There are rocks on the path of life that cause us to stumble, to lose our footing, and sometimes fall down. Some of these rocks are bigger than others, but truthfully, while we’re in the experience of stumbling, all the rocks seem big. Rocks like strep throat or the flu; a sudden shortage of cash flow just as an unexpected bill shows up; bad grades on our report cards; mechanical problems with the car; plumbing or electrical issues with the house. Our cell phone dies. Grumpy people annoy us. We look down and realize that we’re wearing two socks of different colors. All these experiences are annoying, but they’re small in the larger scheme of things.
Other times, the rocks are significant: our house burns down, we’re sexually assaulted, our city is damaged by a tornado, we lose a child. Sometimes the rocks have huge emotional fallout, like when a marriage fails, or we’re told we can never have children because we’re hopelessly infertile. Or we lose our job and suddenly we are the ones using a food stamp debit card. Sometimes global events hit us like a blow to the stomach, like watching starving babies on the news, or looking into the face of a child dying from AIDS. We see their faces on CNN and we cry out for God to do something!
There are all sorts of stumbling blocks on the pathways of our life, and these can have a huge impact on our spirituality. Sometimes we’re hit with a whole series of personal disasters, one after another and although we manage to survive every one of them, we swear we’re never going to have another year like that one ever again! I remember when 1984 became 1985, and as the clock struck midnight, signaling the end of what had been a very bad year for us, my wife and I cried in each others’ arms, promising we’d never again have a year as bad as 1984. And we didn’t. Some were better, some were decidedly worse.
The main issue with stumbling blocks, aside from the suffering, is that they can get in the way of our seeing the truth about who God is, about who we are, and about the core truth of our life. In the dark of depression we are tempted to believe that there is no loving God who surrounds us with love at all times. When the relationship we thought would last forever ends in anger and bitterness, it’s tempting to think that God doesn’t care about our life. When we lose all of our investments for the future and the job we loved is gone, it’s easy to wonder where God’s abundance is, especially since we don’t seem to be plugged into it.
It is at this intersection where today’s Gospel reading meets us. The followers of Jesus, his more or less faithful friends, have been listening intently and taking in the wisdom of this Jesus as spiritual nourishment. They love his irreverent stories, his witty one-liners, and they especially love his metaphorical parables. But now he says something startlingly unnuanced: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, even though he die, will be raised up on the last day.”
Huh? What does our Jesus mean when he says this? It seems to be a metaphor but Jesus isn’t inventing a parabe right now, so that leaves them with a literal interpretation–which makes his meaning even more shocking! “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?’”
For the first time in John’s Gospel, it’s not “the Jews” who are having an issue with Jesus, it’s his own band of followers. Some of them have been following him from the very beginning, but now they’re frustrated. So they start grumbling and complaining quietly among themselves, hoping Jesus won’t hear them. Oops! But he does hear them! And Jesus says to them, “So, what’s up with you? Does this teaching offend you?” In other words, in Greek, “Does my teaching present itself as a rock in your path?”
Jesus himself—though his teachings, his miracles, his hanging out with the riff raff, his telling stories that poked at the foundations of the powers that be—this Jesus himself is becoming a stumbling block for some people of his time. Oh, wait. It’s not just the people of his time who get tripped up on his teaching, it’s us too! Some, it’s true, are still hung up on “eat my body, drink my blood”, but there are other teachings you and I stumble over all the time.
We like to think that we’re different from “those people” back in NT times, the fickle ones, the ones who were just wannbes when it came to following Jesus. After all, we’re Catholic, we’ve inherited 2,000 years of sacred Tradition and we’re the oldest and best and biggest kid on the block—and to prove it, we’ll excommunicate you if you disagree with us! We certainly don’t have any stumbling blocks when it comes to our Jesus! Or do we? Aren’t there some teachings of Jesus that are huge stumbling blocks for every one of us?
What about the teaching, “love your enemies”? How does that square with teaching our kid to fight back when he’s approached by a bully? How does that love of enemies relate to engaging in war and military “shock and awe”?
What about the teaching, “love your neighbor as yourself”? How does that equate with cutting welfare benefits to women and children? How does that relate to continuing to vote for a sensible fiscal policy at the cost of human suffering?
What about the teaching, “you will do even greater signs than these”? How do we live that teaching while only certain people on certain continents (who coincidentally have pale skin like you and me) have access to the healing power of medicine and technology?
Today, the biggest stumbling block for most people is human suffering. I hear it all the time, “How can God allow such suffering to occur?” I’ve even asked the question myself many times. And whether we’re talking about global wars, diseases, natural disasters or personal issues of divorce, unemployment, the death of a spouse, etc… the truth is that any or all of these things can become stumbling blocks for us. We can lose our footing and fall down.
There are those, mostly cheerful and very wealthy televangelists, who assure us that our faith teaches us that God is here to protect us from all the rocks on our path, and to shield us from all difficulty. This is really a rehash of an ancient misperception espoused by some ancient Jews, and it means that if you’re living right with God, no bad thing will touch you. And if bad things do happen, you did something to deserve it. This is NOT the teaching of Jesus at all. This is NOT to be found anywhere in his Gospel.
In the passage we just read, the stumbling block isn’t Jesus’ words, it’s the mistaken interpretation of those words that is the issue. Those early followers mistakenly thought of cannibalism when Jesus said, “Eat my body”, and some of them walked away because they couldn’t for the life of them think of any other interpretation. I submit to you that you and I have the same issue with misinterpretation. We watch the news and see starving babies. We cry and demand an answer from God instead of looking at the way we ourselves use our resources, how we use our vote in determining national policies, and how we support (or fail to support) efforts to make things better. Whenever we first demand that God “do something” before we even try to think of how we might effect a change in the situation, we are trapped in misinterpreting God’s word for us.
I have come to know for sure that God does not send us tragedy or heartache as any sort of punishment or test. Life simply happens, and whether we die peacefully in our sleep at age 99 or we are hit by a drunk driver on the way home from Mass today, that will be determined by random chance. Mean people live long, successful lives and die with money in the bank, while good people die young and poor. God does not and cannot do anything about that. God does not guarantee us that we will arrive in our heavenly homeland with our stock portfolio still bearing dividends to our descendants, with no scars on our bodies or our souls, or with our heart never having been broken. What Jesus shows us, however, is that when life deals us a blow, often times we need to look hard for different interpretations, other perspectives, more open vantage points so that even the most gigantic and seemingly immovable stumbling blocks can be gently eroded by the grace of God. It turns out that life’s stumbling blocks aren’t so much on our path as they are within our lack of vision. Just sayin’.