Why does Jesus use such hard language in today’s Gospel (Jn 6:60-69)? Jesus has told the crowd that they must eat His body and they react, “This is a hard saying” (Jn 6:60). If Jesus didn’t mean that they would chew His body, then why does He speak in such a way? St. Thomas Aquinas asks: “Since teachers should avoid creating difficulties for those who are listening to them, why did our Lord mention those things that would upset the people and have them leave?” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 987).
In last few Sunday Gospels, we have seen that people sought out Jesus, even searching for Him by crossing a lake in boats. Jesus realized that the people were drawn to Him because of His teaching and His miracles. While this was good, Jesus was more than a teacher and a miracle worker. He wanted to move them to another level, to upgrade their perception of Him and His role.
His strong language about eating His flesh is really about the stronger message of who He is, as Thomas affirms: “Although they believed Him as a prophet, they did not believe that He was God” (Commentary on John, 984).
The people are shocked because “eating His flesh” is not only a horrible idea but also an impossible one. Jesus could have toned the force of His words down by saying, “I would like to be within you spiritually.” Such a statement would have been easier to take but it would only mean that Jesus would be our inspiration.
When Jesus declares “eat My flesh … drink My blood,” He is saying that He wants us to really take Him into ourselves. And because of who He is, He can be within us.
But why speak of “flesh”? John’ words describing the Incarnation are also strong: “The Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14). The Son of God’s taking human nature surely includes taking our human spirit, but “flesh” communicates our humanness in a very vivid way.
In the Eucharist, we truly consume Jesus in a spiritual way, as St. Thomas Aquinas explains: “Our Lord said that He would give Himself to them as spiritual food, not as though the true flesh of Christ is not present in this sacrament of the altar, but because it is eaten in a certain spiritual and divine way” (Commentary on John, 992).
Jesus seems to diminish the importance of the “flesh” when He adds, “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” (Jn 6:63). Thomas elaborates an idea of St. Augustine that even Jesus’ flesh would be useless without the Spirit: “We should say that it is the flesh of Christ, considered in itself, that profits nothing and does not have any more beneficial effect than other flesh. For if His flesh is considered as separated from the divinity and the Holy Spirit, it does not have different power than other flesh” (Commentary on John, 993).
However, Thomas affirms: “But if it is united to the Spirit and the divinity, it profits many, because it makes those who receive it abide in Christ, for man abides in God through the Spirit of love: ‘We know that we abide in God and God in us, because He has given us His Spirit’ (1 Jn 4:13)” (Commentary on John, 993).
In another way, Jesus may be indicating the insufficiency of the “flesh” to comprehend the things of the “spirit.” The people are scandalized because they judge according to their senses. Jesus asks the people to move beyond their senses. Through their senses, they hear Jesus teach. They see that Jesus multiplies the bread and they enjoy the taste of the bread. Now, Jesus is telling them the time has come to move beyond their senses and believe that He can be in them spiritually through the physical signs of bread and wine.
Thomas reflects on Jesus’ words being “spirit and life”: “They have a spiritual meaning, and understood in this way they give life. And it is not surprising that they have a spiritual meaning, because they are from the Holy Spirit: ‘It is the Spirit who tells mysteries’ (1 Cor 14:2)” (Commentary on John, 993).
Thomas concludes that Jesus’ words refer to His flesh united with the Spirit: “They must be understood of the Spirit united to My flesh; and so understood they are life, that is, the life of the soul. For as the body lives its bodily life through a bodily spirit, so the soul lives a spiritual life through the Holy Spirit” (Commentary on John, 993).
Jesus is not surprised that some people “no longer walked with Him”: “There are some of you who do not believe” (Jn 6:64). Thomas notes that Jesus doesn’t say that they don’t understand but simply they do not believe: “They did not understand because they did not believe” (Commentary on John, 995).
Jesus declares: “No one can come to Me, unless it be given him by My Father.”
Thomas reflects that we “come” through faith: “It follows from this, according to Augustine, that the act of believing itself is given to us by God” The Father does not force us to Jesus but draws us by “attracting grace” (Commentary on John, 997).
Thomas recalls the words of the prophet Micah: “I will show you man what is good, to walk attentively with your God” (Mi 6:8).
Jesus asked the Twelve whether they wanted to go also. Thomas comments: “Our Lord did not want them to stay with Him because they were forced to do so out of embarrassment (because to serve unwillingly is not to serve at all), and so He took away any embarrassment in their leaving or necessity for their staying, and left it to their own judgment whether they wanted to stay with Him or leave, because ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Cor 9:7)” (Commentary on John, 1000).
Thomas reflects “Peter—who loved the brethren, who guarded his friendships, and had it special affection for Christ—answered for the whole group: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life:; and we have believed and have come to know, that You are the Holy One of God’ (Jn 6:68-69).”
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, Part I, trans. James A. Weisheipl, O.P. and Fabian Larcher, O.P. (Albany, NY: Magi Books, Inc., 1980). The Commentary is also available on the web page of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/