An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, John 6:41-51, August 12, 2012
TODAY'S GOSPEL (John 6:41-51) FORMS part of Jesus’ discourse on the Eucharist (John 6:26-58). Of course, when people speak of the Eucharist, they usually associate it either with the Body and Blood of Jesus that one receives during the communion rite, or with the Mass itself. This Sunday’s gospel and the next Sunday’s, however, give us a wider view of what the Eucharist means, for they treat two aspects of it. Whereas, next Sunday, the theme concerns on the Eucharist as Sacrament, in today’s gospel, the theme is sapiential: the Eucharist as Wisdom.
What does the Eucharist as Wisdom mean? As John portrays him, Jesus considers himself the bread of life, whom the Father has sent as a sign that God cares for his people; he provides support for them. It is for this reason that Jesus performed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves (John 6:1-13) on account of which, those who have been following, hungry and poor, had their fill.
Unfortunately, though, the Jews could not recognize the meaning of the multiplication of the loaves. For them, it was simply meant to satisfy hunger; they could not see beyond that function. Hence, his parenesis: “I assure you, you are not looking for me because you have seen signs but because you have eaten your fill of the loaves. You should not be working for perishable food but for food that remains unto life eternal, food which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:26b-27b). Like the manna of the Old Testament, the multiplication of the loaves was a sign so that they will understand that man does not live on bread alone, but “by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:3b). Man must eat the Word—God’s Wisdom--because it is the bread of life, and the Eucharist is that Wisdom.
That for Jesus the Eucharist--which is he himself--is God’s Wisdom is evidenced by his quotation from Isaiah 54:13 in the same discourse: “It is written in the prophets: ‘They shall be taught by God’” (John 6:43). For John, this Isaianic prophecy is realized in Jesus who says that “everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me… he who believes in him has eternal life; I am the bread of life” (John 6:43-47). It may be recalled that according to John in the beginning was the Word, and the Word came into the world and became flesh (John 1:1-14). If this is linked with the Isaian quotation, what emerges is that God teaches his people through his Word, his Wisdom, who became man--Jesus. Thus, if John says that Jesus is the bread of life, he means that Jesus is God’s wisdom, on whom men must live so they will have eternal life.
It is in this context that the 1st Reading (1 Kgs 19:4-8) must be interpreted. Just as the bread given by the angel was able to sustain Elijah in his journey to Horeb (v 8), so the Eucharistic Word of God, if eaten, can sustain the Christian community, which is a pilgrim community, in its journey toward the mountain of God--eternal life. An analogy is in order. The Indians have a saying: you are what you eat. What one eats mentally, for instance, eventually makes him, or at least affects his behavior. In 1992, when the motion picture “Booyz N the Hood,” which was about violence, was shown, it triggered a wave of violence. If one is always glued on television, or on the internet, he will eventually acquire the language of that medium. The reason for this is that man has a mind, a body and a spirit, and just as good food is needed for bodily health, so for our spiritual life, we need good mental and spiritual food, and that is none other than God’s Wisdom—the Eucharist.
This interpretation has implications for liturgy and life. When we celebrate the Eucharist, what is most important is not only transubstantiation and communion. The Word is of no less importance. In fact, the Word and Communion are inseparable. The Jesus who is present in the sacrament is the very the same Jesus who is present in the Gospel, for he is Word-in-Flesh. That is why we partake from two tables: the Table of the Word, and the Table of the Sacrament—both of which express the Eucharist. For our daily life, this implies that if Jesus the Word became flesh, so the Christian community must embody the Word. In the Eucharist we gather not only to hear the Word, but to live it. We listen to what we ought to be.
Indeed, if we do this, we are imitating the nature of the written word of God. Before the Bible became a book, it was first lived. In other words, it is not a dead book, but a living one. The Christian community must therefore keep it alive by living it: the community is itself God’s Word—the Eucharist. Understandably enough, that community lives a life in which the word of God is lived: it exhibits compassion and forgiveness, getting rid of all bitterness, passion, anger, harsh words, slander, and malice of every kind (Eph 4:31-32, 2nd Reading).