Since we were just in Capernaum and we will soon take another two groups there in October. I thought I would share a few words related to the site since I got asked a related questions on Catholic Answers Live tonight. Capernaum is where Jesus said “Eat My Flesh; Drink My Blood.” I thought it would be appropriate to answer an e-mail I received a while ago from a man named Tim. He asked:
“I’m not sure if you normally field apologetics questions from your readers, but as I’ve had no response at other sites I thought I’d give you a go. I have been engaged in a debate with a Protestant regarding the Real Presence and have reached a bit of an impasse. My Protestant friend cites Matthew 13:34-35.
(Picture to left: Remains of synagogue in Capernaum)
All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.
He presents this as evidence that when Jesus spoke of us eating his flesh in John 6:54-58, he was speaking metaphorically. He considers that because Jesus was addressing a crowd he must have been using a parable, thus the dogma of the Real Presence is not biblical. Unfortunately my friend chooses not to engage with the host of other arguments (“phago” vs “trogo”; the fact that Jesus’ insistence that His disciples eat His flesh drove them away; etc) and keeps reiterating that the apparent inconsistencies do not matter – all that matters is that the Bible says that Jesus spoke in parables to crowds. How would you answer this argument?”
So I responded:
I will try to answer quickly as you are right, I usually don’t have time to field these questions since I get 100 emails on a good day. But I do strongly suggest you post your question on my Message Board which was set up for this very purpose and you will get plenty of good answers.
First, it is incorrect to make an absolute out of Jesus’ comments about speaking only in parables – as though he never spoke to the crowds NOT using parables is simply inaccurate and sorry to say — your friend has come up with a self-serving interpretation that is very incorrect.
Have your friend read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7. The other Gospels have shorter versions of this sermon and mention the great crowds that heard him speak. There are many instances when Jesus taught didactically without parables.
In the Protestant New American Commentary, it says “Verse 34b does not refer to Jesus’ teaching beyond this immediate occasion.“ What the commentary means is that it is only in this instance — it is to this specific crowd addressed in Matthew 13 that Jesus only spoke in parables. It does NOT mean that he never spoke to any other crowd without parables. Your friend is very mistaken and has a very poor understanding of Scripture — and seems to lack even a basic understanding of how to interpret it.
Second, what is a parable? According to the Protestant New Bible Dictionary, “a ‘parable’ is the somewhat protracted simile or short descriptive story, usually designed to inculcate a single truth or answer a single question.“
Of course Jesus often spoke metaphorically and of course he often spoke in parables. Parables are stories with a moral attached to them. We are all familiar with parables — stories — Jesus told about the Prodigal Son, the Lost Sheep, the Sower, etc. I would love to ask your friend what “story” or parable is being told in in John 6? Jesus is NOT telling a parable there; he is teaching didactically. Just because he told parables elsewhere does not mean everything and every time he taught it was strictly metaphorical. Your friend is mixing things up — don’t let him get away with it.
Third, Christians have always seen John 6 as metaphorical and literal. There is no problem with it being both. Many things are symbols that ARE IN SUBSTANCE what they symbolize. For example, the cross is a symbol of our redemption yet it is also a real cross from which you could get a sliver in your finger. Just because something has a symbolic element doesn’t mean that it is ONLY symbolic. Your friend is making distinctions that are not necessary and he proves what an incapable and poor Bible student he really is.
(Picture: Steve teaching on the Eucharist and John 6 at Capernaum where Jesus said these things.)
Fourth, and here we will dig in a little bit. The Jews did not believe Jesus that he said they had to eat his flesh an drink his blood. They walked away. If he was speaking metaphorically he would have called them back and said, “Hey guys, you don’t understand — see the Protestants have it right — what I just said is metaphor so you don’t have to be offended and walk away!” But he didn’t — he let the crowd of disciples walk away.
Your friend will also try to use this verse as an argument against you
“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” (John 6:63, NASB95)
He will probably say, “The flesh profits nothing, see!”
Concerning this, Jesus is not speaking about His Flesh (“My Flesh”), in verse 63 but “the flesh” which is very different and which is missed by sloppy-thinking Protestants like your friend. When Protestants claim “My flesh” profits nothing, they prove way too much! They are claiming that the Incarnation of Jesus in the flesh and the bodily resurrection has no profit.
What Jesus means by “”the flesh profits nothing” is very simple because he uses the phrase again in John 8:15 (we must let the Bible interpret the Bible :-) where he says:
“You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one.” (John 8:15, NKJV)
Other Bibles translate this “according to the flesh”, or “by human standards”, or “by appearances” or “with your human mind“. When Jesus uses the phrase “the flesh” he is referring to human understanding apart from divine revelation. Your friend judges the Eucharist by human standards (“Looks like bread, feels like bread, tastes like bread — must be bread”).
This statement of Jesus affirms what he has said about eating his Flesh and drinking his Blood and tells us it is a great mystery — spirit and life. With these words Jesus castigates the unbelieving Protestant along with the unbelieving Jews for judging spiritual things with earthly minds — by the flesh — and failing to understand the deep mysteries of God in the Eucharist.
And by the way, this “symbol only“ mentality about Scripture and this passage in particular is only as old as the Protestant Reformation (er, I mean Rebellion). From the beginning of the Church Christians have understood that Jesus was speaking of his Flesh and Blood in the Eucharist — after all Jesus did not say, “This represents my body.“ he said “This is My Body!“
Too bad your friend wants to erase the words of Jesus or add his own puny interpretation to what the Word of God clearly states. Too bad the mystery goes right over his head.