— The Lord’s Day —

Sunday Week XXI

Pondering Jesus’ victorious Word

εὐαγγελίζω (euaggelizo)
“to announce the Good News of victory in battle”

“Many of Jesus’disciples
who were listening (ἀκούσαντες, akousantes) 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?””

θεωρέω (theoreo)
(“to perceive, discover, ponder a deeper meaning”)

After being taught at length about the meaning of the Feeding Sign, it is now decision-time. Jesus’ Self-proclaimed identity, “I AM the living bread come down from heaven,” is a make-it or break-it — a definitive life-changer. But to the Jewish ear of Jesus’ day, one can appreciate why His listeners would say that His teaching is “hard.” The Kosher dietary laws strictly forbade the consumption of another being’s blood, animal or human. 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 ‘carried’ the Divine Life Breath (ruah) that made each organism a living being. So Jesus’ Words to ‘eat His Flesh and drink His blood’ are offensive. But the listeners’ response also lets us know just how they understood what Jesus was asking of them. They knew what type of ‘eating’ Jesus was referencing (see last week’s study) and as He saw them drift away because this teaching was “hard,” Jesus had an opportunity to clarify His teaching. To put it bluntly, He didn’t.

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 (skleros), especially in the Gospels, speaks to 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 or listen (not just hear) Jesus’ teaching.

Translated here as “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 vital action necessary 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 continues to be our difficulty.). So what is needed “to listen” in such a way that one receives Jesus’ teaching?

Saint Augustine chimes in with insights penned and voiced 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 believe in His Son, Jesus? I think not for our Tradition is quite clear: God our Father desires the salvation of all and the loss of none (how we cooperate with the Father’s universal Salvific Will is another matter - one having eternal consequences). 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. 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.”