What is it like to eat a human being? And what’s the big deal about it anyway?
If just the idea of those questions grosses you out, I’d encourage you not to read this piece at the Huffington Post, which uses the recent NBC drama “Hannibal” as an excuse to ask those questions and offer some perspective courtesy of modern history’s most infamous cannibal criminals. And if asking the question out loud is offensive well, even secular anthropologists will try not to judge you for your Western cultural bias. For most Westerners of any faith or no faith at all, the idea cannibalism is something from which we all instinctively recoil (ahem, unless we’re a Hollywood producer with an insatiable craving for yet another edgy late night TV hit). But we don’t often ask ourselves why.
The Old Testament gives us plenty of reasons. Genesis 1 tells us that we are creatures of a very particular kind. We are God’s image bearers, made to reflect him individually and collectively. To use one another as food, instead of receiving what God has already given, is to be literally inhuman. The kosher laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy elaborate on this idea. While the laws about which animals are permissible or impermissible for food are somewhat shrouded in mystery, the laws proscribing the ingestion of blood of any creature are explained clearly. The life of an animal is in its blood. To drink blood is a disordered quest for life outside the means God has already provided. (Dracula, anyone?) Many of the corresponding kosher laws center on honoring this central requirement – to cleanse any permissible meat of all residual blood before it’s eaten. Even today, with the sacrificial system on hiatus for contemporary Jews, dietary restrictions like these remain at the center of Jewish identity.
With all that in mind, spare a thought for Jesus’ followers, and especially for Peter, when, in John 6, Jesus actually seems to be commanding the people to throw out this restriction in an appalling way. The people have just had their physical hunger satisfied in the most spectacular manner since God fed their ancestors manna from heaven, and they are doing their level best to get Jesus to make this a permanent thing. After several rounds of verbal back and forthing, Jesus tells the people that he is prepared to feed them, but on His terms instead of theirs.
“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:54)
Don’t you kind of wish the Internet had been a thing back then? Can you imagine the Twitter-rage? Those 34 words comprise one of the most offensive things any Jew could have said to another. “Hard saying” seems like an understatement. It makes the decision of many of the disciples to turn their backs on Jesus and walk away seem totally understandable, even, dare I say it, biblical.
But it also makes Peter’s response incredibly beautiful.
Peter had been with Jesus from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in general, and this latest miraculous adventure in particular. He had watched Jesus pass out the bread and the fish, and had helped haul the baskets of leftovers away himself. He had listened in as the crowd tried to filter this experience through their own presuppositions to meet their own demands. He heard Jesus’ outrageous words as clearly as everyone else. What must he have thought in those moments as he saw the crowds dissipate and watched so many of the other disciples leave in a cloud of dust and disgust? Peter was no deep-thinking intellectual. He was an act-on-instinct kind of guy. If anyone should have run away screaming and gagging, it should have been him.
Instead, Peter’s response revealed that he knew more, in a far deeper way, than any of the disciples who walked away that day. What Jesus had said to them all was indeed a hard saying, and Peter didn’t understand it any better than anyone else. But Peter’s lack of understanding was overruled, not so much by what he had already come to know, but by Whom he had come to know, by following him. The sum total of all that Jesus had spoken, and all that he was, was greater and more certain than the hard saying of this moment. Peter couldn’t not stay.
Many of us can see ourselves standing next to Peter in this scene. We have received our own “hard saying” from Jesus. We struggle to reconcile what Jesus is commanding with everything else that He’s promised. We watch the crowds walk away, and the temptation to follow is overwhelming.
In those moments, it’s what we have come to know about Jesus – about who He is and what all of His words to us truly give us – that help us speak like Peter in the midst of our struggle, and continue to walk with Him.
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”