I am sure you have had the experience of telling a joke where the execution and timing have been rather good – and yet one or more of your friends in the group that surrounds you just don’t get the point. Perhaps you have also had the similar experience of hearing a joke and while other roar with laughter you just don’t get it. At all. Now, someone could attempt to explain what the significance of some key word or missing concept that prevents you or others from understanding why the joke is so funny – but that is far from ideal. We seem to have a very similar situation in the Gospel today – although not nearly so funny as that well executed joke.
The fact that Mark takes so much time to clue his audience into the scene, providing ample additional explanatory notes and asides to them and us, is the main reason that we know that the people that Mark was writing this Gospel to were not Jewish. A Jewish audience would not need to know that they have a bit of a thing – an obsession some might say – with washing hands, dishes and pots. They knew this from their very earliest days. It was just one of those things that you did as a Jew. We might not even think twice about the good and sensible advice of ensuring your hands are clean before eating – surely our mothers told us this many times when we came into the table from playing in the backyard with the dog – but this was not commonly practiced in the ancient world. You only have to travel to other continents to realise that the obsession that we have about food preparation and handling are not quite shared with the same level of passion.
But when Jesus was asked this question about hand washing, he turns the question around to be something about human tradition. Which we will miss the full impact of if we only read the oddly shortened version of this Gospel that is presented by the Lectionary today (both Catholic and Common) which omits some key verses that remind us of the tendency to subvert scripture by human traditions – so make sure you read all twenty-three verses together like I did at Mass today. It doesn’t take long for Jesus to take this discussion about human traditions into explosive new territory.
Recorded at St Columbkille’s Church, Corrimal (my final Sunday in this parish)
Sunday 22, Year B. Mark 7:1-23
The Gospel this Sunday concludes our readings from John 6 where Jesus now addresses himself only to his disciples, rather than to the whole crowd. We hear that many of his disciples draw back and grumble and complain about the teaching of Jesus. Not because they could not understand what he is saying, but because what he is saying completely upended their whole world-view. If everything that you’ve ever been taught to believe has just been demolished, and you are being forced to think about the world in a whole new way – many people will just politely excuse themselves and never return to listen to the message again.
A few weeks ago we heard in Exodus 15 about the Hebrew people grumbling in the wilderness out of hunger. The disciples who grumbled then are like those who grumble now that we should only be interested in the spiritual truth that the gospels present. The whole of the Gospel of John is about the Word becoming flesh – not the Word becoming only an idea, or a spirituality, a feeling or an experience. Part of what John is telling us is that history matters; the actual story of Jesus matters.
Verses 62 and 63 remind us that the flesh by itself is of no value; but when the flesh is indwelt by the life and spirit of God than anyone who eats this flesh is able to be as equally at home in both earth and heaven – just as Jesus as the Word of God is and was.
We are urged to go beyond a one-dimensional and basic appreciation of all that Jesus is saying and doing. We need to break through to truly listen to the Word that is within the flesh. The only way to do this is with the help of the Spirit of God – which John will write so much more about later in his Gospel. It is only when we receive the life of the Spirit that we are able to move beyond the unbelief of the crowd.
When we are open to the Spirit, then we can join Simon Peter in his declaration of faith: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Recorded at St Columbkille’s (Vigil and 9am, plus radio program – text above)
Sunday 21, Year B. Ephesians 5:21-32; John 6:60-69
The Gospel this Sunday once again from John 6 presents a most remarkable promise: anyone who eats his body and drinks his blood will live forever. Jesus will raise us up on the last day. One of the reasons that this is so remarkable is that one of the best known prohibitions in the Jewish regulations about food and drink is that blood was absolutely forbidden. The very complex system of kosher butchering has the primary aim of ensuring that no blood should stay in the animal to avoid any blood being eaten or drunk.
The fact that Jesus tells his listeners that they should eat his flesh and drink his blood in this setting gives us important clues. Clearly he does not intend that those who follow him should become cannibals nor that in eating and drinking him should followers of Jesus break the Jewish law against consuming blood.
Jesus, as the true Messiah is not only going to put his own life at risk, he will actually lose it so that his followers will profit from that death. They will ‘drink his blood.’ They will have their ultimate thirst quenched by his death and resurrection.
It should also be clear that what Jesus means is so much more than a merely spiritual eating and drinking whereby we only think about these things in an inner, non-physical meditation. Such things are important, but the language that John uses in this gospel force us to conclude that actual physical eating and drinking is involved. The word for eat is a solidly physical one, meaning something like ‘chew’ or ‘munch’ and is often used to describe the sounds that animals make when they ate.
The best way to understand this rich passage is using the language of sacrament, where Jesus offers his body and blood to the church to be eaten and drunk. Let us always be grateful for such precious gifts.
Recorded at St Col’s (10 mins)
Sunday 20, Year B. John 6:51-58
Radio Program, Vigil and Sunday morning
The prophet Elijah should have been at the very peak of his game. He marched dramatically onto the pages of history at the beginning of I Kings 17 with a whole series of mighty deeds that he performs that already sets him apart from the ordinary run-of-the-mill followers of God. These deeds reach their crescendo in the confrontation (and slaughter) of the 450 prophets of Ba’al, followed by the ending of the three-and-a-half year drought at the word of his command. But when the evil Queen Jezebel sends him a threatening message, promising to kill him, that is enough for this mighty warrior prophet to turn and run as far and as fast as his little legs would carry him. It is implied that he runs the length of the nation of Israel – from Mount Carmel in the north to Beersheba in the southern kingdom of Judah in the space of a single day – the best part of a hundred kms. And then he leaves his servant there and continues for another whole day further into the wilderness until he ends up lying in a heap under the only shade he could find – the gnarled branches of a brush tree. It’s no wonder that he is somewhat tired when we find him. It is all he can do at the prompting of the messenger of the Lord to awaken to eat and drink – before falling back asleep again.
His life was out of rhythm. Like ours sometimes. Part of the purpose of our lives is to recognise when things have gone astray and allow ourselves the space to hear the invitation of the Lord to get up and eat the precious gift of his body as the bread of life.
Recorded at St Col’s, Vigil and 9am (10min)
Sunday 19, Year B, Season of Growth
18B – Bread of life (John 6:24-35; Exodus 16: 2-4, 12-15)
When you read the Gospel of John, you must always be aware of the broad canvas upon which John writes his Gospel. He is always mindful and aware of all that has gone on before in the past – the history of the people of God; and he is also aware of what may come in the future as he writes for us who will come after him – as we do the things that he talks about. So as John tells us the story of John 6 that we have just read, the one story that he clearly has in mind, and which everyone who was there with him in Capernaum would also have had in mind, was the story that we have just read – the story of Exodus 16, those days when the Lord gave them bread from heaven. The Lord fed and nourished his people. For when the people came to him and said – give us this sign – give us this food to eat: they are asking Jesus to show himself as the true Messiah. They want him to prove and prove that he is the one that they have longed for; the one who will lead them on the new Exodus. That was the role of the Messiah. So Jesus is wanting to both affirm that and wanting them to remember the true nature of the Exodus, and what was actually happening.
When we go back to that scene and that place in Exodus 16, there are a number of things that we need to be aware of. The real event that we call the Exodus – the night of the Passover when the Lord with mighty hand and outstretched arm led the people of God from slavery to freedom – where in the book of Exodus that this happen, in which chapter? In chapter 14 you have the marvellous story of the people escaping through the Sea of Reeds and then in chapter 15 the magnificent song of Miriam of praise and thanksgiving – the one that we sing each year at the Easter Vigil as the response to the Third Reading. Here in chapter 16 we are in the very next chapter after the incredible events of the Exodus. Very little time has passed. Verse 1, which is not part of our reading today, tells us that a few weeks have passed since those incredible events – when they left Egypt with this whole cacophony of people along with their flocks and their herds, their sheep and their cattle. They left ready with provisions; they didn’t leave empty-handed. They had plenty of food to eat because they knew that the journey would be long and hard. So here in chapter 16 when they complain and cry and out and say to the Lord ‘how could you do this to us?’; ‘how could you lead us to this barren place?’ In the end of chapter 15 all they do is complain about the lack of water. So the Lord gives them water to drink. Here the Lord doesn’t say, ‘well, just go away and leave me alone, if you are not going to be thankful.’ No, he feeds his people. He gives them this food to eat.
When the dew lifts in the morning from the camp, and the people see this white flaky substance that has come there from overnight, they look at it and they say ‘what the…?’ (man-nu?) The Hebrew word for ‘what’ is ‘man’, so they look at this stuff and say ‘man-hu’ – what is that? And Moses says no, not ‘man-nu’, but the bread from heaven. This food that the Lord gives us. They are fed by God. The Lord gives them this food to eat. But the Lord also wants them to know that they are on a journey; what he is doing is creating a people. A people who are being led from slavery to freedom. It is sometimes said that while it only took God one night/one day to take Israel out of Egypt, it takes 40 years that they are in the wilderness – those 40 years of beginning to trust in God; beginning to allow the Lord to feed them; those 40 years to take Egypt out of Israel. To take those desires away; to allow them to know that indeed they can trust in God; indeed the Lord will feed them. He will give the manna in the morning; he will give the quail in the evening. The Lord will lead his people; the Lord will feed his people.
I don’t know about you, but at times I think back on the past – I look back at those memories and those things that I have done in the past that I regret, that still burden me and which are still present. And then I need the bread of God. I need the life of God to feed me now. To remind me not to go back; not to go back to those times when the fleshpots looked so wonderful – but they weren’t. Because that was slavery. The Lord wants to free us; he wants to do the same as what he tried to do with the people in the desert. To purify us and give us that hunger for the true bread; for that true presence of the Lord.
Recorded at St Col’s – Vigil and Sunday morning (10min 30sec)