Today's Gospel reports something that happened while Jesus was on the non-Jewish side of the lake of Galilee in a place referred to as the Decapolis, that is, Ten Cities. It was a region that was heavily influenced by the Greeks, who were a people with another language and another culture. A deaf and dumb man is brought to Jesus, who heals him. A deaf and dumb person is incapable of communicating with others, of keeping in contact with others: they cannot hear what they say, cannot react…since they have not heard a thing. This man lived in isolation, alone. In the gospel of Mark, this deaf and dumb person stands for all those whose ears are shut; they cannot listen to the Gospel of Christ and cannot praise the Lord with their mouths. Paul says that humans do not acquire their faith through visions or angelic messages but through hearing the word of God proclaimed by the announcers of the Gospel (Rom 10:17). Anybody suffering from this "spiritual deafness" does not have faith. Before Christ, all people have their ears closed to God's message. They are dumb, incapable of communicating to others the message that they themselves are unable to hear. By curing the deaf and dumb, Jesus teaches us that a new dialogue between heaven and earth has begun: Jews and all people alike, now have their ears and hearts opened to his Gospel; they are capable of hearing it, can accept it in faith, and proclaim it to their brothers and sisters. Aren't we deaf when we shut our ears to the invitation of Christ speaking through the Scriptures? Aren't we deaf when we do not hear the cry of the poor? Aren't we dumb whenever we fail to share the Gospel because we are ashamed to speak for God. The healing work of Jesus represents the victory over our inability to listen to others.
In chapter seven of the Gospel of Mark, we discover what, in the eyes of Jesus, true religion is all about. For the Pharisees the emphasis was on observation of the law, both written and oral. For Jesus, however, what matters is the heart. More external observance without a corresponding movement of the heart does not please God. We are invited to see what is really important for our lives. In the Gospel of Mark the Pharisees are seen as the main opponents of Jesus. They eventually succeed in getting Jesus arrested and executed. Jesus' approach to the law was different than that of the Pharisees. Jesus put the spirit of the law before its external observance. For him, the life of a child of God is much more than a mere external observance of the laws. Jesus wants people to come to a real relationship with God. He challenges us to move from conformity to conversion. The Pharisees believed that anything less than a literal observance of the law would undermine God's people. If they removed Jesus they would be defending God and his law. Jesus challenges us to look not at externals but at our hearts. In the language of the bible the heart is the center of the human person. God's people are invited to 'love God with all their heart' (Dt 6:5). One who rejects God's ways, is said to have a 'heart of stone.' God no longer writes his law on stone tablets, but in the hearts of his people (Jer 31:31-34). Jesus begins his ministry by asking his hearers for a change of heart and a complete turning back to God (Mk 1:15). True religion is not a question of doing things, like praying or going to church. Religion is a matter of the heart. Long before Jesus, the prophets had fought against a formalism in religion that reduced it to lip-service and nice liturgies that did not bring about a change of heart. In the discussion about clean and unclean, Jesus shows us that the home of good and evil is the heart. It is in the heart that each one decides how to relate to God and to others. It is our hearts that we must give to God.
With this Sunday's Gospel, we come to the end of the discussion between Jesus and the crowd in John 6. The crowd felt that Jesus had gone too far. He had said things that offended them. They could not swallow his words, particularly when he said that they must eat his flesh. When those who followed Jesus heard the statement about drinking his blood, many of them complained. And yet, Jesus pushed them further. He said in effect, "Are you offended? What would it do to you if you actually saw me ascend into heaven? Would that offend you too?" Jesus knew right away that some would not believe in him. That's why he told them that no one could come to him without the Father's leading. Many of the disciples --those who had been following him to listen-- dropped out. Jesus said to the Twelve, "Will you also leave?" Simon Peter, the impetuous, answered for the Twelve in line with what Jesus had said: "Lord, we have nowhere else to go. You have the words of eternal life. And we believe that you are the Holy One of God." The disciples believed him. They had, in Jesus' words, eaten his flesh and drunk his blood. They knew that he was what they needed, hard statements and all. The meaning of the Gospel is in Peter's words of confession, "You have the words of eternal life." The eternal words are those that offended the crowd, the "hard saying." Jesus in effect asks us as he asked his disciples: You know grace, will you go away? Or will you over and over again, day by day accept the abundant life of forgiving and being forgiven? When you know this grace, where else can you go? Jesus is the eternal life. Apart from him we are only helpless humans.
In the Gospel for this Sunday, Jesus says, "The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh." His hearers were understandably confused. They complained that no man can literally give his flesh as food for the world. But Jesus did not yield to their confusion. Instead, he pushed even further: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood [a deeply offensive thing to say to Jews, with their ritual rejection of consuming blood] you have no life in you…My flesh is real food, my blood is real drink. He who eats this bread will live forever." Our relationship to God is not simply an agreement for getting our prayers answered and our needs supplied, he said. Neither is it a matter of obeying some rules to gain approval or of reciting some past confessions to get into heaven. Rather, it is receiving him as we receive food and drink, taking him into the depths of ourselves, so that he becomes as much a part of us as food and drink become a part of our bodies. But while food and drink pass through, he "abides with us" and we "abide with him." He is "living bread," bread that does not pass away but continues to give life afresh and anew. Receiving this bread, we will live forever. For that is his gift: life eternal. The hard words thus hide a gracious promise. Jesus breaks down our every attempt to gain life for ourselves, insisting that he alone can give true life. But having broken us of the notion that we can obtain life for ourselves, he not only gives us life but makes it life eternal. The Supper is not and never has been a one-to-one meeting of the communicant and God, mediated by a pastor. It is a feast of togetherness, a time to be particularly conscious of the rest of the church (the whole church on earth!) because in communing we celebrate the fact that God in Christ makes us one. We are saved together not by the quality or quantity of our faith, but by grace which unites us together in unstinted acceptance.
Jesus invited his listeners to believe in him so that they might have the kind of life that God always wanted for them. The people cannot believe that he has come down from heaven. They know his mother, Mary and his father, Joseph. Knowing his human origin prevents them from believing in his divine origin. Jesus does not try to make his difficult message easier, but repeats that he is the living bread came down from heaven. But to understand and accept who Jesus really is, a person must be drawn by his Father. Faith in Jesus is a gift of God. God is the origin of everything that has happened in the history of salvation. God has always taken the first step. It is He who created the world and everything in it. It is God who invites the people of Israel to make a special covenant with Him and become his people. Now in the person of Jesus, God has taken a new and unique initiative (Hebrews 1:1-2). In the person of his own Son, he shows us that his relationship with us is one of love. God never forces us to come to him. He respects the freedom of his creatures. We can choose to move with the inspiration God puts into our heart or we can refuse and stay where we are. The Gospel concludes with the words, "The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." This statement sounds strange, even offensive. What does this word 'flesh' mean? 'Flesh' in the Bible means the whole person as a creature of God. (e.g. Gen 2:23. 6:13; Mk 10:8; Lk 3:6). The "Word became flesh" (Jn 1:14) means it became fully human. When Jesus says: I give my flesh, he is saying: I give myself totally and freely for the world. Jesus is life-giving and if we wish to live we must receive him as food. It is in Holy Communion that Jesus has given us the sign of the total giving of himself and more than a sign he actually gives us his own flesh to be our food. When we celebrate Holy Communion together that celebration becomes a great moment. We receive Jesus in the Word and in Holy Communion to bring his life to others. By our way of living we give witness to our new life so that the world that seeks life may have it through us.