I was talking with a Protestant friend who scoffed at the literal interpretation of “This is my Body” by saying, Jesus also said, “I am the door.” How should I answer this objection?
As with any written text, some sophistication is necessary when reading the Scriptures. All or nothing approaches which hold that the Bible is to be read in an entirely literalist way, or that it is all merely symbolic, must be avoided. The more authentic question is, which texts are to be read and understood literally, and which texts employ metaphor, simile, hyperbole, or other literary techniques?
Thus, to cite your friend’s example, it would be strange to read Jesus literally when he says, “I am the door.” This would require us to think of Jesus as a large wooden plank, with a doorknob. It is reasonable to conclude that Jesus is speaking metaphorically when he says this, since the specific context of the saying, and the wider context of the overall Scriptures, in no way encourage us to think that Jesus spoke in a literalistic manner here.
When it comes to the Eucharist, however, there is a very different conclusion to be reasonably reached. When Jesus says over the bread, “this is my body,” and “this is my blood,” we are on good grounds to conclude that he is not speaking metaphorically, but literally. This is because the wider context of Scripture supplies, and insists, upon a literal interpretation.
In particular, Jesus insists in John 6 that the bread he gives is this true flesh for the life of the world. The Jewish people, listening to him that day, understand him to be speaking literally, and most of them scoff and murmur in protest. Though Jesus could have corrected their interpretation, and insisted he was only speaking metaphorically, he did nothing of the sort. Rather, he intensifies a literalist interpretation by insisting that they must eat his flesh, and drink his blood. Many, horrified at this, left him and would no longer walk in his company.
Thus, Jesus pays a rather high price, for a literal, not a metaphorical, understanding of the fact that Holy Communion is in fact a receiving of his true body and true blood.
St. Paul also teaches that Holy Communion is a partaking of the body and blood of Christ and goes on to insist that those who receive it unworthily, sin against the body of the Lord.
A final bit of contextual evidence is supplied by the fact that the early Church, as seen in the writings of the Fathers, universally understood these words in a literal way.
Hence we are on good ground and insisting, that the utterances of Jesus, “This is my body… This is my blood” are to be interpreted literally. This also illustrates the kind of sophistication necessary when approaching sacred Scripture.
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