An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, John 6:60-69, August 26, 2012
TIME WAS WHEN people recognized only two giant empires in the world: the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Today, only the former survives; the union of soviets crumbled, or, to use a neutral word, broke up. But what is of concern to us is not whether it really collapsed or not, but rather what its breaking apart meant to the Russians powers-that-be. If we go back to history and try to interpret what happened in the USSR on August 18, 1992 when a coup d’etat was attempted against the Soviet Prime Minister, a disinterested inquiry would tell us that the root of it all was perestroika: the restructuring of politics, economy and other aspects of soviet life. The coup attempt happened a day before the signing of the treaty on power sharing, the relationship between the central government and the soviets. The treaty was part of the implementation of the perestroika to bring about a better life to the people. Thus, the major issue was between those who rejected it and those who accepted it. Said Mikhail Gorbachev: “For some, this [treaty] is maintaining the empire, for others this is the collapse of the empire.”
In today’s Gospel (John 6:60-69), a parallel issue is being presented to us. It may be recalled from the previous Sundays that according to John Jesus proclaimed his own goal for man to achieve in order to make him happy: eternal life, a life in which people are one and love one another, and experience freedom and integrity. And just as Gorbachev had his perestroika, Jesus had a program to attain that form of life: the bread of life. As we saw in the preceding Sundays, Jesus, as Eucharist, presented himself first as Wisdom—the Word of God, and the Christians, as an implication of Jesus’ claim, are a community of the Word, hearing it, living it, and embodying it. This is what it means to eat the bread of life. Next, he offered himself as Sacrament—the sign of God love for his people, manifested in his dying for them, and for this reason the community lives the spirit of Jesus, he dwells in the community, and the community lives in him. The members of the community share with others all they have and are, and are filled with the Spirit, manifested in their faces, and in their songs. This, too, is what eating the bread of life means.
But the Gospel challenges us: do we accept him as the bread of life? Do we accept him as the principle, guide, standard and supreme norm of our lives? Do we accept him as our redeemer, saving us by giving himself to us as bread of life? Such a challenge was also offered to the people in the Old Testament. As the First Reading (Jos 24:1-2.15-17.18) points out, Joshua at a renewal of the covenant in Shechem after the Israelites entered into the promised land gathered all the tribes and gave them a challenge: “Decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling” (Jos 24:15bc). The people answered: “We will serve the Lord for he is our God” (Jos 24:18). Similarly, in the New Testament, we who have seen the power of God manifested in the life and death of Jesus are given the challenge: “Do you want to leave me, too?” (John 6:67). Shall we refuse to believe that in eating the Wisdom and the Sacrament of God we will attain everlasting life? John, of course, presents Peter as the model of our response to the challenge: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We are have come to believe, we are convinced that you are God’s holy one” (John 6:69).
But the implication of this yes of Peter to Jesus words is quite enormous. For to accept Jesus as the supreme norm of our life means that we decide to empty ours and fill it with the life of Jesus, which is more than simply saying that we imitate him in discipleship. Moreover, if we link this to the Second Reading (Eph 5:21-32), accepting Jesus as the bread of life implies that we cannot manifest in ourselves and in our lives the life and death of Jesus without having to form a new family of God, in much the same way that those who affirmed the Lord as their God at the time of Joshua eventually recognized themselves as the people of God. By eating the bread of life, we form in the final result God’s family headed by Christ himself who loves the community. And his relationship with the community becomes itself the pattern of the relationship that exists among the members—loving one another, giving up one’s life for the sake of the other (Eph 5:23). We cast aside our past life and unite ourselves with the members of the community in an unbreakable bond of unity (cf Eph 5:31).
At the beginning of our reflection, we adverted to the program of perestroika which Gorbachev initiated. But the program was not accepted. Russian leaders like Yanayev, Yozov (Defense), Pavlov and others mounted a coup, obviously because the perestroika meant for them the loss of their power, status and privilege. In the light of the Gospel, one wonders whether anyone of us would stage his own coup by not allowing Jesus to become the supreme norm of his life. Of course, in our liturgy, we are reminded in the response to the Eucharistic Prayer that the right attitude to the challenge of Jesus is to say “Amen” to him. That way, we follow Peter who said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).