Aug 16, 2015: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Do not continue in ignorance.

1st Reading – Proverbs 9:1-6

Wisdom has built her house,
she has set up her seven columns;
she has dressed her meat, mixed her wine,
yes, she has spread her table.
She has sent out her maidens; she calls
from the heights out over the city:
“Let whoever is simple turn in here;
To the one who lacks understanding, she says,
Come, eat of my food,
and drink of the wine I have mixed!
Forsake foolishness that you may live;
advance in the way of understanding.”

Proverbs is the oldest of the Wisdom books in the Old Testament. Although the entire book is attributed to Solomon (Proverbs 1:1), it is actually a collection and was probably formed over time from the days of Solomon to the time of Alexander the Great.

Today’s reading is the account of Woman Wisdom preparing a banquet for those who would attend.  This banquet is described in contrast with that of Woman Folly (Proverbs 9:13-18).

The mysterious personification of Wisdom can be interpreted primarily in three ways: as an ordinary woman, an ancient deity, or a cosmic being.  Most likely the reading was intended to have aspects of all three.

Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven columns;

If Wisdom is a deity, the reference to her house would represent a temple with seven pillars, and the meal would be a sacrificial feast attended by her devotees.

If she is a cosmic being (see Proverbs 8:22-31), her house symbolizes the universe, built upon the foundation of seven heavenly bodies.  The banquet would consist of the life-giving forces that sustain all living things.

If Wisdom is a human woman, her house would be understood as a house of study where people would be invited to come and feast on knowledge and understanding.

She has dressed her meat,

Meat, a luxury, has been carefully prepared.

mixed her wine, yes, she has spread her table. 

Wine was mixed with spices to increase both its flavor and potency.  It is clear that this is a lavish feast.

She has sent out her maidens; she calls from the heights out over the city:

The most striking characteristic of the account is the prominence it gives to women.  No men are referred to, and no one seems to be controlling the behavior of Wisdom or of her maidens.

“Let whoever is simple turn in here;

Proverbs 1:4 tells us that the book is intended for the simple: the innocent, the childlike, those who are eager to learn.

to him who lacks understanding, I say, Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed!

Wisdom always invites, cajoles, persuades.  She never commands, as the law does.  She feeds the desire for knowledge and insight; she satisfies the desire for learning.

Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding.”

Wisdom oversees all of the mysteries of the universe; in her hands are the secrets of life. These are the delicacies with which she spreads her table.

No one can survive without Wisdom; the way of understanding is the way to life.

2nd Reading – Ephesians 5:15-20

Brothers and sisters:
Watch carefully how you live,
not as foolish persons but as wise,
making the most of the opportunity,
because the days are evil.
Therefore, do not continue in ignorance,
but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.
And do not get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery,
but be filled with the Spirit,
addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
singing and playing 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 continue our exploration of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, which instructs in the wisdom tradition.  Today’s reading discusses new life in Christ and in the Church.

Brothers and sisters: Watch carefully then how you live,

“Live” is peripateō, which literally means “walk.”

not as foolish persons but as wise, making the most of the opportunity,

The wise know how to recognize opportunity, or the decisive moment (kairôs), and seize it.

because the days are evil.

“When Paul says ‘the days are evil’ he does not mean that they are created evil or that they are by their very nature evil. Rather he says this of the troubling events that occur in time. We are in the habit of saying, ‘I have had a terrible day.’ But that does not imply that the day of itself is intrinsically terrible. Rather it refers to what has occurred in the day. Some of the things that occur in it are good, as they are enabled by God. Some are bad, because they are brought about by evil willing. Therefore it is we humans who are the authors of the evils that occur in time. Only on this basis are the times called evil” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392-397), Homilies On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 18,5,15-17].

Therefore, do not continue in ignorance, but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.

The wise do not lead lives without direction.  Paul is imploring us to live lives wisely, with direction, and that the will of God should inform the direction we choose.

When a person’s life is coherent with his faith, true wisdom is the result; and this immediately leads him to “make the most of the opportunity” (or “redeem the time,” in the King James Version).

And do not get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery,

Debauchery probably refers to any kind of conduct that results from uninhibited freedom, such as that produced by drunkenness.

“It is good conduct that strikes fear in the wrongdoer. Only one who is sober is prepared to counsel another realistically and with confidence. The person being counseled feels less resentment when he knows how good is the actual conduct of the one who admonishes him. But where there is intoxication there is also debauchery, and debauchery causes base deeds. Therefore it is our duty to be sober, so that the requirements of good conduct may be observed” [The Ambrosiaster (A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles, Ephesians 5,18].

but be filled with the Spirit,

In contrast to debauchery, the way of the wise is prompted by the Spirit of God, which can also be quite intoxicating.

“One drunk with wine sways and stumbles. But one who is filled with the Spirit has solid footing in Christ. This is a fine drunkenness, which produces even greater sobriety of mind” [Saint Ambrose of Milan (A.D. 390-391), The Sacraments, 5,3,17].

addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts,

The manifestations of the Spirit described here suggest that the setting is probably some kind of liturgical assembly.  Because man is made up of body in addition to the soul, proper worship of God needs external expression (see also Acts 16:25; Colossians 3:16; James 5:13).

giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.

Note the trinitarian theme: prompted by the Spirit, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are to thank God the Father.  Living in this manner is the true way of wisdom.

Gospel – John 6:51-58

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.”

The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them,
“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.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day.
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.
Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died,
whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

The first verse of today’s gospel reading was the last verse we heard last week, where Jesus identifies his flesh as the bread of heaven and alludes to his death.

Jesus said to the crowds: I am the living bread that came down from heaven;

Recall that this is the third time (verses 35 and 48) that Jesus identifies himself as the bread of life. He does not attempt to soften or alter his teaching.

whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

The thought of feeding on the flesh of another was as repulsive in Jesus’ time as it is today. This kind of statement demands explanation, and Jesus offers it.

The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

In addition to the conceptual problems presented, there are logistical problems.  How can Jesus give them his flesh to eat? Is he going to start carving up his arm?

If they had understood him in a metaphorical, figurative or symbolic sense, there would have been no reason for them to quarrel. Just as Nicodemus thought of being born again in the purely physical sense (John 3:4), and the woman at the well thought only of natural water (John 4:11), so now the Jews understand the reference to his flesh literally.

Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you,

For the fourth time in this discourse (which we’ve covered over the past few weeks), we once again see the doubled amen that is so common in John’s gospel.  The doubled amen indicates a solemn affirmation, an oath, and indicates the gravity of what follows.

unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.

If the idea of eating someone’s flesh is repugnant, to the Jewish audience drinking their blood would have been even more repulsive. Blood was a forbidden food under the
Law (Leviticus 7:27; 17:10-14), the penalty for which was to be expelled from the tribe;
they would be excommunicated.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood

“Flesh and blood” is a common Old Testament expression for life. When the two are separated, death results. For Jews of this time, the expression would have called to mind the victim of sacrifice which is first slaughtered and then shared at a cultic meal.

has eternal life,

Eternal life comes from feeding on Jesus, not just from simply believing in him.

and I will raise him on the last day.

As before (verse 40, in last week’s reading), Jesus underscores his authority.  Resurrection is a power belonging solely to God.

For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.

If there had been any questions before, there is now no doubt that he is speaking quite literally.

On other occasions when the literal interpretation of Jesus’ teaching was incorrect, as with Nicodemus (John 3:3-6) and the woman at the well (John 4:16-26), he corrects the misunderstanding and explains.  He does no such thing here because no misunderstanding exists; in fact, he reiterates his literal point again and again.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood

In Jesus’ previous references to eating his flesh, the classic Greek verb for human eating (phago) is used. In verses 54-58, the Greek word recorded is trogon, the verb for animal eating, which literally means “munch, chew, gnaw.”

This may be an intended emphasis on the reality of the flesh and blood of Jesus, as if to say “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life … my flesh is real food, and my blood is true drink … whoever gnaws and chews on what is truly my flesh and drinks what is truly my blood remains in me and I in him.”

remains in me and I in him.

This is covenant imagery. Just as what we eat becomes a part of us, those who feed on Jesus form an intimate union with him. The Greek term for “remains in me” is ménō, which means “to stay in a place,” or “to abide forever.”  Jesus does not merely visit those who feed on him, he stays with them, dwelling there permanently.  Note the present tense: he does not say that they will remain in me; those who share in the Eucharist enjoy this union with Christ now, today.

Jesus uses the same covenant imagery in John 15:4, when he likens his union with the apostles to a vine and its branches.

Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.

The Father and Son are one (John 14:10-11; 5:21-24); they share a life with the Holy Spirit (John 1:32; 15:26). They share a common union (i.e., communion).

Here, Jesus promises that we will share in this communion, this eternal life. (See also 1 Corinthians 10:16-17.)

This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

Through repetition, he has made it very clear: Jesus, not manna, is the bread that came from God.  Those who ate manna died; those who feed on Jesus will live forever.

Connections and Themes

  • As we continue with the Bread of Life discourse:
    • In the first reading, Wisdom invites us to her banquet, offering to us the gifts of God.  She is generous with both her offerings and her hospitality: all are welcome at her table.  True wisdom nourishes the whole person and empowers us to leave foolishness behind.
    • In the second reading, Paul portrays the Holy Spirit as the real answer to our thirst.  He contrasts the the way of the wise, who accept Wisdom’s gifts, with the way of folly.  Those who ignore the call of Wisdom succumb to the temptations of the evil days in which they live.
    • In the gospel reading, Jesus concludes his discourse on the bread of life.  Like Wisdom, whom Proverbs 8:22-31 tells us was with God at the beginning of creation, Jesus offers us lavish gifts from God.  However bountiful her offerings are, the banquet of Christ surpasses it.  If we feed at Wisdom’s table, we will know the things of God; if we feed at the table of the Lord, we will have life because of him, and we will be raised up on the last day to live forever.
  • Paul describes how fools reject the gifts of God, choosing instead to feast on selfishness, ignorance, and debauchery.  Two banquets are before us — which will we choose?
  • Jesus makes it very apparent that the Jews have heard him correctly: he came from heaven, sent by God to literally offer his flesh and blood for the life of the world. This teaching forms the foundation of our Eucharistic sacrament.
  • There is much evidence that the early Church took Jesus’ words in the Bread of Life discourse literally.  In fact, there is no record from the early centuries that indicates or implies Christians doubted the literal interpretation.  No document exists in which the literal interpretation is opposed and only the metaphorical accepted.
    • Ignatius of Antioch, who had been a disciple of the apostle John and who wrote a letter to the Smyrnaeans about A.D. 110, said, referring to “those who hold heterodox opinions,” that “they abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again.”
    • Forty years later, Justin Martyr, wrote, “Not as common bread or common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, . . . is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology 66:1–20).

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