The last straw

Sometimes, you’ve just had it.

icon-1243685_640You’re trying to stay in the conversation — or at least, you think you are. You’re trying to be tolerant, to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. But then the other person says something intolerable. It’s the last straw. You walk away, shaking your head.

I imagine that some of the people who thought they were following Jesus felt that way when they decided to turn their backs on him.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, Jesus’ claim to be the Bread of Life, which was meant for people’s benefit, made them grumble instead. They took offense at his words until they were wondering aloud who could possibly listen to what he was saying.

Then came the final straw:

“The Spirit is the one who gives life and the flesh doesn’t help at all. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. Yet some of you don’t believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning who wouldn’t believe and the one who would betray him. He said, “For this reason I said to you that none can come to me unless the Father enables them to do so.” At this, many of his disciples turned away and no longer accompanied him.  (John 6:63-66, CEB)

It’s not certain how to translate those first two sentences. Jesus uses the word “spirit” twice: does he mean (a) the Holy Spirit, or (b) the human spirit or spiritual reality in some more general sense? In the translation above, the CEB opts for (a) and then (b). The NRSV, alternatively, seems to opt for (b) in both cases, while the NIV goes the other way and opts for (a) alone.

But perhaps we don’t have to choose. Jesus is speaking in spiritual terms of what is needed for eternal life: the people must take into themselves what the Bread of Life has to offer. They do so by believing in who he is and what he says. That’s not the same thing as following Jesus around to hear the words he says or to gawk at his miracles. It means an act of faith.

But they’re still thinking in a worldly way. In John’s gospel, the word “flesh” often signifies a way of living that is opposed to God. Jesus is speaking spiritual truths that they cannot understand with minds of flesh; they need the faith-animating, life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

And that, I think, may be part of what made people turn away. They already didn’t like it when he didn’t promise to give them what they wanted. And they were offended when said he had come from heaven. By the time he got to “eat my flesh and drink my blood”…well, forget it. He simply wasn’t cooperating with their idea of what and who he should be.

But to say that they couldn’t even come to Jesus unless the Father made it possible…? We want more credit for our faith than that. Imagine how his critics would have received that: Nice cop-out, Jesus. You say such outlandish things, and then claim that we don’t believe because God didn’t allow us to believe. 

That’s the problem with an unbelievable story like the eternal Word becoming a flesh-and-blood human being. It’s either true or it isn’t. If it’s true, then what Jesus says makes sense. If it isn’t, then Jesus’ words are offensive.

And if it’s true and we don’t have the gift of faith, then his words are both offensive and the last straw, and it’s time to find someone else to follow.