August 12, 2018
TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
I will bless the Lord at all times
Do not continue in ignorance
The bread I will give is my flesh
The Bread of Life Discourse that follows the multiplication of the loaves in John’s Gospel comes to a climax this week. Next week we will observe the reactions to it. For now, the topic moves from bread-as-truth to bread-as-sacrament. The dramatic shift is signaled by a change in the language, which becomes much more physical, less abstract. Instead of “bread” as the body of Christ, as we find elsewhere in the New Testament, John here shows Jesus using the word “flesh” — much more graphic.
Along with this is a change in the vocabulary that describes eating the bread. The verb used in John 6:54, 56, 57, 58 — trogo — is defined in the Greek dictionary as “gnaw, crunch, chew.” This is much more graphic, more physical, almost uncomfortably so. The word, phago, which simply means “to eat, consume food,” is much more common in this context. The general feeling one has is that John’s Gospel is trying very hard to emphasize the actual eating of the body of Christ. We are clearly not to think the discussion is simply about “truth” and “teaching.”
Also, concerning the word “flesh,” we have a term that is not uncommon among the New Testament writings. It usually appears in a more negative sense, as in Galatians 5:13-26, where Paul emphatically contrasts it to spirit — as in the “works of the flesh” (5:19-20) contrasted with the “fruits of the Spirit” (22-23). On the other hand, the more eucharistic word “body,” which also appears frequently in conjunction with “spirit,” has positive connotations. In 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 12-31, for instance, Paul compares the gifts of the Spirit with the members of the body of Christ.
Apart from the present reading, John also uses the word in a negative sense — in 1:13; 3:6; 6:63; and 8:15 the meaning, often contrasted with spirit, suggests something undesirable. For instance, in 6:63, shortly after today’s passage, we read, “It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.” This is the way it appears in Paul and elsewhere. So it is with surprise that we find this term used in every verse in 51-56 of today’s passage but in a completely different sense than elsewhere. Surely it has a favorable implications here.
However, there is one other instance of the term in John’s Gospel that I haven’t mentioned, and it is a fairly important one. In John 1:14 we find the famous text — “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
The mystery of the incarnation gets its name from this verse — to “incarnate” is literally to “become flesh.” One wonders if John has this verse in mind when he renders today’s passage about eating the flesh and drinking the blood.
The Old Testament reading is from the book of Proverbs. It is a well known passage about Wisdoms’ house. Some link this passage to Proverbs 31:10-31, which praises the woman who expertly manages the household. “House” then would symbolize the productive and fully human life.
Usually in ordinary time the Old Testa-ment reading is chosen to accompany the Gospel reading, and there are many forms this connection can take. Sometimes the Old Testament passage is mentioned in the Gospel. Sometimes they share a metaphor or a theme. However, it is not clear what the lectionary editors were thinking in this case.
Perhaps John 1:14 provides the connection. Scholars recognize that John’s image of the Word has a strong affinity to the wisdom theme in the Bible. Sharon Ringe points out, in its highest form, the wisdom image expresses God’s “creative self.” Maybe Wisdom making her home in the human community is another face of incarnation.
For reflection: Maybe you have some thoughts on how the first reading connects with the Gospel.
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.