by Fr. Tommy Lane
We have expectations of homilists. We expect the homilist to preach on the lectionary readings, to explain the Scriptures, to offer us spirituality leading us to God. At the time of Jesus there were also expectations of homilists. One common form of Jewish homily was the type of midrash that Jesus employs in his preaching on the Eucharist in John 6 that we are following all this week (Third Week of Easter). Because we hear just a section in the Gospel reading every day it may be difficult to notice but it also involved preaching on the lectionary readings. This type of midrash begins with a quotation from the Torah. In John 6 this is supplied by Jesus’ listeners who in the passage we heard Tuesday quoted the Torah, the first lectionary reading, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” (John 6:31) Jesus then expounds that quotation in his homily in a totally new way. It was not Moses who gave them the bread, but his heavenly Father. And the verb is not past tense but present, the Father is giving them the bread now and Jesus is that living bread. Their fathers ate the bread in the desert and died but whoever eats the bread Jesus gives will never die. An important part of the midrash, either half way through homily or near the end, involved supporting the explanation of the Torah with a passage from the second lectionary reading from the prophets and in today’s Gospel Jesus does just that by quoting Isaiah, “They will all be taught by God.” (John 6:45) Jesus is saying this prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled now because those who are now coming to Jesus are being taught by the Father through him. Jesus thus shows that he is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. But Jesus’ midrashic homily doesn’t end with his supporting quotation from the prophets; he takes it to an entirely new level at the end by saying, “the bread that I shall give is my flesh…” Aramaic and Hebrew at the time of Jesus had no word for “body” although they did develop that word later. Therefore what Jesus says at the end of today’s Gospel passage, “the bread that I shall give is my flesh” can be taken to reflect the words of Jesus over the bread during the Last Supper revealing the Eucharist, “This is my flesh” or “This is my Body.”
So Jesus has proved himself to be a master homilist. He took a passage from the Torah, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat” and interpreted it in an entirely new way to mean his Father giving Jesus himself as the bread of life so that they may eat it and not die like their ancestors in the desert. Jesus then supported this interpretation with a passage from a prophet, “They will all be taught by God” to show that now they are being taught by the Father through Jesus, so Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets and he concluded by equating this bread with his flesh. Jesus is the living bread come down from heaven so that a man may eat it and not die and the bread he offers is his flesh for the life of the world.
Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2011