Surely this is Jesus son of Joseph, whose Father and Mother we know? How can he now say I have come down from heaven?
Typically of St. John, these hostile comments of the Jews in the synagogue at Capernaum are fraught with irony. We Christians read them in St. John’s Gospel with a very different sense to that originally intended. We are those who believe in Jesus, who know the doctrine of the Incarnation, and who are gathered now precisely in order to participate in the Eucharistic banquet: to receive from God the bread that has come down from heaven.
To recall briefly the setting: we are in the 6th Chapter of St. John’s Gospel: the Bread of Life discourse. The adversaries of Jesus have witnessed his multiplication of the loaves, and at least surmised his walking on the water. They have listened, with mounting exasperation, to his words. Casting about for arguments with which to refute him, they say now that they know his father and mother, and therefore cannot believe in him. And following St. John’s sense of irony, we retort: they know a lot less than they think they do.
In the first place, they clearly do not know the Father of Jesus, who is not St. Joseph, but God alone. They think they are rejecting Jesus out of loyalty to the God of Abraham, of Moses and of the Prophets. But their very complaining about Jesus shows that they have understood neither God, nor their own scriptures, for these all point to, are all fulfilled in him (5:39).
In one of the poetic descriptions of the Messianic age given by the prophet Isaiah, we read: They will all be taught by God (Is 54:13; Jn 6:45). Jesus quotes this text as part of his response. And if we should ask: How will they be taught by God? The answer is: Supremely through his Word made flesh. God’s Word, God’s own perfect self expression, is communicated now to us in human language and human form. Since Jesus is himself the Word of God, and himself God, then to be taught by him and to be taught by God are one and the same thing. This is very strong doctrine; but it’s our faith, and we are not ashamed to proclaim it. And if we ask the content of this teaching, what it is that we will all be taught by God? we can summarise the answer very briefly. In his love and compassion for sinful humanity, God has taken our flesh in Jesus (cf. 3:16), and in that flesh he died and rose again. And the purpose of this was not condemnation but Mercy, and Life: eternal life; the very life of God, given to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.
But surely this is Jesus son of Joseph, whose Father and Mother we know?
Let me now register my counter protest! These Jews are suggesting that St. Joseph and our Blessed Lady are obstacles, preventing them from coming to Jesus or believing in him. Ridiculous suggestion! No! St. Joseph and our Blessed Lady are on the contrary most effective supports, helps, guides, in our faith. Far from hindering our faith, they only encourage it, strengthen it, confirm it.
Who could have even the slightest acquaintance of these two, and not immediately sense the atmosphere of heaven? How very fitting that God should become a man by means of such as these! They say they know St. Joseph? In that case, they know the legal heir of King David; a man possessed of innate authority and dignity; a man of both physical and moral strength, yet whose life is marked by purity, innocence and goodness. We know St. Joseph to be a truly just man; a man who walks constantly with God; yet so humble and chaste as to be a worthy spouse of the Blessed Virgin. Is he too ordinary for these critics? No: St. Joseph was absolutely extra-ordinary. Who could look into his face, into his eyes, and not see at once that he is a great Saint; even the greatest of all the Saints, with the single and obvious exception of the all-holy, immaculate and ever-Virgin Mother of God?
As for her: yes, admittedly at first she might seem nothing special. She is merely the wife of a poor working man, with a single son. But also: as such, she is the new Eve, mother of all the living, Queen of heaven, mistress of the angels, mother of the King who stands at his right side (Ps 44:10; Jn19:25), clothed in holiness and the fullness of redemption. Do you doubt that Jesus came down from heaven? Do you doubt that he could be the heavenly food God gives to us? Do you doubt the power of Jesus to mediate God’s love and mercy? Turn then to Mary his Mother, and all your difficulties will vanish. Ask her help, her prayers, and the obstacles between you and God will fall away as if they had never been.
We know his Father and Mother! How then can he say I have come down from heaven? The immediate response of Jesus to this remark is a sharp rebuke. Do not murmur one to another. No one can come to me, unless the Father who sent me draws him.
To put that the other way up: all those who come to me are drawn by my Father. This is very consoling for us! Insofar as we are attracted to Jesus; insofar as we desire to deepen our relationship with him; insofar as we want to receive what he came to give us: then we can be very sure we are being led by God. We should rejoice in that, and give ourselves to this inspiration without any fear! On the other hand: it’s a very bad idea to imitate those who claim to speak of the things of God, who presume even to speak on behalf of God, from within their own enclosed little circle, whispering their complaints and condemnations, all the while shutting God out by their hard hearts and self righteousness! No, no!! Let them come before God in humility, with open ears and hearts, begging the help of his grace, his light, his wisdom, to know what is the truth. Let them listen very carefully to what Jesus says; let them watch his actions; gaze into his face, and walk with his disciples. Then they will understand at last that Jesus does indeed have the message of eternal life: that he is indeed the Holy One of God (6:68).