Historical Culture Context
Commitment and Factions
In a late spring issue of a student newspaper published at a prestigious Catholic university, the graduating editor reflected on things he was glad he had done. Number two on his list was leaving the Catholic Church. Already as a freshman, he knew that for moral reasons he could not remain part of the Church and be true “to all the values I believed in.”
The scene in today’s Gospel is not quite parallel to this student’s situation, but there is a small similarity. Here in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, just after an extraordinary reflection on the synagogue readings, the listeners are divided. Some react negatively: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (Jn 6:60). Others desert him: “Many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (Jn 6:66).
Jesus reminds those who are taken aback that though the manna was a gift from heaven, it belonged to the realm of life on earth. It was a temporary aid with no use beyond its time. The words Jesus has spoken to them (Jn 6:35-58) are “spirit and life” (Jn 6:63). They put the believer in touch with the Spirit and therefore with life at its source.
Jesus knew that there were some among his listeners who were not loyal to him, would refuse to have solidarity with him (“there are some of you who do not believe,” Jn 6:64). There was even one that would prove to be totally disloyal, aloof, and not deeply committed to Jesus and his group (the one who would betray him). Faith, loyalty, commitment, and solidarity are gifts. “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (Jn 6:65).
Those who deserted Jesus certainly disappointed him, but to a faction founder such desertion would be serious only if the core group, the Twelve, deserted him. He asks them pointblank: “Will you also go away?” (Jn 6:67). Speaking on behalf of the faction, Simon Peter responds, “Lord. to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life and we have believed, and have come to know, that you arc the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:68).
Peter’s response translated into Mediterranean cultural values is: we have made a commitment to you, no matter what (“we have believed”). Identifying Jesus as the “Holy One of God” echoes the Old Testament use of this phrase to identify men consecrated to God. Samson was so described (Judges 13:7; 16:7), as was Aaron (Ps 106:16). In John 10:36, Jesus describes himself as “the one whom the Father made holy,” and in John 17:19, Jesus says. “It is for them [my disciples] that I make myself holy.”
Peter thinks he speaks for the Twelve, but Jesus knows better. Actually, any Mediterranean person would know better. In the Mediterranean world, allegiance between each member of a faction and its leader is strong. The leader has recruited each member personally and individually.
Those who abandoned Jesus in today’s story choose to remain faithful to another set of values. Some who stayed with him did not fully understand Jesus and his values. One betrayed him, another denied him. and all abandoned him. The ultimate question may well be, by whose values will we live?
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University