Old Testament: 2 Samuel (18:5-9, 15, 31-33)
The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom. So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword. Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him. Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.” The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” The Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.” The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
The Response: Psalm 130
1 Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice; *
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
2 If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, *
O Lord, who could stand?
3 For there is forgiveness with you; *
therefore you shall be feared.
4 I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; *
in his word is my hope.
5 My soul waits for the Lord,
more than watchmen for the morning, *
more than watchmen for the morning.
6 O Israel, wait for the Lord, *
for with the Lord there is mercy;
7 With him there is plenteous redemption, *
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
The Epistle: Ephesians (4:25-5:2)
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
The Gospel: John (6:35, 41-51)
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Sometimes it’s hard in life to know what you really want. That often happens when we want multiple things, things which can be in direct conflict with each other.
At the time of today’s first reading, David was caught between two things, each of which he desperately wanted, but which were mutually exclusive. He wanted a decisive defeat of the rebel who had usurped his throne and driven him from power; and, at the same time, he wanted to spare the life of his son. The problem was that the two of them were one and the same person, Absalom.
To say that David’s family was – to use a contemporary term – “dysfunctional” is an enormous understatement. Violence, deceit, and outright treachery pervade the story. At the time of today’s first reading, Absalom had seized the throne and forced David to flee for his life. Yet, as David’s army began to reassert control, David’s order to those under his command was a plea to “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” Notice that at this point, he was so conflicted that he couldn’t even bring himself to acknowledge that the “young man Absalom” who was his enemy was also his son Absalom whom he loved.
Sometimes people find themselves in a similar situation to the one that David faced, though rarely so extreme: they want two mutually exclusive things. But more often than not, the real problem that we have is focusing on the wrong things, on short-term, immediate desires, on secondary things that can never address our deeper, lasting needs. And if and when we get what we think we want, we are inevitably disappointed and resume the same futile search again.
That seems to be what was happening with the crowds in today’s gospel reading. Jesus recognized their deepest, lasting hunger, their greatest need; and he was struggling to bring them to recognize it, too. But they were focused only on the secondary, on the short-term. This long chapter from John’s version of the gospel began with Jesus feeding the crowd with bread and fish; and, for the people, that became their only concern. “Just keep giving us a free lunch, and forget about whatever else it is you’re talking about, about you being “’the bread of life.’”
Their initial response to Jesus is the same as that of the Samaritan woman at the well in the story that came two chapters earlier in John’s gospel. When Jesus spoke with her about the gift of “living water,” she brushed it off and wanted only for him to give her a way that she could avoid having to draw water from the well herself. Jesus pointed out that, if she drank that water, she was going to be thirsty again before long, but that he had a gift of water that would satisfy her deepest thirst.
In the same way, the crowds in today’s gospel were looking solely at their short-term desires. And they refused to allow Jesus to open their minds to recognize what they were really hungering for in life: for purpose and meaning, and for the ultimate life that comes only from the way of living to which he was calling them. As New Testament scholar Gerard Sloyan puts it (John, pp. 69): “Knowing what you want out of life is half the battle, if you want the right things.”
Recognizing and wanting what he calls “the right things” is not easy, especially if those things cost us something, especially if we have to choose between them and other things that we want. This fall, we will hear once again the story of the young man who came up to Jesus asking about what he needed to do “to inherit eternal life.” He apparently recognized his deepest hunger. But when Jesus reminded him of the cost – giving up the wealth that he also wanted — he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Mark (10:22) tells us that “he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” He wanted the fullness of life, but he wanted to keep everything he had as well. He knew he couldn’t have both; but he just couldn’t bring himself to make the life-giving choice.
That’s a constant dilemma in life. Choosing for one thing almost always means choosing against something else. It often takes a while, maybe years, for example, for young people to realize that, if you spend your money on one thing, you’re not going to have it for something else. (Some adults still have not learned that lesson.) Even later in life, we recognize that choosing one thing that we want means giving up the likelihood of will have something else that we want. Choosing, for example, a very high-paying profession that we want might mean giving up the opportunity to live near our family and friends or the opportunity to have the time and energy for the close family-life that we also want. The hard reality is that, despite what some advertisers try to tell us, we can’t have it all. There are always trade-offs.
What our consumer culture tends to focus on is providing us with a maximum of choices. What it tends to ignore is providing us with a way of discerning what is really most important, with a way of identifying a true, central purpose and meaning for our lives. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, page 13) has suggested that we approach our situation this way: “Three questions every reflective individual will ask at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? These are questions to which the answer is prescriptive not descriptive, substantive not procedural. The result is that the twenty-first century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.”
What today’s readings, and the scriptures in general, challenge us to do is to ask those vital questions and live in accordance with the answers that they provide: to broaden and deepen our thinking, to identify what are really the most important things in life, and then to choose them and focus on them first and foremost. What things might we want that, if we get them, will bring us only fleeting enjoyment? But, on the other hand, what way of living will bring us the far deeper and lasting happiness that will not fade and that will enable us to live a genuinely full and fulfilling life?