Hard Words to SwallowAugust 20, 2006, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
About five years ago, we were traveling with my brother in Chile. The Chileans were an enormously friendly and gracious people, and overall it was a very easy place to travel. We only had one real challenge: my brother was a vegetarian. The concept of not eating meat was a source of constant bewilderment to the Chileans, who seem to eat steak at least three times a day. My brother was a good sport about it and subsisted mainly on salads and side dishes during his time there; however, not everyone was so accommodating. We were staying in a rustic camp one night and went to the canteen for dinner. We were welcomed warmly by the staff and shown to a seat, but the only meal on the chalkboard menu was beef stew. "Yo soy vegeterianos," my brother told the waiter. A woman sitting next to us at the family-style table nodded and said, "Me, too." The waiter smiled, "Ah, vegetarianos, no problem," which we thought was a good sign. A little bit later, the waiter returned with four bowls of stew: two with large chunks of beef, two without. We all began to dig in.
After one or two bites, though, the woman next to us slammed down her spoon. "This has meat in it," she declared, and waved the waiter over. "Um, I said I was a vegetarian," she barked (in English, of course). "Si, vegetarianos," the waiter said, smiling broadly. "But this stew has meat in it!" she exclaimed. The waiter shook his head: "No, no meat. We take out." She sighed dramatically. "Yes, but that doesn't matter," she said, "you cooked it with meat. I can't eat this; take it away!" The waiter shrugged and picked up the plate. "I bring you something else, okay?" She nodded: "yes, I would appreciate that." "Okay, no problem," he said. "You eat chicken?" She banged her fist on the table: "No, I'm vegetarian; I don't eat meat! Get it?" The waiter nodded, still smiling. "Okay, no problem," he said. "You eat fish?" "NO!" the woman screamed; "I will not eat any flesh! What's wrong with you?" "Okay, no problem," he said, still doing a masterful job of maintaining his smile (maybe he was just torturing at this point, but he seemed genuine). "I get you salad." He walked away. She rolled her eyes. "Can you believe these people? Don't they understand how offensive this is to me?" she asked us, but we were getting a bit offended ourselves, and pretended not to hear her. A few minutes later he reappeared with a lovely salad of fresh tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and cheese. The woman ate two or three bites, declared, "I'm not hungry anymore," and got the waiter's attention. "I don't want this anymore," she said to him. She waved her hand at the special salad they had made just for her: "you can have it," she said, and walked away. We were horrified by her rudeness, especially the bit at the end about giving him her leftovers. I leaned over to my brother. "Could you tell there had been meat in it?" I asked. He smiled. "Yeah," he said; "but it wasn't bad, and they were being so gracious, I wasn't about to say anything except 'thank you.'"
Grace, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder at least as much as beauty: it seems to depend greatly on what you want, what you're looking for. When people offer us something we want, it's easy to call them gracious. But when people offer us something we don't want, maybe even something that offends us, much less over and over again, we tend to get frustrated, maybe even angry. There are lots of things we might call them, but "gracious" is not usually one of them. It is hard to see that someone can be gracious even when they're trying to give you something that's undesired or even offensive to you. That kind of grace is pretty hard to take.
Grace, of course, is one of our favorite theological words, but we don't normally associate grace with something offensive. In fact, just the opposite; we generally talk about grace as the very definition of good news. But here in this Gospel lesson, Jesus is definitely talking about grace, and people are definitely getting offended. Why? Well, for one reason, because his language is offensive. Cannibalism is arguably the most universal and fundamental taboo of human existence, and that's exactly the language Jesus is employing here. "Eat my flesh, drink my blood" still sounds a bit distasteful to us, and we've got two thousand years of metaphorical padding to soften these words. Jesus' audience had no such background to draw upon; they are hearing these teachings with no comfortable reference to the celebration of the Eucharist. And Jews, of course, would be particularly offended at the graphic mention of consuming blood, which is at the very heart of the Jewish dietary prohibitions. To consume blood is to consume life itself, and faithful Jews will not do that with animals, much less human beings created in God's own image.
This cannibalistic command is an appalling concept to many in the crowd, including people who have identified themselves as Jesus' disciples. As he's talking you can hear them recoiling with the same protestation as that woman at the table: "I will not eat any flesh! What's wrong with you?" The Gospel quotes them as saying, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" but that's pretty close to the same thing. The teaching is not difficult in the sense of hard to understand; it's difficult in the sense of being harsh, severe, and impossible to get through.1 They don't think he's being gracious; they think he's being offensive. And when Jesus keeps pressing the point, going on to talk about ascending back to heaven where he came from, many people, even those who have been following him as disciples, stand up and leave the table rather than put up with any more of this; they've had enough.
But, aside from the revolting imagery Jesus is employing, what he's saying about himself is also pretty offensive. He's not simply interpreting the Law or giving them words of wisdom to live by; he's telling them that their very lives depend upon their relationship with him specifically, that life only comes by eating his flesh and drinking his blood, which means that he will abide in them and they in him. And that problem is much easier for us to relate to. Even if our reaction to the imagery of "eat my flesh, drink my blood" has been dulled by many years of worshipful familiarity, the emphasis on Jesus himself can still be pretty hard to take, today no less than two thousand years ago. Many people are quite comfortable with the concept of a God on high who created the earth and still watches over it and cares for it. Many are comfortable with the concept of a God who is near in spirit; who guides us, inspires us, binds us together, and maybe even heals us. But a God who came to us as a flesh-and-blood human being who walked around a backwater of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago, who got hungry, who got thirsty, who got tired, who got angry, who got tortured, who got executed, who got raised from the dead, who did it all "for us and for our salvation" and who invites us to know him, commune with him, and follow him in response-well, that's something else.
This kind of discomfort is hardly new in the church. You may remember around this past Easter that there was a great hullabaloo around the release of a translation of the Gospel of Judas. The Gospel was a text from the Gnostic movement that was popular in the early church; the Gnostics essentially believed that there is "secret knowledge" that is available only to the inner circle of believers and that, once in possession of it, one can ascend to greater spiritual insight and eventually leave the fetters of the flesh behind. The most sensational passage of the Gospel of Judas, then, reflects the very heart of gnosticism: in it, Jesus takes Judas aside and tells him that he will be the most excellent disciple because, by turning Jesus in to the authorities, he will help him shed his flesh on the cross and thereby release his true divine nature from its prison. Essentially, the Gospel of Judas argues that, far from the orthodox tradition that branded Judas a traitor, Judas was actually the only disciple who truly understood Jesus' teachings! The controversy over Gnosticism was one of the earliest and greatest challenges to the church, a challenge that to this day still exists, because Gnosticism, on the face of it, can seem a lot more appealing than orthodox Christianity. If you're a Gnostic, then you know you're something special; you have the inside scoop, the secret knowledge that enables you to rise above the pitfalls and limitations of this life and embrace the true good. The Gnostic gospel isn't about what someone else has done, like Jesus; it's about what you do, using the knowledge you have to gain access to God and to live a better life than others can.
Solomon would have called this wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to understand the possibilities and pitfalls of a given situation or decision, and to then make choices that will maximize the benefits and minimize the risk. To use Solomon's words, wisdom is nothing less than being "able to discern between good and evil," to know what is good and then to choose it. It is a strange combination of the innate and the acquired; one must have the internal capacity for wisdom, but wisdom comes from the outside, and it is gained through the acquisition of knowledge, experience, and tradition. In fact, in Solomon's day wisdom was considered a practical intellectual discipline, like classical Greek philosophy; it was a method of approaching and understanding the ways of life that enabled you to maximize its benefits by consistently discerning and choosing the good. So it's no surprise that Solomon asked for it as he ascended the throne of Israel. But it doesn't seem to do him much good. Oh, he starts out strong, as we heard in our reading today, but if we kept reading into his story we'd see that his gift of wisdom doesn't keep him from decisions that promote excess, inequality, division, and oppression, which sow the seeds for the division and eventual destruction of his kingdom.
Wisdom has its uses, but it also has its limitations. Wisdom alone isn't enough to keep us from making bad decisions, because the good we discern with it often conflicts with what we think we want, and then it's a battle over the definition of "good." And wisdom loses an awful lot of those battles to our rationalizations of what's realistic, what's reasonable, what's normal, what's "not that big of a deal." But there's an even bigger problem with it. Wisdom suggests that life as God intends it comes from what we are able to see, know, and do. Wisdom suggests that if we follow the right teachings, adopt the right behaviors, make the right decisions, live as good people, then we will have true life; we will have God's love and acceptance.
Jesus is rejecting all of that; the only way to have life, Jesus says, is through my flesh and blood. And that is offensive. It's not just the cannibalistic imagery, it's what's behind it. Christian faith is not about doing good things or being a good person. Christian faith is not about our acceptance of a set of ethical teachings, or spiritual exercises, or a philosophical system, or even the contents of Holy Scripture. All of those things become important ways of shaping and understanding and nurturing and living our faith, but they are not the source of faith; they are not the object of faith. But, in a lot of ways, it would be so much easier if they were. Then it would simply be a matter of deciding whether those things worked for you or not, of evaluating whether they seemed appealing or effective, reasonable or wise. Then it would simply be a matter of applying yourself to those teachings and disciplines, and evaluating how well you do in following them.
But Jesus is saying that the only way to have life in us is through him, through accepting his grace by eating the meal that he has prepared: himself. The grace of God is not abstract or intellectual or spiritual; it is offensively specific, coming to us in the flesh-and-blood, life and death of Jesus Christ. That grace is the very sustenance of true life: it cannot simply be emulated or admired; it must be ingested, digested, made a part of us, not just once, but every day. And those are hard words to swallow, because we want to take care of ourselves. We don't want to admit that all of us, all of us, are starving for that grace.
The question isn't whether we need the food that Jesus offers us; the only question is whether we will stay at the table, whether we can accept that Jesus truly has the words of eternal life, that Jesus truly provides real sustenance that we cannot get for ourselves. If we do, when we do, we realize not only how hungry we have been and how filled we are becoming, but also how much room there is left at the table: enough for everyone, enough for the whole world, enough even for those who have refused so far to sit down. And that can be hard to swallow too, if we want things to be first-come, first serve. But grace, in every respect, requires humility. There is nothing we can do to get it; there is nothing to do but accept it. The table is set and waiting. Come, take, eat and live. There is enough for everyone.
- The Greek word, skleros, has the sense of a hard object that is impervious to force; literally, this teaching is like running into a brick wall.
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