By the Rev. Darren Miner
Let me start out with a disclaimer: I’m a vegetarian, and a rather squeamish vegetarian at that! So right off the bat, I have some personal issues with today’s Gospel reading from John and its references to cannibalism. Be that as it may, I’ll do my best to give a fair assessment of Jesus’ teaching.
For the last few weeks, we’ve heard a lot about bread: the bread of life, living bread, the bread that comes down from heaven, and so forth. As a lover of bread, I was right on board with that metaphor. Today we hear more about bread. But we ain’t talking Oroweat! For today Jesus explicitly identifies the bread from heaven with his own flesh. And he claims that only those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life.
Of course, Jesus is speaking metaphorically, once might even say sacramentally. And latter-day Christian preachers have a tendency to gloss over the repugnant flesh-and-blood metaphor and to start speaking about the Holy Eucharist as soon as humanly possible. As a squeamish vegetarian, I too am tempted to take this route and bypass dealing with the disturbing metaphor of cannibalism. But my training in biblical studies just won’t let me do that.
So, just for a brief while, let’s consider Jesus’ metaphor, as well as the original context of his teaching. Jesus had just finished feeding the 5000 and then walked across the Sea of Galilee. He then entered the synagogue in Capernaum and started preaching a lengthy discourse about bread—but not just any kind of bread! For this bread is Jesus’ own flesh. He tells the faithful Jews in that synagogue that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. Now, this speech might have made some sense in the context of the Last Supper, but the Last Supper is a full year in the future. Not surprisingly, the congregants have no idea what he’s talking about. Even Jesus’ own disciples are confused, and some are so shocked and repulsed that they leave off following him as disciples.
Frankly, their dismay is understandable for a variety of reasons. Let me enumerate just a few. First, the very idea of cannibalism would have been as repugnant to first-century Jews as it is to us today. Second, the consumption of any kind of blood is expressly forbidden in the Law of Moses. Third, Jesus’ suggestion would have had satanic connotations, for in Jesus’ day a common nickname of the Devil was “The Eater of Flesh.” And finally, the word that Jesus uses when he instructs them to eat his flesh is not the normal Greek term for eating; it is the word used when animals feed. In other words, Jesus is telling them to devour his flesh like an animal. So, it’s not surprising that some of Jesus’ disciples fell away. What’s surprising is that any stayed!