The passage from St. John’s Gospel that we hear in Mass today comes immediately after Jesus tells the crowds, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (which we heard at Mass last Sunday). Today’s Gospel opens with the disciples murmering about how difficult this teaching is for them to accept.
While we are often quick to criticize the disciples for their slowness at times, their reaction here should not surprise us. Jesus’ disciples are, after all, Jewish. The idea of consuming blood would have been anathema to them. They knew well the teaching of the Book of Leviticus: “If anyone, whether of the house of Israel or of the aliens residing among them, partakes of any blood, I will set myself against that one who partakes of blood and will cut him off from among his people.” So what Jesus says is not just strange, but something that seems to call for a violation of one of their fundamental laws.
Many could not accept the teaching. And so they left. They “returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”
I’m not sure which of two aspects is more extraordinary about this passage: the fact that Jesus had the integrity to speak the truth here, knowing how many followers it would cost him, or the fact that the Twelve remained when so many others left. It would have been so easy for Jesus to mince words, to speak in a parable that might mask the shocking reality of what he told them. But he speaks clearly, saying exactly what he means, despite the cost.
And it would have been equally easy for the Twelve to desert him. But Peter answers for all of them (and, in some sense for all of us when the path seems unclear) when Jesus asks if they plan to leave Him also: where else would be go. “To whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”