Commentary on the Readings
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
From a Carpenter’s Son the Bread from Heaven
Jews and Christians are called “People of the Book” for 54 times in the Qur’an. The word “book,” in the sense of a book containing the revelation of Allah, is repeated 230 times. However, it is an ambiguous term because sometimes it indicates the book of Moses, at other times the books which speak of Abraham and his descendants, of John, son of Zechariah, of Jesus and his mother Mary; some other times “book” simply means the Qur’an, as can be seen right from the introduction: “This is the book! The book a safe guide—no doubt about it—for those who fear God.”
According to one interpretation widespread among the Muslims, God sent upon the earth, in the form of dictation to his prophets, several books containing his word: the Torah, the Gospel, the Psalms and the Qur’an. It is therefore not a matter of surprise if one hears a Muslim saying: “I, too, believe in the Bible.”
Beyond the many convergences between Muslims and Christians, a substantial difference should not be overlooked. For Muslims, the revelation of God is embodied in the Qur’an; the word of Allah has become the book to Mecca. For Christians, the word of God was not made book, but flesh in Nazareth. One day the Lord commanded Ezekiel: “Son of man, eat this scroll and then go: speak to the people of Israel” (Ezk 3:1). It was an invitation to assimilate the message contained in the book. The same image was used by Jeremiah, “I devoured your words when they came—the prophet admits—they were my happiness and I felt full of joy” (Jer 15:16).
Like the prophets, and like the Muslims, the Christian is also hungry for the wisdom of God. He finds it in a book, yes, but not a book, it is a person, Jesus of Nazareth, the bread of life.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the Word of God made flesh.”
Archaeology confirms that Ahab’s reign (874-853 B.C.) was one of the most prosperous of Israel. King Ahab was clever and shrewd; he fortified the city of Megiddo and Hazor providing them with monumental gates, powerful walls, large warehouses and impressive systems for the supply of water that remain to this day. He promoted trade, entered into alliances with neighboring peoples, built luxurious palaces, decorated with ivory carved in the style of Egyptian art. Yet, the Bible pronounces a severe judgment on him: “There was no one like Ahab, urged by his wife Jezebel, in doing what Yahweh abhorred. He did horrible things and ran after unclean idols” (1 Kgs 22:25-26).
Jezebel was young, so charming as treacherous, daughter of the king of Tyre. She had come into Samaria, accompanied by a crowd of prophets of Baal and Astarte. With flattery and spells, she had induced her husband to build a temple for these deities, worshiped in Phoenicia and considered dispensing fertility of the fields and animals. It was the beginning, in Israel, of religious corruption, moral debauchery, social injustices which culminated in crimes such as the murder of Naboth (1 Kgs 21) and horrendous practices such as human sacrifices (1 Kgs 16:34).
Unexpectedly, there appeared on the scene a brave and resolute man who dares to challenge Jezebel, the queen who is at the peak of power and capable of disposing of the king’s seal at will. It is Elijah the prophet coming from Thisbe, a town east of the Jordan. His words are scathing, his complaints burn like fire (Sir 48:1). He threatens, calls for punishment of heaven, and works wonders and, for three years, orders the rain not to bedew the earth. He challenges the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and defeats them (1 Kgs 18), but in the end, he must surrender. Jezebel is too strong and looks for him everywhere to get rid of him. He feels alone, abandoned by all; he is convinced that all the people have betrayed the Lord and have followed Baal and Ashtaroth.
He has no choice and must resign to defeat. At first he hides, then flees to the south. He wants to reach the mountain of God, Horeb, where Moses, four hundred years ago, met the Lord. In order not to give in to the lures of Ahab and Jezebel’s threat, he needs a solid faith and to strengthen it, he decides to follow the path of Moses.
He departs, but the crossing of the desert is challenging and the difficulties almost insurmountable; he resists until he can, but then, disheartened, he must surrender. It is at this point that our reading starts.
Elijah sits under a tree and calls for death. Lord—he begs—enough is enough! For me it is better to die; I am not better than my fathers; if they have failed, I can not fool myself of being able to rise. My words will never have a significant impact on the social and political reality and on the religious choices of my people (v. 4).
Elijah needs strength and vigor that comes from food, bread, and the Lord makes him find it. Note well: God does not take the prophet away from the test; he does not relieve him from fatigue, does not exempt him from the hard journey, making him transported miraculously by an angel. The desert must be crossed and the difficulties faced. He offers him the necessary food and that is enough.
The passage concludes: “On the strength of that food, he traveled for forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God” (v. 8). In this context, the number forty recalls the forty years of Israel in the wilderness and is the symbol of the whole life.
The story of Elijah is ours. There are times when we feel like the prophet, deeply disappointed and we do not even find comfort in God, in faith, in the brothers and sisters of the community. Conflicts, inconsistencies, gossips, envy, meanness are reasons for dejection, anxiety and sometimes even despair. God does not forget us; he is always by our side, accompanies us as He did with Elijah. He does not exempt us from work, nor replace us; when we are tired he does not put us on his shoulders, but shows us the way to go and does not let us lack the bread that restores vigor.
We do not think immediately of the Eucharistic bread which we will discuss next Sunday. The food that, in every circumstance of life, gives strength and courage is the word of God. When we are in trouble, demoralized, humiliated by what happens in the world and in the church, maybe we let off steam with some friend, or go to cry on someone’s shoulders, convinced of finding help and comfort. We forget that it is the bread of the Word that gives light, consolation and hope.
To avoid escape, an indelible mark, showing their definite belonging to a master, was branded on the skin of the slaves.
Paul uses this image to define the condition of the Christian. In baptism the disciple has received, from the fire of the Holy Spirit, a seal that shows his belonging to God (v. 30).
Moral consequences are derived from this new reality. They are formulated by the author of the Letter to the Ephesians in a negative, then positive form: they are vices that need to be avoided (v. 31) and virtues that must be practiced (v. 32).
Six vices are listed and, it should be borne in mind, they all relate to the failure to control the tongue. In the verse preceding our reading, it was recommended: “Do not let even one bad word come from your mouth, only good words” (v. 29).
It is worthwhile to briefly review these vices because so often in Christian communities, tensions are created and scandals are recorded because we do not even realize the seriousness of these sins.
Asperity or tartness refers to the offensive words of those who consider themselves superior to others and pour over their nervousness, disappointments and frustrations on the weak beside them. It is a defect that occurs frequently in the relations between family members.
Disdain is the aggressive reaction of those who feel offended or deprived of something they deserve. Seeing their rights violated, they not only not measure the words but they also switch to an assault.
Anger is manifested in the offensive expressions of those who cultivate resentment in their heart and the desire for vengeance and are unable to control their primitive and violent impulses.
Outcry means the screams of brawls, quarrels, and wrangling.
Slander indicates the gossip, the morbid delight to disclose the bad, the mistakes, the weaknesses of others.
Finally malice includes all the other vices that would take too long to list.
The positive part clarifies what should be the behavior of a Christian: benevolent, mild, and most importantly, inspired by feelings of compassion, which is the first of the characteristics of God (Ex 34:6).
The author concludes his recommendations calling on Christians to imitate God, their father, and to practice mutual love, following the example of Christ, who gave himself for us (Eph 5:1-2). In Jesus, the Father’s love is made visible, and is, for each child, an invitation to follow in his footsteps.
In the last part of last Sunday’ passage, we heard Jesus declare, “I am the bread of life.” He is the “bread” as the wisdom of God. Anyone who assimilates his proposal will satisfy the hunger and thirst for happiness and love (Jn 6:35).
Faced with this unprecedented demand, the Jews react in the strongest possible terms. They are convinced that they already have the “bread” that satisfies: the Torah, the word of God contained in the holy scriptures. Sirach has clearly indicated the food and drink offered by God to the righteous: “She will feed him with the bread of understanding and give him the water of wisdom to drink” (Sir 15:3). Israel does not need other bread and cannot admit that a man who proposes himself as the “bread of life.”
Baffled, the Jews did not speak directly to Jesus, but they murmur among themselves: “This man is the son of Joseph, isn’t he? We know his father and mother. How can he say that he has come from heaven?” (vv. 41-42).
To murmur does not mean to raise some reservations, but to challenge, reject the provocative and scandalous affirmation that they have heard. It is unacceptable that Jesus claims to embody the wisdom of God, to reproduce in his own person the Lord thrice holy.
We will clarify the identity of these interlocutors, described by John as “Jews,” but first we have to understand the meaning of their objection. How can Jesus be the bread of wisdom of God come down from heaven?
“No one has ever seen God” (Jn 1:18) and cannot even be seen, many books of the Bible report (Ex 33:20; 1 Tim 6:16). Yet, over the centuries, humans have always had a burning desire to meet him, to know his will and his plans for the world (Ex 33:18).
They began to see some portion of his face when, looking up they contemplated “the fire, wind, the sphere of the stars, rushing water and the lights in the sky” (Wis 13:2). They are amazed by their beauty and have come to discover the author. “For everything that could have been known about God was clear to them. God himself made it plain. Because of his invisible attributes—his everlasting power and divinity—are made visible to reason” (Rom 1:19-20).
But God does not limit to reveal Himself through creation. In the fullness of time, he showed up in the world. Now it’s possible to see him, touch him, listen to him in a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who is the human face of God; who sees him, “has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9-11).
The Jews murmur, that is, they refuse to follow this path that leads to God. They believe inconceivable that a man is able to advance the claim to render the Lord present. They are frightened by the idea of a God who became man, convinced that the Almighty has his throne in the heavens, living far from the world and manifests his majesty and his strength through his miracles and mysterious voices. They cannot conceive that he reveals himself in a weak and fragile man, in a son of a carpenter.
Jesus recognizes that no one has seen the Father (v. 46), but shows the way to be able to contemplate him. He ensures that one can see God through him, watching what he does, those he frequents with, reproaches, defends, approaches, caresses, allows to touch and kiss him, because his gestures, his choices, his preferences are those of the Lord.
For some, the humanity of Christ is the intermediary that leads to God, for others it is an impediment. Today, as in the past, the positions taken in front of him are diversified, ranging from the enthusiastic welcome, indifference, rejection, resentful opposition.
To grasp the message of the passage, it is important to identify “the stakeholders” of Jesus. The Evangelist calls them “Jews.”
We are in Galilee and it is really strange that John calls “Jews” the people of Capernaum, who are “Galileans,” people who know the origin and the family of Jesus. In the Gospel of John, the word “Jew” does not have an ethnic-geographical connotation but theological. It indicates anyone take a hostile attitude to Jesus and refuses to believe that he is the full and definitive revelation of God.
The evangelist is not interested in the reaction of the Jewish people two thousand years ago. What presses him is to explain to his readers that “today” they are now faced with an alternative and have to choose between the wisdom of the Gospel, which is the bread of life, and the cunning of the world, which is the poison of death. “Today” they are being asked to believe that in Christ “all” the wisdom of God is present.
Unfortunately, today, as then, many simply recognize Jesus as the wise man who has shown the paths of justice and peace, one of the many prophets, perhaps the greatest of the prophets. While esteeming, they consider him a mere man “Joseph’s son” and do not realize or refuse to accept that he is “the Only Begotten” of the Father (Jn 1:14). They do not believe that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
Why is this happening, what is the root of the unbelief?
This conundrum is answered in the second part of today’s passage (vv. 43-47).
Someone feeds on the word of Christ, the bread of life, a few others hesitate or unable to understand it. The reason—says Jesus—is that no one can come to Him unless drawn by the Father who sent him (v. 44). The discovery of the “bread of heaven” is not an achievement of man, but a free gift of the Father.
How is it that this gift is not offered to all? Does God perhaps favor some and hinder others? Does he let someone encounter the “bread of heaven”, and refuse it to others?
God gives everyone a chance to know him, “They shall all be taught by God”— Jesus answers (v. 45). It refers to the oracle of the prophet Jeremiah, who announced: “The time is coming—it is the Lord who speaks—I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people. And they will not have to teach each other, saying: Know the Lord, because they will all know me, from the greatest to the lowliest” (Jer 31:34).
The instruction that the Lord gives to all is His Spirit, the divine impulse that acts within every person and pushes him or her on the ways of life. Unfortunately, not always and not all nourish it; not all learn his teachings, nor docile to his impulses. “Only those who learn from him” accept Jesus (v. 45).
The question then is just one: Do I let myself be taught by the Spirit of Christ, or, as the “Jews” of Jesus’ time, reject the “bread of heaven” and prefer the food of death?
Up to this point in his discourse Jesus has not yet invited his listeners to “eat” the bread which came down from heaven. He limited to identifying himself with this bread. In the last part (vv. 48-51) of the passage he, for the first time, declares that, in order to have life, it is a must “to eat the bread which is his flesh.”
The manna that the Israelites tasted in the desert did not communicate the fullness of life, in fact, all died. Only those who eat the bread from heaven will live forever.
In order not to misinterpret the meaning of Jesus’ invitation to eat “his flesh” we must keep in mind what this term means, in the Gospel of John. The Semitic concept of “the flesh” is not identified with the muscles. It indicates the weak, fragile, precarious part of a person. It refers to the whole person as destined to die. God feels compassion to people—the Psalmist says—because “he remembered that they were but flesh, a breeze that passes and never returns” (Ps 78:39). When, in the prologue of his Gospel, John says: “The Word was made flesh” (Jn 1:14), he does not refer to the fact that the Son of God assumed the outward appearance of a man, but that he made himself similar to us, welcoming even the most precarious of our condition.
“To eat” this God made flesh means to recognize that through “the carpenter’s son” goes the full revelation of God; it means to accept the wisdom from heaven even if he sees it covered with “flesh,” that is, of all fleeting aspects that characterize our human weakness.
We repeat: it is not speaking about the Eucharist. Jesus always refers to his message, his gospel that people are invited to assimilate, as bread, to setting up their own lives. Next Sunday will speak about the intimate relationship between this reception of the Word and the sign of the Eucharistic bread.