“The New Sacrifice”
Meditation on John 6: 51 – 58
by Alistair Miller
2012 August 19
Last month, we spent two weeks in the middle of Australia, what they call “The Red Centre”. When you’re there, you can’t avoid hearing about the Australian aboriginals’ belief system, with worship deeply connected to various aspects of the land – sacred spots, animal spirits. It can seem extremely primitive and remote from our view of reality and spirituality. It is an ancient, Styone-Age belief system; yet one has to respect their perspective. I take it as a bit of a salutary example: since why should we assume that there is no gulf of cultural understanding between us and the gospel writings of 2000 years ago? If we take ancient ideas literally, we’re taking them out of context and so will fail to understand them properly.
So, take the Gospel of John:
– a tough book that most of us tend to avoid or at least to avoid trying to understand;
– not a narrative-rich, friendly overview of Jesus’s day-to-day activities (however misleading that view of the synoptic gospels actually is);
– a series of dialogue lectures, mostly difficult, sometimes hard to accept rationally;
– at first reading, today’s lectionary reading is one of the most difficult;
– however, I shall argue that we are confronted by a relatively recent literalist hijacking of what Jesus had actually said and, once that’s understood, things, I hope, will look much less puzzling. In a sense, we will be following Solomon in seeking wisdom.
I think that most of us understand where Matthew and Luke are coming from: Matthew is a gospel for people with a Jewish background, rich in references back to the Hebrew scriptures/Old Testament. Matthew was likely written when the Followers of the Way were still within the broad umbrella of Judaism. Luke writes for gentiles unfamiliar with the details of Jewish tradition. Both were written somewhere around 80 A.D. The Gospel of John is later, probably around 90 A.D. or perhaps, I incline toward thinking, a little later yet, and almost certainly not finalized abruptly. Crucially, when it was written, the Followers of the Way, the early Christians, have split away from Judaism. The gospel has a curious leitmotif: “the Jews”. The word appears once in Matthew, never in Mark or Luke, but 17 times in John. The references are always hostile and by the Jews, John means the Jewish temple authorities. They were the collaborators with the Roman occupation; the persecutors of Jesus who’d ultimately have him crucified; the puppet power in Judea that is no more, swept away with the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. by Vespasian’s four Roman legions.
Even as the last resistance to Rome in Judea was being stamped out, Vespasian became emperor. Faced with a severely depleted Roman treasury and undoubtedly exasperated by the prolonged Jewish resistance, Vespasian imposed a fiscus Judaicus – a Jewish tax – on all Jews anywhere in the Empire. It replaced the old Temple tax but the tax for the upkeep of the Temple had only applied to men between 20 and 50. Vespasian’s tax applied to every Jewish man, woman and child, even to Jewish slaves. Initially, the money went to the temple on the Capitoline Hill in Rome to Jupiter, the centre of Imperial Roman religion. A harsh tax and for a cause that would have been particularly unappealing to religious Jews or still semi-Jewish Christians. As time went on, the net of the fiscus Judaicus had become ever more widely spread, reaching out to other groups that were seen by the Romans as being more-or-less Jewish. The Christians had petitioned the Emperor Domitian for exemption on the grounds that they weren’t Jews but it was only in 96 A.D., the next emperor, Nerva, granted them exemption. Coins of Nerva’s reign bear the legend “fisci Iudaici calumnia sublata“, translated “abolition of malicious persecution in connection with the Jewish tax,” in reference to his reform of the harsh, broad-brush policy applied by Vespasian and his successors in the name of taxing “the Jews”.
This is interesting. “When is a Jew not a Jew?” Now there’s an interesting new answer, “when he or she is a Christian. “ And Christians don’t have to pay the fiscus Judaicus! The Jews of the Temple establishment about 30 A.D., who are the target of most of the dialogues put into Jesus’s mouth by the writer of John can easily draw extra vituperation from association of “the Jews” who have brought down the fiscus Judaicus on Christian heads too. The Christian communities – the followers of the Way – had originally been a sect within the Jewish faith but had begun to think of themselves as non-Jewish some time in the 80s. Now, in the fiscus Judaicus they’ve got a real reason to start defining themselves to be “not-Jewish”.
The gospel is addressed to ex-Jews or people thinking about becoming ex-Jews. To my reading, it’s persuasive evidence placing the date of its writing after Nerva’s narrowing of the fiscus Judaicus tax base. “Here’s what Christianity is all about;” is John’s message, and – unmentioned but all the original readers would have appreciated – you get a tax exemption too.
So much for the historical context. Now turning to today’s lesson. It’s placed as a follow-up to the feeding of the 5000. The crowd has been in persistent pursuit and Jesus rebukes them: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labour for the food which perishes, but the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” Of course, they wanted to know what he meant and so Jesus is portrayed as saying that he is the bread of life. The claim produces outrage among “the Jews”- the Temple hierarchy – and Jesus expands on his message in the passage we read today.
“This is the truth I tell you – unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot possess eternal life within yourselves. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” It’s a seemingly mystical concept and an Inspiration for much vivid hymn-writing. I see this as a relatively modern “hijacking”. It’s a very misunderstood passage.
And the early church can be suspected of a bit of a hijacking too, a hijacking that the writer of John is actually trying to straighten out in his interpretation of what Jesus is saying. We need to understand the Jewish perspective on today’s lesson. “ … unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot possess eternal life within yourselves. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” The context is the sacrifice of animals at the Temple – common to many religious practices of the time in the Mediterranean world and stretching back more than 1000 years to before even King David’s time. An animal was sacrificed to a god, and thus became sacred, imbued with the spirit of the god. Then a small part of the animal was ritually burned but the sanctified remainder was returned to the worshipper so that the spirit of the god could be eaten and so enter the worshipper. So far, this is familiar territory to John’s original audience. It’s a metaphor building on the rite of animal sacrifice: instead of physically eating part of an animal sacrifice, eat my teaching. It’s at the very least tempting to think that some early Christians were bringing out a parallel between Jesus’s death and the practices of contemporary mystery religions such as Mithraism and Isis worship – in Mithraism, the initiates were in a pit where they were sprinkled with the blood of an ox sacrificed above their heads. This approach to evolving Christian doctrine would have been bringing Christian teaching into line with other religions familiar to the culture of late First Century society. As we shall see, the writer of John doesn’t subscribe to that.
Jews considering Christian teachings as an alternative to their Jewish faith – a faith now compromised by the end to Temple worship – may have been attracted by the idea that Jesus could be treated as a substitute sacrifice. The writer of John strongly disagrees. He refutes a literal reading of Jesus’s sacrificial death. The story is emphasising that the Spirit of God can be found in our physical reality and that Jesus was truly human. But not just human. The writer of John goes way beyond normal practice, basically saying that traditional ideas in sacrifice of eating the flesh are misguided – as well as impossible with the physically long-dead Jesus. He insists that Jesus’s words are a metaphor, a metaphor extending into the highly provocative idea of total consumption including Jesus’s blood. This is the crux of the passage. To Jews it is a shocking statement, an appalling statement: Jewish Law forbade (and still forbids) consumption of blood because the blood represents the spirit of the animal and to consume its blood would desecrate the animal’s spirit – that’s the whole point of kosher killing of animals. Jesus is saying, you not only have to be sustained by figuratively eating my flesh but your identification with me and my integration in the Divine Mystery we call God has to be unbounded, without restraint, without any reservation. As if you are drinking my blood! At the same time, the audience steeped in Jewish tradition would hear Jesus’s words as simultaneously dismissing animal sacrifice as ineffective and also saying that the new figurative way of taking in the spirit of God does not have the limitations of animal sacrifice.
It’s a very difficult piece of teaching for his listeners with their Jewish background, as the immediately subsequent verses in John stress: “This is a hard saying”, the listeners say. Indeed: radical, heretical – to a Jew – visceral in its effect.
In the gospel writer’s words, Jesus’s response makes the figurative nature of what he’s talking about quite clear: “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Flesh = ritual animal sacrifice; blood = spirit, taboo with traditional sacrifice but essential in Jesus’s teaching. “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Very, very radical: Jesus even doubts that his immediate twelve disciples can accept this.
To his Jewish audience, the gospel writer is taking Jesus’s words to say that the traditional Jewish sacrifice of the flesh of an animal is intrinsically defective. In a metaphorical way, Jesus’s sacrifice replaces the animal sacrifice but not in a token way. The animal sacrifice was a token and incomplete since it avoided the life essence of the animal – its blood. Animal sacrifice was a propitiatory offering to God. In contrast, Jesus’s sacrifice is complete and includes the essence of his spirit, his intellect and his teaching. In Jesus, all is offered to God, freely, and his followers must fully embrace his insight into God and must pursue his vision of God’s kingdom on earth, rather than participating in a limited ritual.
To conclude, there’s another strand to this passage that I find interesting: this is not a Last Supper story. Indeed from the way it’s written, the writer of John would seem to be dismissing the idea that the re-enactment of the last supper should be a physical – even if transformed – symbol of ritual sacrifice. Arguably, the early church in its idea of the shared meal may have been regressing back toward thinking of the communal meal as a substitute for animal sacrifice in the gospeller’s view. The physical symbols never were effective, cannot be effective. What is important is a spiritual encounter with the Divine. Participating in the symbolic meal should serve only as a reminder of what doesn’t work and as a pointer to the vital importance of total identification with the Spirit of God.
The concept of the way to the Divine through eating Jesus’s flesh or drinking his blood isn’t something that we are to believe in literally. It’s a metaphor. But we have tended to be lazy in probing the depth of the metaphor, overlooking its Jewish context. Because, taken literally, it is gruesome – owing more to Mithraism than anything else – we have stopped at a vague, mystical notion of ritual cleansing. Without having the Jewish context, we discard the outward trappings of the metaphor. We fail to understand it as symbolism going beyond the traditional Jewish sacrifice to find the depths of the Spirit of God that was revealed though and in Jesus. “It is my teaching”, as the gospel writer is echoing Jesus, “that matters. Everything that I have opened up for you to help you perceive the Mystery of God.” This goes far beyond the symbolism of animal sacrifice and the eating of the sacrificial flesh. It is Jesus’s very spirit, the essence of his insight and teaching, symbolized by his blood that opens up a new understanding of the Mystery we call God. “This is the bread that comes down from heaven. It is not a case of eating [sacrificially] as your fathers ate and died. He who eats this bread lives for ever.”
Finally, listen again to the gospeller John:
“ … unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot possess eternal life within yourselves. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.”