happened in the Garden and we keep doing it). So what is needed “to listen” in such a way that one receives Jesus’ teaching?
Saint Augustine chimes in with insights penned in one of his many homilies: “He [Jesus] teaches us that even the act of believing is by way of being a gift and not a matter of merit: “As I told you,” he says, “no one can come to me but whoever has been given it by my Father.” If we call to mind the earlier part of the Gospel, we shall discover where the Lord said this. We shall find that he said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me drags him.” He did not say “leads” but “drags.” This violence happens to the heart, not to the flesh. So why be surprised? Believe, and you come; love, and you are dragged. Do not regard this violence as harsh and irksome; on the contrary, it is sweet and pleasant. It is the very pleasantness of the thing that drags you to it. Isn’t a sheep dragged, or drawn irresistibly, when it is hungry and grass is shown to it? And I presume it is not being moved by bodily force but pulled by desire.”
Is this to say that God the Father ‘selects’ or ‘predestines’ people to belief in His Son, Jesus? I think not for our Tradition is quite clear: God our Father desires the loss of none! On the human side of the equation it does come down to an act of humility expressed in an old Jewish prayer: “God is God, I am not. God is God, we are not.” While we have been given an intellect and that intellect can be in the service of Faith (Saint Anselm, “Faith seeking understanding”) there comes a point where, like Peter, we accept the Words of Jesus, period. HE IS JESUS – He does not have to explain Himself – His disciples (us!) have “to listen” in a way that involves cooperating with all that the Father has done that we may, like Peter boldly proclaim: “We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”