The gospel is a collection of pronouncements of Jesus on the topics of acceptance, hospitality and scandal. Like Joshua in the first reading, John challenges someone who is not a member of the close knit group of disciples, but who presumes to perform the marvels that they have been commissioned to perform. Jesus responds that this man is not an enemy, nor do his exorcisms undermine Jesus’ ministry. Jesus continues to justify works of mercy performed in his name. They are commendable and will be highly rewarded regardless of how insignificant they may appear to be. Jesus then warns against giving scandal. Those who cause Christians to sin will be severely punished.
Away from the crowds, Jesus identifies himself as the mysterious Son of Man and predicts his passion, death and resurrection. The disciples did not grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words, and they engaged in a heated discussion about status within the community. Jesus had just admitted his ultimate vulnerability, and they were quarrelling about rank. Jesus seized the moment to teach an important lesson: following his own example, those who would be first must be willing to be last. In the world of Jesus’ time, neither servants nor children had any legal rights or social status. Jesus turns the social ranking system upside down. Those who hold the highest positions within the community must be willing to take the lowest place and be the servants of all. He offers himself as an example of one who empties himself for the sake of others.
In this week’s gospel, Jesus asks what people are saying about him. Some believe he is John the Baptist; others that he is Elijah; still others that he is one of the other prophets – all religious figures who have already died. Speaking in the name of the others, Peter proclaims that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one of God. Hearing this, Jesus elaborates on the character of his Messiahship. He will be a messiah like the Son of Man, the enigmatic figure who will come on the clouds at the end of this age. To this he adds that he will suffer and die, an aspect not part of the ancient messianic traditions. Peter’s rebuke exemplifies this. Jesus persists, adding that his followers will also suffer. This is indeed a hard saying.
Though Jesus is depicted as a miracle worker like others, each detail in the account points to a feature exclusive to Jesus. When he lays hands on people, he is also overturning the purity prohibition against touching what is unclean and contaminating oneself in doing so. His use of saliva reflects the belief that it contained some of his own personal power. He looks up to heaven and groans, but it is considered by many to be a form of prayer. The healing may have been surrounded by familiar miracle elements, but the miracle itself is accomplished by Jesus’ command: Be opened! At the heart of Jesus’ ministry is his teaching about the reign of God. Here he unstops the man’s ears so that now he can hear and be open to the message of this reign.
The gospel reading recounts an incident of conflict over ritual cleansing between Jesus and some of his opponents. Hand washing probably originated as a regulation observed by the priests when they were offering sacrifice. General hand washing was not mandated by the law itself, but was a custom included in the oral law, ‘the tradition of the elders’. This public criticism was an attempt to shame Jesus so that he would be minimised before others and, having lost his reputation, would cease being a threat to those who opposed him. Jesus’ rebuttal is swift and incisive. He explicitly draws a comparison between those whom Isaiah condemns and the scribes and Pharisees who condemn the disciples. Uncleanness or impurity are not determined by anything external. Defilement originates from the innermost recesses of the heart.
In today’s gospel, Jesus’ words or deeds are met with disbelief by some of his own disciples. They were scandalised by what he said. Rather than soften the hardness of his message, Jesus responds to their challenge with one of his own. If they were troubled by the thought of him descending from heaven, what would they think about him ascending back to where he had been originally? Jesus further insists that the flesh (the human way of living) cannot give life, which the spirit can. Faith in Jesus does not come easily or naturally. It is a grace given by God. While some of Jesus’ followers have turned away, others have been convinced of the trustworthiness of his claims.
On the Festival of Our Lady’s Assumption it is important to get things in the right order. Christ is the first-born from the dead. In him all will be brought to life, but all in their proper order. Mary is the first after her Son, and raised by her Son because she is part of his Body, the Church. The perfection of the Mother of the Saviour is won for her by her Son. The declaration by the Church of the Assumption of Mary is an assertion of the saving value of all our activity, the healing touch, the conquest of pain, exhaustion, moodiness and physical temptation in all its forms. That is why Mary goes ahead of us all and leads the way to full resurrection.
This weekend’s reading from Colossians, chosen for this Feast, expresses the Christian virtues that were obvious in Mary MacKillop’s life – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Above all, Mary exemplified the virtue of patient forbearance and forgiveness in her dealings with Church authorities. She suffered through excommunication with dignity and faithfulness to the church, while also being a woman of courage and single-minded determination to provide education for those in need. There is much in her life to celebrate and give thanks for – and much to emulate.
Jesus’ discourse on the bread of life follows a traditional method of rabbinic interpretation. Scripture is quoted, and then an analysis is given. When Jesus states that the work of God is faith in himself, the crowds demand a sign to verify this bold claim. In response, Jesus reinterprets the story of manna in the wilderness, insisting that he is the bread from heaven that gives life to the world. Jesus leads them away from a superficial search for physical satisfaction to a desire for the deeper things of God. The people realise that Jesus is claiming to be the one sent by God in whom they must believe. Here the bread of life is a wisdom theme and refers to faith, not Eucharist.
The power of Jesus had a mesmerising effect on the crowds. They followed him from place to place. However, they did this less out of faith than out of the hope that they might witness the performance of some marvel. Jesus took the barley loaves (note the link with the Feast of Unleavened Bread), gave thanks (eucharisté), distributed them, and then did the same with the fish. The Eucharistic allusions here are obvious. Once again the crowds were overwhelmed by Jesus. They had followed him to the other side of the lake in order to witness his exceptional power. They were not disappointed. However, they now recognise him as more than a wonder-worker. He is the long-awaited prophet like Moses (cf. Deut 15:18), the one who would usher in the messianic age.