Parables and symbolism
In the late 90’s, I can remember being on a business trip with a colleague, Del, that I worked with in Milwaukee. He and I were on a two trip to Brazil and Argentina. Having traveled internationally quite extensively for work, I enjoyed seeing new sites and experiencing local culture. Many times this cultural immersion also meant dining on local cuisine. I can honestly say that I had many dishes that were interesting and delicious and there where others that I hope to never eat again! Good or bad, the ability to have these experiences was fantastic.
Regardless of how long I was away on business, there would always seem to be a part of the trip where I began craving familiar food that I was more familiar with eating. This might be a favorite home-cooked meal or perhaps a special restaurant. At some point, I just craved familiar food.
One night as Del and I were walking down the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil, we were desperately looking for some “familiar” food for dinner. As we walked past restaurant after restaurant, their menus in the windows seemed to offer entrees that were either too ambitious or unfamiliar for our taste buds. We weren’t in the mood for anything to adventurous. But as we continued down the road block by block, our hunger started overtaking our consciousness. I distinctly remember Del telling me, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse!”
I had heard that phrase hundreds of times before, but for some reason his words seemed to hang in the air. While dining on horse is not common in the United States, it is more common in other parts of the world. I began wondering, “Is he really that hungry? Does he want to find a restaurant that serves horse?” After quick clarification, I was relieved to hear that he only meant it as a figure of speech! Sometimes the symbolism of one’s words is not the same as their literal speech.
The same holds true for Jesus. Jesus tells the Jews, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (Jn 6:51). When they heard this, they started to murmur to each other wondering what he meant. Did He really want them to dine on His flesh?
Jesus’ reply fails to provide clarification when He says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (Jn 6:53-55).
If our Lord meant this to be symbolic, He has an odd way of showing it. If someone mistakes your words for being literal when you mean them to be symbolic, what you certainly do not do is rephrase yourself in a more stringently literal fashion. Yet this is what our Lord does here.
While parables are symbolic language that are often used by our Lord when He deals with the public or unbelieving, corrupt leadership, we see that Jesus does in fact does explain the meaning behind His parables to His disciples privately. As disciples of Christ, we, too, are given the meaning of his parables and symbolism. In the Eucharist, we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus and through this gift, we will receive eternal life.