20th Sunday in Ordinary Time B
Readings: Proverbs 9:1-6 Ephesians 5:15-20 John 6:51-58
“Taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (Ps 34:9a). This Sunday’s readings invite us to partake of the living bread and the true drink that give eternal life: paradoxically Jesus’ body to be broken in death and his blood to be poured out on the cross. In contrast to the quarreling crowds, who question how Jesus “can give us his flesh to eat,” let us approach the Eucharistic banquet with the joy, as we sing in the words of the responsorial psalm: “Look to him that you may be radiant with joy,/ and your faces may not blush with shame. When the poor one called out, the Lord heard,/ and from his distress he saved him.” (Ps 34:5-6)
The reading from Proverbs 9 describes Lady Wisdom’s banquet offering life-giving understanding to the simple in need of direction. Her invitation is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ promise in the gospel reading: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” Every feature of the selection highlights the care Wisdom has taken in preparing her life-giving feast. First, she has built a perfect house with seven columns, dressed her meat, mixed her wine, and spread her table. Then, she has sent out her maidens calling from the heights of the city to the simple to turn in to her banquet: “Come, eat of my bread/ and drink of the wine I have mixed!/ Forsake foolishness that you may live;/ advance in the way of understanding.” Lest we forget the difficulty and utter seriousness of making the choice to follow the discipline of Lady Wisdom’s way as developed in the teachings of Proverbs 1-8, we should recall that in Proverbs 9 Lady Folly also offers a banquet to the simple, enticing them with the deceptive words: “Stolen water is sweet,/ and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Prov 9:17). The one who attends her feast has found the way to death: “But he does not know that the dead are there,/ that her guests are in the depths of Sheol” (Prov 9:18).
The Ephesians reading continues the contrast between the disciplined and joyous way of wisdom and the folly of a life of debauchery. In the context of exhorting the Ephesian Christians to turn from the darkness of their former pagan lives and calling them to walk in the light of the Christian way, Paul pleads: “Watch carefully how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise, making the most of the opportunity, because the days are evil.” He goes on to contrast the “ignorance” of drunken debauchery with the “understanding” of a life “filled with the Spirit” that is marked by “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and praying to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.” We can find no better description of the joy that should characterize our Eucharistic celebrations.
The Gospel continues from last week John’s hostile dialogue between Jesus and the crowd, contrasting the manna that the ancestors ate and still died and Jesus, the one who will give his flesh for the life of the world and thereby become the living bread that gives eternal life. The first verse of the reading repeats the last verse from last Sunday’s Gospel: “Jesus said to the crowds: ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.’” Although John does not have the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, these words are similar to the ones used by Jesus in the other gospels. Just as the crowd earlier questioned Jesus’ origins because they assumed that he was the mere son of Joseph (6:42), now they quarrel among themselves saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”. As long as they remain on a mere earthly level, they can only understand Jesus’ language as a kind of cannibalism. Only those who believe in Jesus’ life-giving death and its Eucharistic celebration can understand his language.
Jesus now challenges the crowd to move beyond their earthly understanding. “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.” He then makes a series of promises, all of them pointing to the “life” that comes from partaking of his flesh and blood. The participants will have “eternal life” in the present and will be raised by Jesus “on the last day.” They also “remain” or “abide” in Jesus, just as the living Father sent him and he has life because of the Father, so they will have life because of Jesus. Finally, Jesus ends by contrasting the old bread come down from heaven (the manna) and himself as the true bread: “Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”