Gospel Reading: John 6:51-58
For Sunday, August 19, 2012—Ordinary 20
A friend of mine who studies traditional foods from tribal cultures told me that the notion that you are what you eat is common across many Native American and eastern traditional peoples. If you eat a lot of chicken, you have chicken energy. You move around quickly in a scattered state. If you eat a lot of beef you have heifer energy. You move slowly, powerfully and deliberately.
This idea is not so far from ancient Jewish law. Leviticus 17 forbids the eating of blood or flesh containing blood; the blood of a slaughtered animal must be spilled out on the altar as a sacrifice to God.
Ramban, the thirteenth century French rabbi and physician, explains that animals have souls and the life of a creature is in the blood. So if a human consumes the blood, the human consumes the soul of the animal. The animal’s soul will become one with the humans and the soul will become thick and course and the human will begin to resemble the animal whose blood they consumed.
Therefore the blood must be offered to God. When it is spilled on the altar the soul of the animal will atone for the human’s act of killing the animal. So, you might mistakenly become what you eat unless you offer your dinner’s soul-containing blood to the Lord.
Watch the Fat Too!
The prohibition on consuming blood also extends to fat, especially the fat around the liver, because the life/soul of an animal exists also in the fat and the liver is filled with blood.
Another tradition of interpretation says that Israel is forbidden from eating flesh and blood (flesh here meaning fat and liver) because to do so would be to consume life and only God, who gives life, can consume life.
The blood must be spilled on the altar and the flesh/fat must be burned on the altar as an offering to God. Flesh and blood is God’s food and to eat God’s food is to strive to become like God. Which the law says you shouldn’t do or you will be cut off.
So what is Jesus up to in this week’s reading when he changes the metaphor from bread of life to blood and flesh?
He tells the Jews that have been following him that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. I believe he is referencing the probations in Leviticus and Deuteronomy forbidding the consuming the flesh/fat/liver and the blood of animals. It would be a radical transgression of the law for him to tell them to eat the flesh and blood of an animal—so he is taking radical transgression to extremes by telling them they must eat his flesh and blood. He is telling them to eat the food of God, further more to ingest his soul, which according to Ramban will become one with their own soul and they will begin to resemble him—they will have eternal life like God.
Further more, becoming like God requires no ethical or moral will on the part of the consumer of Jesus—they just eat and they begin to resemble the one whose life/soul they have consumed.
The Hardest Question
Is John’s Jesus telling us that we should become God? In the Eucharist do we rehearse the consuming Jesus’ life, binding his soul to ours, making us like God? Which begs an even harder question: What is God like?