August 22 – Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

My Dear Parishioners:

In our culture success can often be a game of numbers. A successful television program is one that has a very large viewing audience. If the numbers watching declines, the program is in trouble. Democracy is based on majority vote. The candidate with the most votes gets elected. Every political party is anxious to maximize their vote on Election Day. In all kinds of ways, numbers matter in our society. The schools with the biggest number of graduates going on to University are considered the better schools. If some event that is organized only attracts a small crowd it is considered a failure.

The gospel this morning suggests that Jesus was not too concerned about numbers. The gospels for the last four Sundays have been taken from chapter 6 of John’s gospel where Jesus speaks of himself as the Bread of Life and of the need to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have life. In this morning’s gospel some of Jesus’ own disciples express their unease with this language. ‘This is intolerable language’, they say, ‘How could anyone accept it?’ Jesus is portrayed in that reading as being very aware that some of his followers were complaining. Yet, he did not make any effort to soften his teaching in order to hold on to his numbers. Rather, he insists that the words he has been speaking, all his words, are spirit and life. As a result, the gospel tells us that ‘many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him.’ Jesus suddenly lost a whole swathe of his following. From the perspective of the culture of the time and of our own culture he was suddenly less successful. According to the gospel, Jesus even turned to the twelve apostles, his core group, and asked them, ‘What about you? Do you want to go away too?’ He was prepared to suffer a hemorrhage from that core group rather than compromise on the teaching that he had given. It seems that numbers were not important to him. What was important to him was proclaiming the truth as he had heard it from God his Father. On this occasion Jesus held onto the Twelve. Peter, their spokesperson, grasped the moment to declare their faithfulness to Jesus, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.’ Yet, Jesus would go on to lose even some the Twelve. At the time of his passion Judas betrayed him and Peter denied him… many ran. If success is to be measured by numbers, by the end of his earthly life, Jesus was a total failure.

The whole life of Jesus shows that the value of something does not bear any necessary relation to the number of people who support it. Popularity does not necessarily show where truth is to be found. We can be tempted to think that if a lot of people reject some viewpoint that, therefore, it must be wrong. Numbers are not everything. We follow Jesus not because he was or is popular but because, in the word of Peter in the gospel, we recognize that he has the message of eternal life, or in the language of Jesus himself in that same reading, we acknowledge that the words that he speaks are spirit and life. We will find some of his teaching very challenging. We may be tempted to say, in the words of some of the disciples, ‘This is intolerable language, how can anyone accept it?’ We may not be troubled so much by his identification of himself as the Bread of Life or his call to eat his flesh and drink his blood. It may be some other aspect of his teaching, perhaps his challenging words in the Sermon on the Mount, to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. Some people react negatively to some of Jesus’ parables. They feel sorry for the older son in the parable of the prodigal son and for the men who worked all day and who got the same wages as those who worked for the last hour in the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. It should not surprise us when we find ourselves struggling with some of what Jesus says. In the language of the prophet Isaiah, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts; God’s ways are not our ways. It has been said that Jesus comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable (which, by the way, I also see as one of my primary responsibilities!) We all need Jesus to do both for us. We need his comforting and sustaining presence when we are afflicted, but sometimes we need his disturbing presence in our comfort.

The teaching and the life of Jesus will always challenge us at some level of our being. If not, we are not listening.  There may even be times when we will feel like walking away from it. That is why it is so important for us to keep renewing our response to the Lord’s presence and invitation. The Eucharist is the primary moment when we commit ourselves again to the Lord’s vision for our lives; it is our weekly opportunity to make our own those words of Peter in today’s gospel, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life. 

Blessings, Fr. John