In the last decade or so, whenever an atrocity has been committed, the first assumption is that must have been a terrorist attack perpetrated in the name of Islam. Such a suspicion is based on the common perception that most infamous atrocities since 9/11 have been committed by Islamist terrorists. Paradoxically, among the victims of such acts of violence are ordinary Muslims, for whose rights those terrorists claim to fight. Adopting Islam as an ideological justification for violence is really nothing new. It’s merely the most recent representation of courses of action that have been taken down the ages. We have been tribal ever since time immemorial and fighting for the survival of the tribe is hard-wired into our brains. Such tribalism needs an ideological glue of some kind; indeed, it takes the form of anything from identifying with a particular football club through political ideology to religion. This last is reflected indirectly in today’s gospel.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Sometimes desperate times can bring out hidden talents, or lead to ingenious inventions or call for unconventional approaches. The rescue operation in the cave in Thailand a couple of months ago is a perfect example of all of those. But sometimes desperate measures deployed to solve a problem, rather than making it better, make it worse and even more desperate. Sometimes desperate times are too overwhelming, and obstacles insurmountable; the only solution then seems to be quiet and hopeless resignation. Desperate times can be of various magnitudes; from global – like climate change – down to very personal or individual situations. Usually we ourselves are much more concerned with the latter, for obvious reasons. I think that becomes particularly evident with health issues. We are exceptionally lucky with healthcare in Scotland, one of the very few countries in the world to offer such a wide scope of medical services for free at the point of access. There are many places in the world where even the most basic medical care is either not easily available or prohibitively expensive. So much so, that the only alternative option people have is so-called ‘alternative medicine’.
We are special and pretty much unique in Europe. Unlike anywhere else in Continental Europe, we drive on the left-hand side of the road. Similarly, we have different power sockets. Many still prefer to use Imperial units rather than metric ones to measure things. We are so used to the British way of life that we realise those and many other differences only when we go abroad or when we come across foreigners in our midst. Usually most of us can cope quite well when confronted with cultural differences, either by adapting to them or by yielding to them, or by quiet persistence. Yet sometimes the challenge is too much even for a hardy British soul. I read recently about a British woman who complained to the tour operator about a Spanish resort she’d gone to on her holidays. She moaned that the people there spoke Spanish, that the food served there was Spanish and that it was very hot all the time. Totally unexpected and surprising when you go to Spain in the summer, of course…
For the last three Sundays we’ve been listening to parts of a long, sometimes confusing, always challenging, theologically-loaded speech by Jesus. Like his contemporary audience, some of us might have been taken aback by his insistence on consuming his flesh and blood. Some of us might simply have ignored his insistence as outdated religious drivel, while others might have tried to make sense of it by reading into it a metaphorical meaning. Today that long speech of Jesus reaches its conclusion and at first sight the outcome doesn’t look good. Practically all of Jesus’ audience has already dispersed, and now his followers are abandoning him in droves. It seems that only his twelve closest followers, the Apostles, still stand by Jesus. From the five thousand, miraculously fed on the banks of Lake Gennesaret, numbers have dwindled to the twelve in the synagogue in Capernaum, on the other side of the lake, in just two days. It doesn’t sound like a success; it looks more like a monumental failure.
Cannibalism is forbidden in Scotland. Or so I believe, but I didn’t dare to look it up on the internet just to check, in case it were flagged up and the authorities were informed. I really didn’t fancy a long, serious chat with the police about my eating habits. In that respect, there’s no difference between modern Scotland and ancient Israel at the time of Jesus. So, I think we can imagine the astonishment and indignation of Jesus’ audience when he solemnly proclaimed: ‘Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life. My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.’ We might be tempted to think dismissively of ‘those silly Jews’ who didn’t get it – but don’t be too hasty with your judgment. Imagine if a man you genuinely like and admire – like me (I’m only joking!) – told you that he was someone far superior to Jesus, and offered you his body for you to eat, how would you react? What would you think of him? Absolutely! Jesus’ audience was getting increasingly confused when he said this, but he offered neither explanation nor clarification. He did exactly the opposite; Jesus seemed intent on digging himself deeper and deeper into a proverbial hole. If this gospel reading is to be of any use to us, we must a) put this speech of Jesus’ into a wider context, and b) examine it more closely.
Perhaps you’re aware that I’m a keen walker and general outdoor enthusiast. This hobby of mine has been exploited a number of times by some lovely people who have asked me to be a guide for their hikes; most times I have agreed to their request, because… why not? I’m a nice chap – I’m always happy to help those in need, particularly when it involves something within my personal range of interest. Anyway, there’s one massive and distinctive difference between teenage ramblers and more mature walkers: the latter eat when they stop for a break. Teenagers, however, tend to munch virtually all the time they’re walking. And that certainly keeps my dog, who always accompanies me on walks, on his toes! The nearly constant rustle of wrappers being ripped open makes my dog think there’s food coming his way (it isn’t); or he desperately tries to pick up crumbs that have fallen onto the ground – utterly fruitless attempts! Jokes aside, I’m quite impressed by the sheer amount of food consumed by teenagers on a hike. To make it funnier, whenever there’s a stop, even a really, really short one, teenagers are always able to pull even more food out of their rucksacks. Extraordinary! I’m astonished because I can walk for miles and miles and hours and hours without eating anything, and still have only a couple of sandwiches at lunchtime. All of which makes me a bit like the prophet Elijah from today’s first reading.
Confusion reigns in today’s gospel. Firstly, the people who were miraculously fed by Jesus – as we heard last Sunday – are confused by his sudden disappearance as well as that of his companions. Some of those people make an educated guess that Jesus might have gone to the fishing town of Capernaum, his Galilean base. So they sail across the lake and their guess is rewarded by finding Jesus in the local synagogue. They initiate a conversation with him, but the further they go, the more confused they get. They ask him questions, but his answers seem only to deepen their confusion. For them, as Israelites brought up in a culture where every aspect of life was regulated in fine detail by the religious law, Jesus’ ‘vagueness’ is confusing. And, let’s be honest, two thousand years later, Jesus’ speech is no less confusing to many of us, sitting in our local church. So, let’s try to chop up today’s gospel reading into small, digestible pieces and – hopefully – by the end of my speech confusion will have left this place.