In the first reading, Joshua summons the people of Israel and asks them to decide whether to serve God or the idols of their pagan neighbors. Sensing his imminent death, he wants the people to make a solemn recommitment to the covenant for he is aware of the real danger and temptation of idolatry surrounding them. In response, the people unanimously choose to serve God, “for it was the Lord, our God, who brought us and our fathers out of slavery. He performed those great miracles before our very eyes and protected us along our entire journey.”
The gospel presents a parallel scene wherein Jesus also makes his disciples decide whether to believe in him or leave him. This occurs at the end of his long discourse on the Bread of Life where he reveals himself as the true bread that comes down from heaven. To partake of this bread that gives eternal life is to believe in him (Word of God) and to eat his flesh and drink his blood (Eucharist).
Many of his disciples find his saying too hard to accept and begin to leave him. What precisely is this “hard saying”? At first glance, we tend to think it is his claim that one “must eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood” in order to have life eternal. That indeed is hard enough to believe. But what Jesus’ listeners find most hard to accept is his claim throughout the discourse that he comes from heaven, that his origin is divine. (“Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother?”)
And as if wanting to rub it in, Jesus presses his claim further by asking, “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” Here we enter into a particularly Johannine idea of the glorification of the Son of God via the cross. The first stage of Jesus’ return (ascension) to the Father is by being lifted on the cross where he reveals his absolute union with the Father’s will (obedience) and eminently manifests the identity of God (love).
Jesus’ journey and mission ultimately lead him back to his Father by way of the cross. And those who wish to be his disciples must take the same route. “If anyone wants to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Mt 16:24) In truth, it is the cross that makes Jesus’ saying too hard to accept and his way too hard to follow.
Today’s readings are admittedly heavy and rather difficult, but we can gather a few simple and helpful thoughts for life.
The people of Israel respond to Joshua’s invitation to serve God unequivocally because they have experienced the great acts of God in their life. This same response is echoed in the responsorial psalm by the psalmist who blesses God at all times for he has “taste(d) and see(n) the goodness of the Lord.” Our choice for God is possible only if we have experienced his goodness and saving mercy.
It is interesting to note that while the response of the Israelites to Joshua’s invitation is unanimous, the crowd’s response to that of Jesus is divided. Yet, come to think of it, the crowd has all witnessed the miracle of the loaves and his earlier works of healing and casting out of demons. What holds them from fully accepting the words of Jesus? Could it be that they do not know him enough?
After Jesus’ discourse, many of his disciples return to their former life; only the apostles remain. The twelve form the inner circle of disciples who stayed and lived with Jesus throughout his three years of ministry. Living together, they have established a bond with Jesus that has developed into a relationship of trust and loyalty.
Thus, when Jesus turns to them and asks if they too would leave, they could only reply with Peter, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
The apostles, too, must have found the words of Jesus hard to accept and impossible to comprehend. But because they believe in him, they also believe in what he says.
Don Bosco says that education is a matter of the heart. He believes that an educator is more effective when he has a good relationship with his student. And the reason is simple: when a student accepts his teacher, he also accepts what he teaches.*