The 21st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle B)

Readings:
Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b
Psalm 34:2-3, 16-21
Ephesians 5:21-32 or 5:2a, 25-32
John 6:60-69

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

God's divine plan for mankind is revealed in the two Testaments and that is why we reread and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: The Choice to Serve or to Walk Away
Today's Gospel reading concludes the four-week Sunday mediation on the Eucharist from Jesus' Bread of Life Discourse in the 6th chapter of St. John's Gospel.  At the end of His discourse, Jesus challenges the Twelve Apostles to make a choice: will they chose to believe and accept the New Covenant and the promise of eternal life that Jesus offers in His flesh and blood, or will they walk away and return to their former lives prior to their call to discipleship.

Joshua's challenge to the children of Israel and the announcement of his decision in the First Reading prefigures the decision of the Twelve Apostles.  When the first phase of the conquest of the Promised Land was completed, and territory had been allotted to the new generation of the twelve tribes who were the holy warrior descendants of the Exodus generation, God's servant, Joshua had come to the end of his mission.   He called the tribes together for a national assembly at Shechem in central Canaan.  At the assembly Joshua challenged the children of Israel to renew their commitment to the Sinai Covenant with Yahweh—to live as a holy people in obedience to all of God's commands and prohibitions and to reap the promised blessings of the covenant.  His challenge was to either renew their oath to the covenant or to relinquish God's protection and go to serve the false gods of the Canaanites and other Gentile peoples of the region.  In making that challenge, Joshua answered for himself and his family saying, "As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord!" (Josh 24:15).

We declare our commitment to the New Covenant in Christ Jesus through the Sacraments Jesus gave us, especially in the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.  As we hear in St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians in the Second Reading, Jesus gave us the Sacrament of Baptism so that we might be sanctified/made holy by Christ the Bridegroom by being reborn through water and the Spirit as cherished members of the Bride of Christ that is the Church.  And, it is through the Eucharist that we continually renew our covenant commitment, as He nourishes us with His own Body and Blood on our journey through earthly life to the Promised Land of Heaven.  Therefore, the challenge Jesus made to His disciples must be answered by every new generation of His disciples.  You declare your faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior as you make your way to the altar to renew your covenant commitment by receiving Christ in the Eucharist.   Have the confidence of Joshua by declaring "I will serve the Lord", and the faith of St. Peter in saying "We have come to believe that You are the Holy one of God!", and have faith in the words of the Psalmist: "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord", for He "redeems the lives of His loyal servants!" (Ps 34:9, 23).

The First Reading Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b ~ Decide if You will Serve the Lord
1 Joshua gathered together all the tribes of Israel at Shechem, summoning their elders, their leaders, their judges, and their officers.  When they stood in ranks before God, 2a Joshua addressed all the people: [...].  15 "If it does not please you to serve the LORD, decide today whom you will serve, the gods of your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling.  As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."  16 But the people answered, "Far be it from us to forsake the LORD for the service of other gods.  17 For it was the LORD, our God, who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery.  He performed those great miracles before our very eyes and protected us along our entire journey and among all the peoples through whom we passed.  [...].  18b Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God."

When Joshua was elderly and his mission to secure the Promised Land for the new generation of the children of Israel (the children and grandchildren of the Exodus generation) was coming to an end, he called a National Assembly at Shechem in central Canaan.  Shechem was important in the history of the children of Israel.  It was at Shechem that Yahweh promised the land to the descendants of their ancestor Abraham, and it was where Abraham built his first altar to Yahweh and offered sacrifice in the Promised Land of Canaan (Gen 12:6-7). In this momentous national event, the people were called by Joshua as one body into the presence of Yahweh, their king. 

A National Assembly is not the same as a liturgical Sacred Assembly associated with feast days in the liturgical calendar.  National Assemblies included everyone living in Israel: native born Israelites from the twelve tribes and the foreign aliens living among them who are subject to God's Law and who acknowledged Yahweh as the sovereign Lord of the state of Israel.  Sacred Assemblies, on the other hand, were religious assemblies to which only Israelites and any Gentiles who had converted to the faith of Israel by ritually submitting his/her life to Yahweh (males through circumcision) had the right to attend and take part in the religious services associated with the Sanctuary.  Non covenant members were not admitted to the Sanctuary or to Yahweh's sacred meals associated with His Sacred Assemblies/religious festivals.

In the National Assembly Joshua called, it was his intention that the people renew their oath of allegiance to Yahweh, God of Israel, who is the Great King of His vassal people Israel.  In his speech to the people, Joshua challenged them to make a decision: will they serve Yahweh with undivided hearts and submit to the Laws of the Sinai Covenant to which they swore their obedience at Mt. Sinai, or will they choose to turn to the false gods of Abraham's people and the false gods of the Canaanites and other pagan peoples of the region.  Verse 15b: the gods of your fathers served beyond the River, refers to the pagan gods of Abraham's family prior to his rejection of all false gods in service to Yahweh alone; Abraham's father Terah and his Aramaean sons and their descendants were pagans (Gen 35:2).

In his challenge to the people, Joshua made the declaration: "As regards my family and me, we shall serve the LORD (Yahweh)." A righteous parent cannot secure his children's salvation—that is a personal decision each individual must make.  However, parents can nurture their children by providing a climate of righteousness and establishing a pattern of godly obedience within their household that will set their children on the narrow path to salvation.  This is the pledge that Joshua has made for his family.

The Israelites responded in two parts in verses 16-18. They made a profession of faith in Yahweh in verses 16-18a, saying, "At our approach the LORD drove out all the peoples, including the Amorites who dwelt in the land", and swore an oath of obedience in verse 18b, "Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God."  The first part of the people's response in verses 16-18a is a profession of faith reciting in a concise summary God's intervention in their history, and the Israelites ended their profession of faith with an oath to serve God.  The choice they made by recalling the history of God's works on their behalf followed by their profession of allegiance is very similar to how we summarize our belief in God's intervention in the history of mankind in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed.  But our creed ends with a profession of what we believe God will do for us in the future if we choose to serve him—the promise of life everlasting. 

Responsorial Psalm 34:2-3, 16-21 ~ Find Refuge in serving the LORD
Response: "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord."
2 I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall be ever in my mouth.  3 Let my soul glory in the LORD; the lowly will hear me and be glad.
Response:
16 The LORD has eyes for the just, and ears for their cry.  17 The LORD confronts the evildoers, to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.
Response:
18 When the just cry out, the LORD hears them, and from all their distress he rescues them.  19 The LORD is close to the brokenhearted, and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
Response:
20 Many are the troubles of the just one, but out of them all the LORD delivers him; 21 he watches over all his bones; not one of them shall be broken.
Response:

Since the 19th Sunday we have been singing the same response from Psalm 34:9, "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord."  Psalm 34 is identified as a Psalm of David (verse 1).  The psalmist begins by praising God, and he invites the humble (lowly) in the liturgical assembly to also unite themselves to God (verses 2-3).  The other verses in 16-21 give his reasons why the Lord should be praised. 

The psalmist has experienced the power of the Lord in his own life in the midst of distress, and he bears witness to the Lord's faithfulness, deliverance, and protection.  Our response, from 34:9, invites the liturgical assembly to "taste", meaning to experience, God's goodness for themselves by appealing to God's mercy and taking refuge in Him.  Verse 21 is alluded to by St. John as a prophecy that is fulfilled in Jesus' crucifixion in that none of His bones were broken: For this happened so that the scripture passage might be fulfilled: "Not a bone of it will be broken" (Jn 19:36; also see Ex 12:46).

The Second Reading Ephesians 5:21-32 or 5:2a, 25-32 ~ Christ is the Head of the Church
Brothers and sisters: 2a Live in love, as Christ loved us. [...].  21 Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.  22 Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.  23 For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the Savior of the Body.  24 As the Church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.  25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her 26 to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, 27 that he might present to himself the Church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  28 So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself.  29 For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the Church, 30 because we are members of his body.  31 For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.  32 This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.

St. Paul begins this part of his letter to the Ephesians by urging them to be imitators of Christ (5:1) by demonstrating love in the same way that Christ loves us.  He uses marital love as a metaphor for the love between Jesus and His Church and urges Christians to demonstrate a strong and unselfish mutual love, especially in their martial relationship.  In making the comparison between marriage between a woman and a man and Christ and the Church, Paul makes these two concepts compliment and illuminate each other.  Christ is the husband of the Church because He is her head and because He loves His Bride the Church like a man loves his wife.  Paul is using symbolism his Jewish audience would have readily understood.  The symbol of the covenant people as the Bride of Yahweh is a reoccurring symbol image of the Old Testament prophets; see the chart: "Sybolic Images of the Old Testment Prophets".

25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her 26 to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, 27 that he might present to himself the Church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
Paul compares the purification of an Israelite bride in her bridal bath before her wedding day with the Sacrament of Baptism.  It is in the Sacrament of Christian Baptism that Christ sanctifies each member of the Body of Christ that is His Church, purifying His Bride of sin to make her holy and without blemish or defect as she offers herself to Christ the divine Bridegroom.

In verse 31, Paul emphasizes that marriage is a God ordained institution, quoting from God's words to Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:24.  He writes that Christian marriage takes on a new, symbolic meaning in imitation of Christ the Bridegroom's love for His Bride the Church.  Wives should lovingly serve their husbands in the same way the Church serves Christ (verses 22 and 24).  And at the same time, husbands should honor and care for their wives with the same devotion of Christ in caring for His Church (verses 25-30).  Paul is making the point that the Sacrament of Marriage is a path to holiness.

32 This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.
The great mystery is Christ's unique relationship to the Church as Bridegroom to Bride.  It is a mystery that we can come to grasp somewhat in the ideal loving and unselfish union between husband and wife.  But, it is a mystery that will not be fully revealed until Christ returns in glory, and when the Church celebrates the "wedding day of the Lamb and His Bride" (see St. John's vision in Rev 19:6-10).

The Gospel of John 6:60-69 ~ Jesus asks "Will You Leave?"
60 Many of Jesus' disciples who were listening said, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?"  61 Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, "Does this shock you?  62 What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?  63 It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.  The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.  64 But there are some of you who do not believe."  Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him.  65 And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father."  66 As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.  67 Jesus then said to the Twelve, "Do you also want to leave?"  68 Simon Peter answered him, "Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  69 We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God."

This is the conclusion of Jesus' "Bread of Life Discourse" in John chapter 6.  What Jesus said that many Jews found intolerable was His statements concerning the necessity of eating His flesh and drinking His blood to have His gift of eternal life (Jn 6:51, 53-56).  The Jews were scandalized and asked, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (Jn 6:52).  What Jesus was teaching was intolerable to an orthodox, Old Covenant Jew. The people listening to Him believed He was speaking literally about eating His flesh and blood and was demanding cannibalism, which was forbidden under the Law. But there was also the prohibition against consuming raw flesh or drinking blood.  Under the Noachide Law, the laws set down for all mankind after the great flood, and the Law of the Sinai Covenant that came later at Mt. Sinai, no flesh or blood of any kind was to be consumed or the offender was to be completely cut off from the community: If any member of the House of Israel or any resident alien consumes blood of any kind, I shall set my face against that individual who consumes blood and shall outlaw him from his people.  For the life of the creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you for performing the rite of expiation on the altar for your lives, for blood is what expiates for a life (Lev 17:10-11; also see Gen 9:4; Lev 3:17; 7:26; and Dt 12:16).  The expressed purpose of blood was its use in the blood rituals that expiated sins in the liturgy of worship.

To consume flesh and blood will cut them off from the Old Covenant community.  But Jesus is not talking about His human flesh.  In the Holy Eucharist, believers are eating Christ's glorified Body and drinking His glorified Blood.  However, He is not speaking symbolically and He absolutely does intend that New Covenant believers be cut-off from the Old Covenant.  After His Resurrection and Ascension, the Old Covenant will be fulfilled and transformed.  The purification and sacrificial rites will be fulfilled, the liturgy will be transformed and only the moral law will remain, but a moral law that is intensified and internalized and a covenant that is internationalized—offered to all nations on earth.  All blood/animal sacrifices will be fulfilled in Jesus' one perfect sacrifice, and the sacred meal of the communion Todah, the "thanksgiving" sacrifice of praise in a sacred meal in the presence of God will continue in the Eucharist (from the Greek for "thanksgiving").

In response to their distress, Jesus asks "Does this shock you?  What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?"   Some of them will see the event of His Ascension.  At the Ascension, His will take His place before God the Father, offering Himself to the Father as the perfect sacrifice for man (see Rev 5:3-10).  Jesus is referring once again to the Daniel 7:13 vision and is asking them if that would be enough proof for them to accept for His authority.

In John 6:63 Jesus continues, saying, "It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.  The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.  But there are some of you who do not believe." It is this passage that is the stumbling block to those who resist accepting the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  All life comes from one source:  it is the spirit that gives life.  God is spirit: God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth (Jn 4:24).  Jesus does not fully reveal the mystery of God the Holy Spirit fully until He has been glorified through His death and resurrection.  As His ministry progresses He will speak more frequently of the Spirit:

But to His disciples He speaks openly of the Spirit in connection with prayer and with the witness of Him that they will carry to the world (Lk 11:13).  When Jesus says that "the spirit gives life" He is speaking of God the Holy Spirit who interacts with man to give the gift of our human birth: "Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end.  God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end..." (CCC# 2258).

It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.  This is the crucial line that is often misinterpreted.  The "flesh" Jesus is referring to cannot be His flesh or He would be contradicting what He has already taught in verses 50-53.  In verse 53 Jesus said: "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you."  In verse 63 Jesus has just spoken of God the Holy Spirit giving man life.  Man is God's greatest creation and yet that creation has nothing to offer that can compare with what Jesus is offering.  There is no salvation through that human flesh.  The "flesh" Jesus is referring in verse to in verse 63 is the "flesh" of man = mankind that has nothing to offer.  Man cannot work out his own salvation.  It is through Jesus' glorified flesh and His glorified blood made present by the power of the Holy Spirit that our souls will be nourished and will receive life.  As St. Peter Chrysologus wrote: "The Father in heaven urges us, as children of heaven, to ask for the bread of heaven. [Christ] himself is the bread who, sown in the Virgin, raised up in the flesh, kneaded in the Passion, baked in the over of the tomb, reserved in churches, brought to altars, furnishes the faithful each day with food from heaven" (Homilie 67: PL 52, 392).

Even if you do not accept that Jesus is not referring to His own flesh but to human flesh in general, it must be conceded that it is not just His human, Jewish flesh that gives us life.  When we receive Christ in the Holy Eucharist we receive all of the glorified, resurrected Christ, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, which is effused without limit with God the Holy Spirit.  This is the "flesh" that gives life.

The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.  "The words" are a reference to Jesus' teaching about the promise of eternal life through the gift of His flesh and blood, when He said: "the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat it and not die" (in verse 50).  His words reveal something divine which only God the Holy Spirit can supply.  It is from the Spirit that the source of life for all people of the world will come, and it is only He who can provide the complete understanding of that gift. We cannot fully understand this miracle without the power of the Holy Spirit acting in our lives. Jesus will teach the disciples in His Last Supper Discourse: "The Advocate [Paraclete], the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind of you of all that I told you" (Jn 14:26). The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "The Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth and will glorify Christ.  He will prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgment" (CCC 729 also see 728].

This is one of the three "scandals" or stumbling blocks which prevent belief for many of the Jews:

  1. The first was the expectation at the feeding of the multitude that Jesus was going to be a nationalistic military leader who would become their king and defeat the Romans. 
  2. The second was the refusal to accept His divine nature in John 6:41-43
  3. The third was the demand that we must consume Jesus as a sacrifice, body and blood.

64 But there are some of you who do not believe."  Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him.  65 And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father."  66 As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.
This is undoubtedly the crucial point of the text.  It is obvious that the crowd, including some of Jesus' disciples, believed Jesus was speaking literally and not symbolically.  The crucial point is that when they walked away Jesus did not stop them!  If He was only speaking symbolically and then let them leave, He would be perpetuating a lie which is a sin.  Jesus is without sin.  They left and He let them leave because He was not speaking symbolically; He was speaking literally.

67 Jesus then said to the Twelve, "Do you also want to leave?"  68 Simon Peter answered him, "Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  69 We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God."
Peter answers for himself and the other Apostles.  When he refers to "the Holy One", Peter is using one of the expressions which designates God Himself in the Old Testament (see Is 40:25; Hos 11:9; Hab 1:12; etc.) and in the New Testament "the Holy One of God" refers to the divine Messiah (Mk 1:24; Lk 1:35; 4:34; Acts 2:27).  Peter is answering Jesus' challenge by affirming his and the other Apostles' belief in the divinity of Jesus.

Peter's affirmation of faith is a lesson for us all.  When we become frustrated with the Church because we do not understand why certain abuses continue or when priests disappoint us in their pastoral missions, it is good to remember what Peter asked in this passage when he said "to whom shall we go?"  Where would we go?  It would have been better, down through Church history, if others had remembered those words.  The Church is the Body of Christ.  We are the Body because we consume the Body.  There can only be but One Body.  It is our duty to safeguard, reform when necessary, and protect that Body.  After all, the question to consider when confronted with abuses or failures of human leaders within the Church is: if you had known Judas, would you have walked away from Christ and forfeited your gift of eternal salvation or would you have chosen to stay?  Your choice is the same today.  Will you stay, trust in Jesus, protect His Church, and declare your faith as Peter and the Apostles affirmed theirs?

Catechism References:
Psalm 34:3 (CCC 336)
Ephesians 5:2 (CCC 616); 5:21-26 (CCC 2204); 5:21 (CCC 1269, 1642); 5:25-27 (CCC 772); 5:25-26 (CCC 757, 1616); 5:25 (CCC 616, 1659); 5:26-27 (CCC 757, 1617); 5:26 (CCC 628, 796, 1228); 5:27 (CCC 773, 796, 1426); 5:29 (CCC 757, 796); 5:31-32 (CCC 796, 1602, 1616); 5:31 (CCC 1627); 5:32 (CCC 772, 1624, 1659)
John 6:60 (CCC 1336); 6:61 (CCC 473); 6:62-63 (CCC 728); 6:62 (CCC 440); 6:63 (CCC 2766); 6:67 (CCC 1336); 6:68 (CCC 1336); 6:69 (CCC 438)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2015