The Gospel for the Hard of HearingAugust 24, 2003, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
The first morning I returned from vacation a few weeks ago, I approached my computer with considerable dread; after a month away, it was time to check the e-mail. I knew it would be bad, just not how bad. As it turned out, I returned to find no less than 2,539 e-mails awaiting me, and of those, only 30 or so were legitimate; the rest were all spam, unsolicited junk e-mails. I had a wealth of opportunities to refinance my mortgage; scores of offers to give me free cable; piles of messages telling me how to lose weight fast or get medication cheaply on-line. And somebody must be spreading the word that I’m quite a capable money launderer, because I had hundreds of messages from people in Nigeria, Liberia, and Sierra Leone wanting to bring over $10 million in stolen money and offering me a cut if I’ll just give them my bank account number for the transfer. Those are all annoying, but it is the offensiveness of the obscene messages that are really tiresome. It seems that no matter how many filters and blocks and walls I put up on my account, they still manage to find their way through. And even though it only takes a brief moment to delete them, that is often all it takes to be exposed to some truly appalling pictures or products.
It’s about the only thing I can relate to how the listeners here must feel in hearing Jesus’ words. They don’t want to hear what Jesus is telling them, and they say so. Yet Jesus just keeps hitting them with one offensive phrase after another, despite their best efforts to block him. And they are offensive. The listeners aren’t simply resisting Jesus’ teachings; they are offended, appalled, disgusted by them. We’ve heard this language Jesus uses many times before, and yet even we can get a little uneasy by these graphic commands to eat flesh and drink blood. But just imagine how it plays with faithful Jews, with their prohibitions against touching dead human flesh and drinking any form of blood; imagine how they felt hearing such things for the first time! Even Jesus’ own disciples can’t handle this one. This is over the line; “who is able to hear it?” they literally ask.
Well, who is able to hear it? That’s an excellent question, and, remember, these are Jesus’ disciples who are asking it, not just random people stepping out of a crowd. Jesus’ own disciples can’t figure it out: who can hear and accept such a message, and how? They need help. I’m reminded of a running joke used in the early days of the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. It was the during the “Weekend Update” sketch, the segment in which cast member Chevy Chase talked and dressed like a news anchor while satirizing the news events of the previous week. At the end of the “news broadcast,” Chase would say, “And now the President of the New York City School for the Hard of Hearing will translate for our hearing-impaired viewers as I recap today’s headlines.” At that moment, a figure would appear in the corner of the screen in one of those superimposed circles that had just begun to appear on legitimate TV shows using sign-language for the deaf. Chase would begin the recap, saying, “Our top story tonight...” only to be interrupted by the figure in the circle, who suddenly cupped both hands to his mouth and shouted at the top of his lungs, “OUR TOP STORY TONIGHT...” and went on that way, simply repeating every phrase of the week’s biggest story more loudly and vigorously as his “assistance” for the hard of hearing.
Apparently, though, Saturday Night Live received complaints about it and finally stopped running the bit. People were arguing that being hard of hearing is a legitimate problem deserving of respect. And, of course they were right, but the point of the joke wasn’t making fun of people who are hard of hearing; the point of the joke was making fun of the show itself. The joke was in the contrast between the dignified and accepted practice of using superimposed translators to assist deaf viewers and the crassness and silliness of simply shouting louder to assist the hard of hearing. Shouting louder is not much of a solution; something else has to be done, some other means has to be used to help them hear.
Jesus’ teachings are hard for us to hear, and since he seems to be simply shouting louder in this passage, it’s tempting to try and help him out. We often use a sort of hearing aid for these kind of passages that are difficult: we hear them by understanding them as metaphor. “Jesus isn’t talking literally,” we say; “he’s talking metaphorically. He’s not talking about his actual flesh and blood. He’s just talking about the elements of Communion, the need to participate in the sacrament.” And there is a level at which this is true; it does seem clear, at least, that he doesn’t literally mean that they must consume his actual, physical flesh and blood, so it is, on some level, metaphorical or symbolic. The metaphorical reading helps us to hear this teaching; it helps take away the graphic, offensive nature of actually eating flesh and drinking blood.
But hearing this as a metaphorical reference to the Eucharist ignores a very obvious problem: the Last Supper hasn’t happened yet! Neither the people who are opposing Jesus nor even the disciples who are following him could possibly understand metaphorical references to the Eucharist, because it hasn’t been instituted yet. Some have seized on that point to argue we should hear this teaching as a historical anachronism: “Well, obviously this teaching is about the Eucharist, but Jesus didn’t really say it. It wouldn’t have made any sense for him to say this at this point in his ministry; nobody would understand it yet. This is just the liturgical language of the early Christian community that’s been put into Jesus’ mouth to give it more power and legitimacy.” And that is a plausible answer, if you’re somewhat cynical about such things.
But it’s also still an excuse to understand these teachings as something other than what they are. Using metaphor or history to help us hear Jesus’ words misses the point: Jesus’ teachings are supposed to be offensive. Running to a metaphorical or historical explanation makes it easier to hear Jesus’ words, but not to understand them. Such hearing aids tune out the unpleasantness of talking about real flesh and blood, the disturbing images of slaughter and butchery; and those are meant to be there, meant to be heard. Those images matter, because Jesus is going to be slaughtered. He knows it, but it doesn’t take the Son of God to see it coming. As Jesus’ ministry unfolds, as he challenges the religious authorities, as the miracles pile up, as the crowds gather and grow to staggering proportions, it’s clear that he’s going to have to die. The strength of Jesus’ popularity is not going to save him from death, nor the power of his signs, nor the wisdom of his teachings. In fact, those things will be the impetus for killing him; the religious authorities simply can’t afford to let his ministry go any further.
Jesus is going to be slaughtered, like a lamb at harvest-time: brutally, and for the benefit of others. That’s what Jesus is talking about when he tells them they will have to eat his flesh and drink his blood to have life. He means that his death, the sacrifice of his life, the tearing of his real flesh and the spilling of his real blood, provides life and sustenance for those who participate in it. Perhaps that’s why there is no response to this teaching from “the Jews,” the Jewish authorities who are disputing with Jesus and who will ultimately lead Jesus to the slaughter. It is his disciples, the ones who partake in everything Jesus does, who are disturbed, complaining about the difficulty of his teaching. A number of them decide that this is the breaking point, they can go no further with him. They literally turn away from him and abandon both him and his ministry; it is all just too much. Only twelve remain, and even those who stay aren’t exactly a model of passionate commitment. When Jesus asks the twelve if they want to go away, too, I suspect that Peter was at least half-sincere when he asked Jesus to whom else they could go. This is simply not what they planned on.
There’s a scene in the movie Shrek, which is a sort of post-modern animated fairy tale that was a smash hit in the summer of 2001. The film concerns a grouchy “ogre with a heart of gold” named Shrek and his sidekick, a talking donkey named, imaginatively, Donkey. The two of them end up on a quest to rescue a princess held prisoner by a dragon in a castle, seemingly unconcerned about the obvious dangers inherent in taking anything from a dragon. But when they arrive at the castle, they discover that it sits on an island surrounded by a lake of molten lava. Before they can even get over to the castle and confront the dragon, they have to cross the lake of lava by a rickety rope bridge. Donkey is understandably apprehensive about this turn of events. However, Shrek manages to convince Donkey to accompany him over the bridge, promising that they’ll do it together, that he’ll be with him every step of the way. “Just keep walking, and don’t look down,” Shrek tells him. Donkey agrees. About halfway across the lava lake, though, one of the boards snaps, Donkey’s front end falls through, and when he manages to pull himself up, he turns back and tries to bolt towards way they came. “This is crazy! I’m going back! I’m going back!” he yells, scrambling to get past Shrek. “But Donkey, you’re already half-way across, you might as well just keep going, it’s just as far to go back as go forward,” Shrek says. “Oh, yeah?” Donkey replies, gesturing back the way they came, “well, I know that way is safe!”
That is the hard truth here: following the way of Jesus is not safe, and that’s what the disciples and we ourselves would desperately like it to be. This teaching is hard because it is so honest: following Jesus is inherently dangerous. Flesh will be torn; blood will be spilled. After all, he accepted a brutal and ignominious public execution in order to fulfill his mission; he has given his very flesh and blood to save and sustain others. What, then, will he ask of us? Where will he ask us to go? What will he ask us to give? It all just sounds too much. It is very tempting to turn back and refuse to walk with him any longer, no matter how far we’ve come.
And yet it seems clear that the disciples who stay are just as hard of hearing as those who leave, with one exception: they know, as Peter puts it, that Jesus has the words of eternal life. They are able to hear that this teaching is not simply hard, but also good news, because there is nothing Jesus will ask of them that he has not already done for them. They know that Jesus will abide in them when they are nourished by him, when they depend upon the strength that he provides instead of the strength they themselves bring. They know it because Jesus has enabled them to hear it. For Jesus does not simply shout louder at them; Jesus does give an answer to their question about who is able to hear such teachings: “it is the Spirit that gives life,” he says; “the flesh is useless.”
Faith is not an achievement; it is not an argument that is accepted, nor a rational choice that is made by us. The flesh is useless, Jesus says, for the only life and power it has is given to it by the Spirit. The disciples who remain with Jesus here have not decided to have faith in him; God, through the Spirit, has decided to have faith in them. And that is the faith that matters, for that is the faith that does not fade or fly away; that is the faith from which human faith springs, and to which human faith clings when it is no longer able to hear the good news, when it has looked down and realized the dangers at stake.
And as you come to the table today, remember that this is the point of Communion, after all. These teachings of Jesus’ are not references to Communion; Communion is a reference to these teachings. In Communion we once again receive the gift of the Spirit that brings life and helps us to hear the good news: that Christ has not only given his life for us, his flesh and blood, but that Christ is faithful in continuing to be present to us, to sustain us and give us life, and to abide in us as we walk with him, even (and especially) when we most want to turn away and bolt. Truly, this is good news. Do you hear it?
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