20th Sunday Ordinary Time August 20, 2006
THE FEAR OF THE LORD IS THE BEGINNING OF KNOWLEDGE: WISDOM AND INSTRUCTION FOOLS DESPISE Proverbs 1:7
The Book of Proverbs is the earliest Old Testament book classified as Wisdom literature. The origin of Hebrew Wisdom literature dates back to King Solomon’s court. King Solomon is credited with being the author of Proverbs. However, scholars have identified only two sections in the book that go back to Solomon and his court, chapters 10-22 and chapters 25 to 29. The rest come from other authors and collections of sayings. The final editor of the book is also the author of the first nine chapters which serve as an introduction to Wisdom and its workings. The book was probably assembled in the early part of the 5th century BC. New Testament authors directly quote from the book and repeat its teachings.
The first seven verses of the book reveal its purpose, written as an instruction for the young and the learned in the ways of God’s wisdom. Verse seven of this preamble states that “fear of the Lord” is the root and beginning of all wisdom. (I refer the reader to my Feast of the Assumption reflection on the “fear of God” from the Magnificat.) It is this ‘poverty of spirit’ that opens the human heart to the mysteries of God. It is also what the foolish despise and reject to their eternal demise. With this baseline understanding of how the wisdom of God either works for you or against you, we are ready to explore this week’s text from the Book of Proverbs.
WISDOM HAS BUILT HER HOUSE….SHE HAS DRESSED HER MEAT, MIXED HER WINE Proverbs 9:1-2
Chapter 9 is a summary chapter for the first 8 chapters of Proverbs. In this chapter the author writes of two different banquets, one prepared by Lady Wisdom which is the text we have for this week’s selection and the other by Lady Folly. (Pro. 9:13-18) We really need to read the first banquet in relationship to the second.
Lady Wisdom builds her home setting up seven columns as seven is the number for perfection. She prepares a meal of meats and wines, the food for feast tables and weddings. Lady Folly, who is inane, fickle and knows nothing sits at the door of her house (Pro. 9:13-14) with stolen bread and water that initially pleases and is sweet.
FORSAKE FOOLISHNESS THAT YOU MAY LIVE; ADVANCE IN THE WAY OF UNDERSTANDING Proverbs 9:6
Both Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly invite the simple and those who lack understanding but each banquet leads to drastically different outcomes. The bread and water banquet put on my Lady Folly leads to hell and dead end lives (Pro. 9:18). While the meat and wine banquet put on by Lady Wisdom leads to life and understanding.
Verse 9:6 is our direct connection with this week’s gospel. The food that Lady Wisdom provides gives life and understanding and it is the spiritual food that prefigures the Bread of Life that Jesus speaks of in John’s sixth chapter. It directly ties into our understanding of the eschatological and messianic banquets and sets us up to speak of the meaning of the Eucharist.
FOOD AS METAPHOR
Four weeks into our five week series on the Bread of Life theme in John’s sixth chapter we have a very different Old Testament text to deal with. The first three weeks of this series Old Testament text spoke directly of actual feedings of physical food, admittedly the physical aspects of the feedings had deeper meanings and lessons to be learned about God and how he deals with people. This week’s Old Testament text speaks of food as a metaphor for the Wisdom of God. It reminds me of Jesus’ reply to the devil with the first temptation in the desert at the beginning of his ministry “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” (Matt 4:4) This shift from physical food to food as metaphor is important to note as we continue our reflection into the sixth chapter of John.
“AND THE BREAD THAT I WILL GIVE IS MY FLESH FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD” John 6:51b
We pick up this week where we left off last week, in fact we overlap with last week’s gospel. The scene continues to be the synagogue in Capernaum and Jesus is in the midst of a hostile crowd whom John calls ‘the Jews.’ This week’s first verse is also last week’s last verse and as if to give added significance to the verse it is repeated this week. It serves as a pivotal verse for the whole chapter. In it Jesus reiterates that he is the living bread from heaven and the people who eat this bread will live forever. Then he adds that the bread he is talking about is his own flesh given for the life of the world.
With the addition of the words “my flesh” all the previous layers of meaning having to do with Jesus being the bread of life take on a Eucharistic focus. It’s important to remember that one of the earliest and most consistent practices of the early church was the celebration of the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:23-26). By the time John wrote his gospel the practice had greatly evolved as did the theology explaining what it was all about. It would be safe to say what was a fairly loose common practice had evolved into a set ritual. A big factor in the theological development was the destruction of the Temple and the loss of a functioning Temple cult in Jerusalem in 70 AD. John’s sixth chapter reflects many of these developing and converging Eucharistic theologies.
Connecting Jesus’ flesh to what gives life to the world connects the Eucharist with Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, one of the many layers of meaning in this week’s gospel text.
“HOW CAN THIS MAN GIVE US (HIS) FLESH TO EAT?” John 6:52
On hearing this the Jews argue among themselves. They make the same mistake that Nicodemus did when he confused Jesus’ call to be reborn in the spirit with a physical rebirth through a woman’s womb. (John 3:4) The woman at the well made the same mistake when Jesus offered her the spiritual water that would satisfy her thirst forever with regular H2O water that a person drinks once and must drink again and again to survive. (John 4:11) The Jews were confusing Jesus’ saying that people must be willing to eat his flesh with a kind of cannibalism, a slanderous and obscene thought.
“AMEN, AMEN…UNLESS YOU EAT THE FLESH OF THE SON OF MAN AND DRINK HIS BLOOD…..” John 6:53
Jesus’ response only serves to confuse his audience even more and his reiteration of a prior theme adds more layers to John’s Eucharistic theology. Jesus now connects his self identity as the Son of Man (John 6:27) with the Eucharist and in doing so adds a messianic banquet layer to his Eucharistic theology. John also adds the second Eucharistic element to the equation when he has Jesus say “and drink his blood.” Adding the drinking of his blood to the eating of his flesh must have really put off the misunderstanding Jews. Yet the terms flesh and blood are common Old Testament expressions of human life.
“WHOEVER EATS…AND DRINKS…HAS ETERNAL LIFE AND I WILL RAISE HIM ON THE LAST DAY” John 6:54
Now John has Jesus adding eternal life and resurrection on the last day to the Eucharistic equation and with this an eschatological dimension is added to the mix.
“I HAVE LIFE BECAUSE OF THE FATHER, SO ALSO THE ONE WHO FEEDS ON ME WILL HAVE LIFE BACAUSE OF ME.” John 6:57b
Here Jesus reiterates his personal connection with God the Father (John 6:40) and how that connection between him and his Father is now passed on to anyone who partakes of the Eucharist.
“UNLIKE YOUR ANCESTORS…WHOEVER EATS THIS BREAD WILL LIVE FOREVER.” John 6:58
Here Jesus sums up the issue raised by the crowd in John 6:31 regarding the manna God provided the Israelites in the desert. It may well have been from heaven but those who ate the manna eventually died. Those who eat the bread Jesus is talking about here will live forever.
I would like to recall comments from the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time reflection. The gospel from Mark reported the return of the twelve apostles after their fist missionary assignment. (Mk 6:30-34) It is a transitional text and concluded a ‘sandwich section’ in which the second in-between story was a report of John the Baptist’s death. John’s beheading came about during a birthday banquet for King Herod. In my reflection I drew attention to Herod’s banquet as a feeding to be held in contrast to the feeding that would be reported in the following week’s gospel. Both feedings are good examples of the two banquets found in Proverbs 9 of Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly, as they are lived out in human time and history.
King Herod’s birthday party was a banquet in the tradition of Lady Folly. Even though the food served was likely of rich meats and choice wines and it was initially sweet and filling, it was unjustly obtained, stolen from the people Herod ruled. In the spiritual terms of Proverbs 9 it was the bread and water that Lady Folly offered fools to eat which left them empty of understanding, in dead end lives and destined for hell.
The mass feeding that Jesus pulled off in the opening verses of John 6 was a banquet in the tradition of Lady Wisdom. Even though the food served was simple bread and dry fish, Jesus’ miraculous multiplication of the bread and fish for all to eat prefigured the Bread of Life he spoke of in the rest of John’s chapter. When at the end of the discourse Jesus connects his Bread of Life themes as theological explanations found in the Eucharist, it is clear that the Eucharist itself is a meal, meant to be in the tradition of Lady Wisdom also.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
All of what John 6 says is good stuff, truthful stuff about the Eucharist. Still, after 2000 years of evolving theological thought and practice things are not always what they are said to be, especially in our modern times when ideas can stand alone, disconnected from what is real. Today it is possible to be theologically orthodox in thought and liturgically correct in rite and yet not be true.
That is why we cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that at the root of all our theological claims about the Eucharist, justice is still the determining factor for what is life giving, holy, eternal and worthy at Lady Wisdom’s banquet. St. Paul understood this bottom line justice factor when he wrote to the Corinthian Church correcting them in their abuse of the Eucharist. It had nothing to do with faulty theology or incorrect liturgical practice. It had to do with the rich and affluent Corinthian Christians showing up for Eucharist with food enough to feed themselves while letting their poor brothers and sisters leave the Eucharist hungry. (1 Cor. 11:17-22) Paul told them that when they acted so unjustly they were bringing condemnation onto themselves and showed contempt for the Church.
Might we Christians in the USA be asking ourselves the same questions that Paul was asking of the Corinthians? When one third of Americans are obese and another one third are over weight, while half the human race goes to bed hungry, is there not something terribly wrong? How honestly and truthfully can we celebrate the Eucharist without addressing the issue of justice in the world? Are not our diets more aligned with the stolen, sweet tasting bread and water of Lady Folly’s table than the life-giving feast at Lady Wisdom’s table? Four weeks into this five week series on the Bread of Life theme and this week’s scriptures leave me with a lot of food for thought.