Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: 1Kgs 19:4-8; Eph 4:30 – 5:2; Jn 6:41-51
Last Monday we mentioned that the hearts of Jesus’ followers were formed by listening. Jewish culture -as chronicled in the OT- was one of listening. This is distinct from Western or European culture that is more visual as we see from its art and architecture. (Today we gravitate to media and technology.) Judaism is a culture of the ear, not the eye. It is the culture that formed Jesus. Jesus stresses today that no one has seen the Father, but those who listen to Him and learn will have eternal life, i.e., an enduring orientation toward union with God.
Therefore, perhaps the most important word in all of Jewish spirituality was Shema. We heard it in yesterdays reading from Deuteronomy: “Shema Israel”, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is one. Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, being, and strength.” We are told that the word Shema does not literally or solely mean “Hear”, but in its varied biblical contexts it can mean “listen, give full attention, concentrate, strive to understand, engage all your faculties, Make His will your own for it is for the benefit of you and of all humanity.” So, the great value placed on listening, on receiving explains how we are to have a relationship with God.
The people murmured when Jesus said, “I am the living bread that comes down from heaven…the bread is my flesh for the life of the world.” We can understand why this was difficult to assimilate. This is one of those times when shema would mean “give full attention, concentrate, strive to understand.” Jesus teaches for our benefit, not for His. He does this in the context of a reminder of their ancestor’s experience of bread in the wilderness, of nutrition for the journey. Think about the effect it had. He says, “Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from Him comes to me.” “Whoever believes has eternal life.” “I am the living bread… whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
Obviously, this kind of talk requires deep, reflective listening. To us at least, it could not be taken literally. Yet, it is the best way to communicate it because both the bread and the word nourish the attainment of our end in life: union with God by love through perseverance.
Christianity can be thought of as a daughter religion of Judaism. We also value hearing. It is the chief act of contemplative monastic life. Our Rule of Life begins with “Listen”. It is interesting to reflect on the different interpretations of Shema as it might apply to Benedict’s use of “Listen.” It explains what “listen with the ear of the heart” means.
“Listen” is attributed to God listening to humanity as well as humanity listening to God. We begin our Office with “O God, come to my assistance…” The contemplative monastic day is structured so as to offer praise and petition and to facilitate and encourage our own listening. Silence is prerequisite to listening; it gives the interior stillness that enables us to hear and to love God with the whole heart, soul, and strength.
And here is why I think this listening is so important: Bread gives itself entirely. Jesus. The Living Bread gives Himself entirely. We, His followers, are called to do the same. Such total self-giving appeals to us. Appeal, though, is not the same as power. Pope St. John Paul II said that a person can only find him or herself by becoming a total gift of self. To be that gift we need “the Bread of Life.” Having received it, we must “listen, give full attention, concentrate, strive to understand, engage all our faculties, Make His will our own for it is for our benefit and that of all humanity.” Then we receive the power to be the kind of gift He wills us to be.
We will receive that bread in a few minutes. When we do let us pray with Solomon:
“Lord, grant me a listening heart…that I may discern right from wrong.”