God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son."
Abe said, "Man, you must be puttin' me on!"
-- Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited"
Jesus has just announced, "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you" (John 6:53). Since the most basic meaning of son of man is just "man" (the singular of children of men), this essentially means, "Except ye eat human flesh and drink human blood . . . ." That he later clarified that he meant himself, not just any old human, doesn't really make this statement any less disturbing. He concludes, "he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: . . . he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever" (John 6:57-58).
 These things said he in the synagogue, as he taught in Capernaum.  Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, "This is an hard saying; who can hear it?"
When I started this blog, I actually considered "Hard Sayings" as a possible name.
The disciples' complaint could be translated as, "This is difficult; who can understand it?" or, "This is offensive; who can listen to it?" The latter seems a more likely reading to me. As Mark Twain famously quipped, "It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand." Cannibalism, even as a metaphor for something spiritual, is pretty shocking -- and let's not forget that for much of Christendom even today, it's not a metaphor at all; that many of the faithful participate in a ceremony in which they believe they are literally eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus of Nazareth.
Even Jesus' own disciples balk at such an outrageous statement -- as he must have known they would. And, as usual, Jesus makes no attempt to explain himself or to couch his teachings in more acceptable terms. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he was intentionally being offensive and confusing, that these "hard sayings" were a sort of test -- not nearly as extreme as God's commanding Abraham to murder his own son (Gen. 22) or Nephi to decapitate an unconscious man (1 Ne. 4), but not really qualitatively different. His disciples face a stark choice: accept the unacceptable, or stop following Jesus.
Nephi actually committed the commanded murder; Abraham was spared by a last-minute "just kidding" from God. Had the angel not stopped him, would Abraham have gone through with it? Should he have? I don't want to rewrite Fear and Trembling here, but these are extremely important questions. Trying to put myself in the sandals of Jesus' early disciples, I can think of five possible reactions.
- Jesus has already shown himself to be good and trustworthy. Therefore, if he says cannibalism is good, cannibalism is good. Pass the human blood.
- Jesus has already shown himself to be good and trustworthy. Therefore, he can't possibly mean what he appears to mean here. I can continue to follow him, confident that he will never really ask me to eat his flesh or drink his blood.
- Cannibalism is so obviously evil that this proves Jesus was a fraud all along and that his "miracles" were from the devil. I should stop following him immediately.
- This shows that Jesus is a complex character, capable of both great good and great evil. I can still learn what I can from him but clearly need to take everything with a grain of salt.
- This shows that Jesus is beyond good and evil, embodying the extremes of both -- and that's, like deep.
Option 1 is exemplified by Nephi and perhaps Abraham.
Option 2 is generally how I have been approaching Jesus and his teachings on this blog. If the Gospel represents him saying or doing anything clearly wrong, I assume that I have misunderstood or that the text is corrupt.
Option 3 is my usual approach to contemporary religious leaders and institutions. Say or do as much good as you like, but you fail one litmus test and I'm writing you off as a servant of Satan.
Option 4 is my attitude to certain historical figures such as Moses, David, and Joseph Smith.
In my hot youth, when George the Third was king, I would have found Option 5 dangerously attractive. I remember how fascinated I was, when I started reading Stephen King's The Green Mile, by the character of John Coffey -- a seemingly gentle man who had mysterious healing powers but was, equally mysteriously, capable of murdering children -- and how disappointing it was to discover that Coffey was innocent and that the murders had actually been committed by the novel's least relatable character. (It was extremely naïve not to have seen that coming a green mile away.) That was my first and last Stephen King novel. I felt cheated. I think Judas Iscariot may have been an Option 5 guy.
It seems clear, then, that there is no "rule" for dealing with hard sayings; they call for spiritual discernment on a case-by-case basis. That was perhaps Jesus' purpose in saying such things: to jolt his listeners out of their respective dogmatic slumbers and force them to exercise their spiritual discernment.
 When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, "Doth this offend you?  What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?  It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.
Jesus' retort -- "What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?" -- reminds us that the murmurers have been saying not only, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (v. 52) but also, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that he saith, 'I came down from heaven?'" (v. 42).
Jesus then proceeds to flatly contradict his other hard saying. He has just said, "If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh" (v. 51) and, "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man . . . ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh . . . hath eternal life" (vv. 53-54). Now he says, "It is the spirit that quickeneth [i.e. gives life]; the flesh profiteth nothing."
Is Jesus explaining his hard saying? One way of interpreting v. 63 would be, "I obviously didn't mean flesh literally, since it is the spirit that gives life. The words that I speak are spirit and life, so when I said 'eat my flesh' I really just meant 'hear my words.'"
But then why mention flesh in the first place? If all he wanted to say was that his words, not the manna of Moses, had the power to give life, why not just say so? He could have quoted Deuteronomy, as Matthew (4:4) and Luke (4:4) say he did when tempted by the devil:
And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live (Deut. 8:3).
Again, Jesus is deliberately being offensive and hard to understand, and his purpose is apparently to challenge his disciples. He is demonstrating what he had said earlier (John 6:29): that believing the messenger of God is work and requires active thinking and wrestling, not mere passive assent. Again, one thinks of a Zen master propounding koans.
"To live forever," said the Master, "you must eat my flesh and drink my blood."
"Eat your flesh!" said the student. "But how can we do that?"
"And why would you want to?" said the Master. "Only spirit can make you live forever. Flesh is useless."
At that moment, the student was enlightened.
I'm not enlightened yet, at least not about this.
Another thought: Is Jesus' confusing statement in v. 63 -- about flesh, spirit, life, and his words -- related to the prologue to this Gospel (1:14) -- "the Word was made flesh"? Not that that really clears anything up.
 "But there are some of you that believe not." For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him.  And he said, "Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father."
The assertion that Jesus knew from the beginning who would betray him is the author's inference, not something Jesus himself said. Judas was not, I think, one of those "that believed not."
Again Jesus emphasizes that only God -- only the divine spark in man, intuiting and responding to the divine in Jesus, deep calling to deep -- can cause a man to follow him. These hard sayings -- offensive, self-contradictory nonsense by any human standard -- are proof of that. Anyone who had been following Jesus for empirical or intellectual reasons ("the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom") would have been put off by them, leaving only those guided by spiritual intuition.
 From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.
 Then said Jesus unto the twelve, "Will ye also go away?"
This is the first mention in this Gospel of "the Twelve," who are introduced without explanation. As so often, the reader is assumed to have basic background information about Jesus. Since there is no explanation, we are left to guess what made the Twelve different from the other disciples.
Mark says that "he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils" (Mark 3:14-15), and Matthew and Luke say essentially the same thing. The Fourth Gospel says nothing like this. One possible reading of vv. 66-67 is simply that almost all of his disciples left him, so that only twelve remained.
 Then Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.  And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God."
 Jesus answered them, "Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?"
 He spake of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray him, being one of the twelve.
Ignore v. 71 for a moment, since it is the author's interpretation of what was said. Jesus asks the Twelve a question, one of them (Simon Peter) answers, and Jesus' reply is, "Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?" The most Gricean interpretation of this would be that Jesus is referring to Peter, not Judas, and presumably expressing disapproval of his answer. If it seems fantastic that Jesus would have called one of his closest disciples "a devil," keep in mind that the Synoptics record the same thing: "But he turned, and said unto Peter, 'Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me, for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men'" (Matt. 16:23, see also Mark 8:33). The author, writing with the benefit of hindsight after Judas's betrayal, may have read into Jesus' remark a meaning that was not intended.
There is a similar ambiguity in John 13:10-11, when Jesus says to the Twelve, "Ye are clean, but not all [of you]"; the author offers the gloss, "For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, 'Ye are not all clean'" -- but Jesus was once again responding to Simon Peter and not to Judas.
Or the author may have been right, and Jesus may have been referring to Judas in these two instances. After all, it's hard to find anything offensive or "Satanic" in what Peter says in vv. 68-69. I merely bring it up as a possible alternative reading.
Whether or not Jesus had Judas in mind, Judas himself would certainly have understood it that way. In fact, I would assume that each of the Twelve would be thinking to himself, as at the Last Supper, "Lord, is it I?" (Matt. 26:22). This is what I was getting at earlier when I said "Judas Iscariot may have been an Option 5 guy" -- that is, may have embraced Jesus' hard sayings because of their shocking nature. Judas may have heard, "You are a devil, Judas, but I have chosen you. Yes, I have knowingly chosen a devil as one of my associates, for devils too have their role to play in the work of God."
Could Jesus actually have meant that? No, I don't think so. While Jesus certainly needed to die in order to complete his work, I don't believe it was necessary for him to die in the precise manner that he did, and so I don't believe Judas was in any sense doing the work of God by betraying him. What did he mean, then? Well, this may have been one more hard saying, one more unanswerable riddle for the disciples to chew on. I think it's possible that Jesus had no particular disciple in mind at all, but that the purpose of his statement was to make each of the disciples suspect himself as the "devil" and do a little soul searching.
I wonder also what the author -- the unnamed "beloved disciple," apparently one of the Twelve -- thought at the time. Did he think, "Oh, he probably means Judas. I never liked that guy" -- or did he think, "Lord, is it I?"