Nineteenth Sunday In Ordinary Time
Two Sundays ago, on the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary time, this column discussed the cycles of stories about the ninth century B.C. prophets Elijah and Elisha. The stories are found in the First and Second Books of Kings. The first reading for that Sunday’s liturgy was taken from the cycle of stories about the young prophet, Elisha. On this Sunday, the first reading is taken from the Elijah Cycle. Elijah was the master or mentor of Elisha, who succeeded him as prophet in the northern kingdom of Israelites, called the Kingdom of Israel. Samaria was its capital city. The southern kingdom was known as the Kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem was its capital city. In today’s first reading Elijah is so depressed that he sat under a broom tree and prayed that he would die. What caused his depression? King Ahab, an Israelite, was married to Queen Jezebel, a Phoenician princess who brought into Israel the worship of the Phoenician god Baal. The apparatus of Baal’s worship included 450 prophets. Elijah challenged them to a contest to see who worshipped the true God. The story is entertaining. It is found in 1King 18:20-40.
While the 450 prophets of Baal were trying to get an answer from their god, Elijah was ridiculing them. The ecumenical movement was unknown! The contest was won by Elijah and the activity of the Lord God. Baal was shown to be a fake god. The crowd watching the contest cried out, “The Lord is God!” “The Lord is God!” Elijah went into a frenzy. He ordered the crowd to seize the prophets and take them down to the wadi (river) Kishon. There he slaughtered them. Jezebel heard, and Her Majesty was not pleased. She sent a messenger (an ancient form of texting) to Elijah, “I swear by the gods, that by this time tomorrow you will join them.” She had the power to bring this about since other stories in the Elijah Cycle make it clear who “wore the pants” in that palace. Elijah fled south. The story tells us that Elijah fell into an exhausted sleep. An angel twice brought him food and water. The closing sentence of the story, “He got up, ate and drank. In the strength of that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Mt. Horeb, an alternate name for Mt. Sinai. There the Lord strengthened him and sent him back to the Kingdom of Israel. This reading was selected because it speaks of a miraculous food just as today’s gospel speaks of the Bread of Life.
The Responsorial Psalm (34) is a song of thanksgiving to the Lord God. It follows the “Our Father pattern”. The Psalmist blesses (praises) the Lord. He pulls in what Abraham Lincoln called “the little people,” the humble, who will hear the Lord praised and rejoice. The Psalmist invites others to join him in praise. Next comes the “gimme part” of the Our Father pattern. He notes the favors the Lord bestows on those who praise him, “He answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” Those who look to the Lord will not blush with shame and be delivered from all distress. Angels set up camp around those who revere the Lord. The last verse and the response of the people connect the first reading and the gospel reading. “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”In the first reading, the food Elijah tasted was from the Lord. At the end of the gospel reading, the believers are invited to taste the food which is the Lord. The second reading continues from last Sunday the exhortation part of the Letter to the Ephesians. Because Christians were “sealed with the Holy Spirit,” they avoid bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, cursing, malice. That is a pattern for sanctity. On the positive side, the author asks Christians to imitate the Lord himself with kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. Why? Not only were they sealed with the Holy Spirit but “Christ loved us and gave himself for us….”
The gospel reading begins with a comparison between the Israelites in the Exodus and the people who hear Jesus’ teaching in the Bread of Life Discourse. The key to the comparison is in the word “murmured,” which had happened often in the Exodus story. What was the murmurer's objection to accepting Jesus’ (John’s) teaching? His humanity! How can he say that he is bread from heaven when they are aware that he is “Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” Jesus orders them to stop murmuring. John makes it clear that believing what Jesus has taught thus far in this discourse can only be accepted “if the Father draws them,” through a divine prompting that gives birth to an act of faith. What has Jesus (John) taught thus far? That the true bread from heaven is the revelation that Jesus brings from the Father and the revelation that Jesus is from the Father. Jesus attaches a promise to the act of faith that accepts these two revelations – resurrection from the dead. How does Jesus qualify to teach these matters? “Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the one who is from God,” namely himself.
Next, Jesus repeats, “I am the bread of life,” primarily meaning that he, who alone has seen God, is God’s revelation to humanity. Not only will Jesus raise up those who make that act of faith in him as God’s revelation, but he will grant them eternal life. Then a comparison to clarify what this means. Jesus (John) returns to a key word to understand the discourse – the word “manna.”
Speaking to the crowd, he reminds them that their ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, but it did not keep them from dying, that is, it did not grant them immortality. He is speaking of physical death. The bread that Jesus gives to those who make that act of faith in the two revelations thus far– that is the ticket to living forever through the promised resurrection. They will indeed die a physical death, but that is only transitional, a falling asleep waiting to be awakened to immortality. Finally, we come to the third and most explosive revelation of the Bread of Life Discourse. “And the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Next Sunday’s gospel reading attempts to clarify this third revelation of the discourse.