Flesh and Blood
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
The Jews in the days of Jesus probably choked when He told them they would have to eat His flesh and drink His blood, and rightly so. Eating other people, and their blood in particular was just about the epitome of what it meant to be unclean according to the OT Law. If you take a close look at most of the OT food laws in particular, they forbid the eating of any animal that is either (a) a predator that eats raw flesh or (b) a scavenger that eats dead things. 1 It is forbidden to cook anything with the blood still in it. I believe, along with Jacob Milgrom that this was related to a abhorrence for all things related to death. When you set the food laws alongside the laws regarding funeral practices (i.e. disposal of dead human bodies) a theme begins to arise that to be clean is to be fully alive, while to be unclean is to be tainted by the presence of death in one form or another. Blood, illness, infection, all made a person unclean until they were healed.
Yes, the Jews had plenty of reasons to be freaked out by this comment by Jesus.
But I don’t think we do as Christians today.
I don’t know of a single religious person or group who has ever taken this passage literally. Even the most fundamentalist and literal readers of scripture have to deal with the fact that the body of Jesus is gone to heaven now, meaning, we cannot eat of it here. It is literally impossible to follow this teaching. Everyone starts from a place of symbolism.
Our struggle with this teaching is not about the flesh and blood, as Paul eludes. Instead we struggle with the spiritual implications. I thought Christianity was either learning about, or learning from Jesus! What is this business about eating Him?
I think there are two levels that act in concert with one another, albeit in somewhat disturbing ways. The first is just the idea of the intimacy of eating. I don’t know if the Jews had a scientific notion about how digestion actually worked, particularly to the point of understanding that we are what we eat. I’m confident though that they understood we get our strength from what we eat. What Jesus was proposing was a kind of intimacy – literally giving himself for our strength and sustenance that was unheard of then and is not much more understood today.
The second level goes back to the laws again. Along with avoiding death – especially human death, one of the most forbidden things was human sacrifice. Yet that is exactly what Jesus was. He did not offer anyone else up, He offered Himself up. How can it be ok for Jesus to do it, but not ourselves? Maybe because He was without sin. Maybe He did ask us to follow His example, laying our lives down for the sake of others. I don’t understand all of it. I just know Jesus offered up His all for me and for you, and we cannot live without Him.
What is the most intimate you have ever felt with Jesus?
Where do you need Him most today?
- Fish are a possible exception to this rule. ↩