Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

By Father Donald Dilger

Sunday Scripture

First Reading: Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Response: Psalm 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21; Second Reading: Ephesians 5:21-32; Gospel: John 6:60-69

The first reading is from the Book of Joshua. He was Moses’ lieutenant and successor. Moses had led the Israelites during the decades of their nomadic life in the Sinai Wilderness and north-ward. He was never to enter the Promised Land because he annoyed the Lord on what must have been a bad day. The Lord accused Moses of doubting whether he had the power to make water flow from a rock for the thirsty Israelites. The words of the Lord: “Because you did not believe that I could proclaim my holiness in the eyes of the Israelites, you will not lead this congregation into the land I am giving them,” Numbers 20:12. Deuteronomy narrates the death and burial of Moses. The Lord relented somewhat and decided to show Moses the Promised Land but only from a mountain top. This was Mt. Nebo, slightly east of the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in the land of Moab. From that vantage point Moses was able to see all the Promised Land from north to south. The Lord brought again brought up the sticky subject of non-entrance. “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” Moses died there and the Lord buried him. Moses’ obituary paid him a great compliment. “Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was not dim nor his natural force abated.” Joshua’s credentials: “Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had imposed hands on him, so the people obeyed him.” The land west of the Jordan River was conquered and apportioned to the various tribes and clans.

Joshua summoned all Israelites to the religious shrine at Shechem. He surprisingly gave them a choice to worship the Lord or other gods, even named the localities of the fake gods. But he gives a good example, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” The people recall all that the Lord had done for them — delivering them from Egyptian slavery and bringing them to the land promised to Abram and his descendants centuries ago. They reply, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord. Therefore, we too will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” How does this reading relate to the gospel of this day? In the gospel many of Jesus’ disciples are drifting away because of the difficult teaching in the Bread of Life Discourse. He asks the Twelve, “Do you also wish to leave?” Peter answers for all of them, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Psalm 34 is the same response psalm as on previous Sundays, but with different verses and a different emphasis. On those Sundays the emphasis was on food, miraculous and symbolic, to correspond to the miraculous and to the symbolism of food in the first reading and the gospel. In today’s first reading and in the gospel there is no mention of food. The words of the people’s response repeat the words of previous Sundays: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” The emphasis is no longer on taste, but on goodness, referring to the mighty deeds of the Lord in the Joshua narrative and to the term ‘eternal life’ in the gospel. 

The second reading is the last in a series from Ephesians. The author portrays the love of Christ for the Church as a model for the love between husband and wife. No problem there. The  problem for many is in ‘the fine print.’ The emphasis in our male-dominated society has been on these words, “Wives must be subordinate to their husbands . . . .” In an age of struggle for equality between the genders this seems out of date. Even more so when we consider that St. John Paul II taught total equality between women and men. Therefore, emphasis must now be placed on the opening words of our reading, “Be subordinate to one another for Christ’s sake.” 

The Bread of Life Discourse ended with Jesus’ detailed and sworn (‘Amen, Amen’) insistence that whoever wishes to have eternal life must eat his flesh and drink his blood. A final compare-son with the manna: “This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the ancestors ate and died. Those who eat this bread will live forever.” Many of his disciples react: “This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?” (Still the case today, and is a great divide between Catholics and many other Christians.) Jesus does not retract the ‘hard saying.’ He knew their reaction and asked, “Does this shock you? What if you see the Son of Man ascending where he was before?” That too is a ‘hard saying.’ What should it mean? A possibility: If Jesus returns to heavenly glory, that should validate what he proclaimed about eating his flesh and drinking his blood and/or about himself being the bread that came down from heaven. His ascension is also a validation of all that is taught in the Bread of Life Discourse.

A still more puzzling statement: “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.” A possibility: in a dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus says in John 3:6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Only those born of the Spirit will be able to understand the difficult teachings in the Bread of Life Discourse. This interpretation harmonizes with an earlier statement in the dis-course, “. . . no one can come to me unless drawn by the Father.” Faith is a free and unmerited gift of God. Only those who have and exercise that gift can accept the catechesis contained in this discourse — that the Bread that came down from heaven is the revelation that Jesus brings, the revelation that Jesus is, and the flesh and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. The sayings of Jesus in this sequel to the discourse may have been spoken in different settings. John perhaps assembled them to cope with the divisions in his Christian community decades later over the reality of Jesus’ flesh and blood, an issue he deals with in the 1st Letter of John. Here he notes that Jesus always knew who would and who would not stay with him. Simon Peter, to whom Jesus gave the charge to feed his lambs and his sheep speaks for those who remain, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”