‘This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?’ (John 6:60)
Some people love a good argument and others don’t. Some find it exciting and exhilarating. Others feel uncomfortable at the conflict generated. ‘Why can’t we all get on?’ they would say. ‘Why can’t we just agree to differ? Live and let live?’
But part of the problem is that we are in danger of losing the distinction between an argument and a row. You see a row is just a shouting match, when one person tries to overpower and defeat the other. It is a battle between two opposing forces, in which the stronger (or louder) may prevail. The thing about a row is that everyone is speaking, but no one is listening.
Actually an argument is very different. An argument is a reasoned series of points, propositions, which lead to a conclusion. When two people argue, they listen to one another, pick through the strengths and weaknesses of the points made, and try to come to a conclusion, a result, some kind of agreement.
And the difference between the two is that the row is about the struggle for power, while the argument is about the search for truth. If you are struggling for power, there is no need to listen, because your aim is to defeat the other side, to overcome, to be victorious.
In today’s Gospel, the followers who left Jesus did so because they heard his words but did not listen to them.
In John's Gospel, these words follow Jesus' teaching about the mass, about eating his body and blood. But they might just as well refer to any of his teaching. The point is that some of his listeners, many of his listeners, find this teaching hard, and difficult, and unacceptable.
They became set against him. We see here the seeds of the conflict that will lead to his arrest, his suffering, his death.
Truth always challenges, often offends. It may be comforting, but it can also be uncomfortable. It encounters rejection and conflict and even hostility. And there is a great temptation to play down the hard words, the intolerable language - to agree to differ, to live and let live - but Truth can never be silent, because Truth which is hidden is buried in the dark.
Argument is better than Conflict - in the famous words of Churchill “Jaw Jaw is always better than War War” - but to avoid conflict may be to strangle the Truth.