Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” … As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. (Jn 6:60; 66)
Jesus had to know that he would lose many disciples. After all, in His Parable of the Seed (or Sower) three quarters of the soil that receives the word of God bears no fruit; only the rich soil which nourishes the seed yields an abundant harvest (Mk 4:3-8). Thus Jesus predicted that many people who first accepted His Word would fall away for at least three reasons: diabolic temptation, Church scandal or persecution, and worldly distraction (Mk 4:13-20).
It was probably the first of these three that caused the disciples of Jesus to leave him (as described in today’s Gospel Reading for this 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time). Jesus had just told them that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6:53). Some of his disciples found this scandalous, but there was no real scandal here. Neither was what Jesus said a worldly distraction. It was a divine revelation; and as we well know it is for the demise of revelation that the devil is eager to bring deceit and disruption.
A particular point for our meditation on this Sunday’s Sacred Scripture is the phrase “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life”. There is a tendency here to think that those who left Jesus went back to spiritual truancy or dissolute living. This may be the case. However, some of the disciples who departed may have been pious Jews. Their “former way of life” may have been the noble Law of Moses. Hence, our claim that they left Jesus at the temptation of the devil does not mean to suggest that they necessarily returned to a life of sin, but that by falling away from the Word and the Messiah they in fact forfeited the fulfillment of the Law (Mt 5:17).
To aid us in our scriptural meditation, we place on this week’s bulletin cover a work by the great medieval Sienese painter, Duccio, entitled Christ on the Road to Emmaus (1311). Duccio was a master innovator who took icon painting and gave it legs. Because of the great works of his Florentine contemporary, Giotto, who pioneered what was to be called “the Renaissance”, Duccio the Tuscan has tended to fade into the background. Yet, Duccio’s is a pure religious art. He breathed life into sacred art making it appear to move on its own. He transformed our prayer into a spiritual exercise.
Here we see Jesus catching up with two disciples who have left him. They did not leave because of Jesus’ Eucharistic discourse, but because Jesus had been put to death and they were dismayed. Jesus went after them because all they needed was encouragement. Interestingly, Jesus did not go after those who left Him over His proclamation of the Holy Eucharist. Those disciples left Jesus in protest over the His Precious Body and Blood. In doing so, they became themselves an enduring sign of what “protestant” would – in time – come to signify.
–Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services