John 8:31-end Sons of Abraham Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 25, 2007.
Introduction Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem. I hope that it was a good week for you, and that you will take advantage of the spring weather to visit Bethabara Park. I had the privilege of talking to the guides there this week about the Moravian Church as a Peace Church. This is all part of our effort to bring theological reflection and scholarship to the public. I find it disheartening that Christians tend to fight about Scripture. The Bible is the authoritative text for the church, and it is the basis for our worship, doctrine, and practice. But the church has always taught that we need to read the Bible with eyes wide open and with hearts in tune with God. It is easy to make deadly mistakes in biblical interpretation.
You probably have heard the story of the depressed young man who opened his Bible looking for help. He put his finger on a random verse in the Gospel and took that as a message from God. It read “And Judas went and hanged himself.” Shaken up, he decided to try another verse and his finger landed on “Go and do likewise.” The major purpose of this Adult Bible Class is to help you read the Bible thoughtfully, faithfully, and lovingly. As Gail O’Day says, “The interpreter must work diligently and carefully to understand the text in its original social and historical context in order to avoid making simplistic and destructive extrapolations to contemporary church settings.” (O’Day, 647)
Anti-Semitism This is particularly important to remember today because our lesson is from John chapter 8, which has been used for many years to promote violent anti-Semitism. This chapter looms large in the history of genocide. When you find yourself criticizing other religions for their violence and exclusivity, remember that the Christian church has blood-stained hands, too. As I read from John 8, ponder how these words were used by theologians in the past to declare that Jews were the children of Satan and did not have human rights.
Before reading our text for today, let me remind you of some things we have talked about previously. The bitter irony is that the anti-Jewish statements in John are evidence that the gospel itself was written by a Jew for a Jewish Christian audience. The language used in ch. 8 is particularly harsh, but it has its parallels in other Jewish literature of the time. The Essenes, for example, were a Jewish sect that viewed other Jews as the children of darkness who would be destroyed by God. What we are reading in John is one side of an angry debate among Jews over who are truly the descendents of Abraham. It is a debate that still leads to violence.
The Gospel of John was most likely written in the 90s after the destruction of the Temple when the rabbis and other Jewish leaders were struggling to reunite the Jews in the Diaspora around the Torah. With the loss of the Temple and the Promised Land, there had to be ways to create an identity as the Chosen People. The synagogue leaders determined who was truly Jewish. The Gospel of John was written during this time of dramatic transition. The followers of the Beloved Disciple had been apparently been declared no longer Jewish, and so they rejected the term “Jew.” They had lost their identity, their support, and perhaps their families. John’s Gospel may be a mirror reflecting what the author had heard when he was expelled from the synagogue. Thus, it is unusually harsh. Even Paul did not say that the Jews were the children of the devil, but he was writing before the expulsion of Christians from the synagogue. So, in reading John’s Gospel, keep in mind that it was written for a minority group that had been declared heretical. It was not written for a church that held political power. It needs to be read with caution, but there are still important lessons to glean from this passage.
Translation Issues Before delving into the meaning of this passage, we should note that there are some translation difficulties that different English versions of the Bible handle in different ways. Verse 38 is the most difficult. The NIV says: “you do what you have heard from your father,” which implies that the Jews have a different father than Jesus. In the NRSV it says that they should do what they have heard from the Father, which would be the same Father as Jesus. It is simply not clear from the Greek who the Father is. The answer depends in part on whether Jesus was addressing those who believed in him or those who wanted to kill him. Both groups are mentioned in this passage, which adds to the confusion.
Freedom and Slavery This passage presents an idea that was used repeatedly by Paul: those who believe in Christ are the true descendents of Abraham; those who do not are slaves who do not belong to the household of God. This idea appears in John’s gospel as a short parable about free-born children of a Lord. Since Paul, in his letters, preaches at length on a similar parable about Sarah and Hagar, it is likely that this idea had been part of Jesus’ teaching. Paul uses the parable, though, to argue that Jews are slaves to the Law, which presents a host of problems. John does not mention the law. Those who rejected Jesus were slaves to sin. Surprisingly, the anti-Semitic John does not reject the Jewish law the way Paul does.
This idea that people are slaves to sin is an important one. A slave is not free to disobey the will of the master. We tend to think of sin as a form of freedom or even daring. Since Freud, we have tried to liberate people from their moralistic inhibitions. But John says that people can be slaves to sin, which means that sin is a punishment in itself. One way to think about this is to view sin as a type of addiction. If you are truly addicted to a substance, such as heroine or morphine, then you are enslaved to it. The will is powerless to resist, and the addiction is a form of punishment worse than any prison. We could go through the list of similar addictions and forms of mental illness in which people are enslaved, but I’ll let you do that on your own. The important thing to remember is that enslavement is not pleasant. Most people hate what they are doing but they cannot stop doing it. So it is with sin.
John describes sin as enslavement and deception. If you have ever listened to the self-justification of child abusers or drug addicts or smokers or alcoholics or any number of forms of addiction, you know how deep self-deception goes. Hannah Arendt conducted long and tedious interviews with the war criminal Adolph Eichmann in which she pierced through clouds of self-justification and deception until she came to the truth that he was nothing but a boring, banal, and shallow little man trying to make himself feel important by killing others. John tells us that our enslavement to sin and destruction can only be overcome through the power of the truth.
Truth It is not clear what John means by “truth,” but we can be sure that he did not mean lying about the world and calling that truth. The world is full of people claiming to speak the truth about their product, their candidate, their political ideology, their religion, their economics, their view of biology, and a thousand other things when in fact they are working hard to keep the truth from you. I agree with John Hus that God wants you to search for the truth, love the truth, speak the truth, and follow the truth. If one of the cardinal teachings of our religion is that the truth sets us free, as it says in this passage, then we should beware of substituting lies for truth. Christians must learn to be honest with God and each other and the world.
Abraham As ch. 8 continues, the discussion in Jerusalem grows more heated and more dangerous. When the audience claims that they are children of Abraham, Jesus turns the table on them, much as he does in the synoptic gospels. He says that the children of Abraham are those who do the will of Abraham. This sounds anti-Semitic, but there are similar statements in the Jewish Talmud where the followers of Abraham are contrasted to the followers of Balaam the wicked. The difference is not biology; it is morality. “A good eye and a humble spirit and a lowly soul are of the disciples of Abraham our father. An evil eye, a haughty spirit, and a proud soul are of the disciples of Balaam the wicked.” (O’Day, 641). According to the Talmud, the followers of Abraham will then inherit the world to come, but the followers of Balaam will inherit Gehenna and be destroyed. In other words, this contrast between the true descendents of Abraham and those who will be handed over for condemnation was not unique to John’s Gospel. It is perfectly plausible that Jesus or his disciples would have made a contrast between those who follow Abraham and those who merely claimed biological descent. This was a normal Jewish way to preach about good and evil, and we see it in the other gospels and in Paul’s writings.
Receptivity What makes John a little different is that the litmus test of being a true descendent of Abraham is the response to Jesus. You may remember that in Genesis Abraham showed hospitality to three messengers sent by God. They arrived at his tent without any warning or any sign of that they had come from God, and yet Abraham fed them and listened to their teachings. John here contrasts that story with the reception that Jesus received in Jerusalem. He was also a messenger sent by the heavenly father, but the Judeans handed him over to the Roman to be ritually humiliated and destroyed.
This chapter is not an indictment of Judaism or the Jewish people; it is an indictment on all those who cannot recognize goodness when it appears. This is an indictment of all those who react to new ideas with ridicule and who respond to revelation with hatred. When Jesus says, “you belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires,” he was not saying that the Jewish race was Satan’s spawn. He was saying that those who prefer lies to truth are evil. The statement that the devil was a murderer from the beginning is probably a reference to the book of Genesis. Death entered the world when the serpent deceived Eve, and one of the fruits of that deception was Cain’s murder of Abel. This puts Jesus’ invective into a context far larger than the Jewish race. He was speaking of all people who are enslaved to self-deception
Those who cannot endure the truth try to destroy the one who speaks the truth. We’ve got a lot a people in this world who worry too much about whether the devil exists or what the end of the world will be like. The biblical teaching on the devil is that he is the father of lies. It is not exorcists or inquisitors or crusaders who battle the devil, they are the ones who choose to do his will and call it defending the faith. It is scientists, ethicists, lawyers, teachers, police officers, psychologists, parents, pastors, and all who speak the truth, seek the truth, listen to the truth, and love the truth who fight the devil. Those who punish the innocent and praise the guilty are of the devil, according to John, even if they hold high office the church or government.
Conflict Not surprisingly, the dialog grows more heated after Jesus has said that his opponents are children of the devil instead of children of Abraham. In response, they publicly accused him of not being Jewish. “You’re a Samaritan,” they cried, just as American politicians accuse an opponent of being a Communist, or un-American or Jihadist. In more polite society, we just say “he’s just not one of us, now is he?” A talk show host on radio or TV might respond to Jesus’ message by saying, “you’re just a liberal” or “you’re just a conservative.” In his day, they said that Jesus was one of those filthy, down-trodden, God-forsaken, heretical Samaritans that descent Jews would not even talk to or lift out of a ditch. Notice that Jesus does not protest and try to prove his racial lineage. He identified with the Galileans, Samaritans, and all of the oppressed races in a racist world. He still does.
Crazy? It was not enough to say that he was racially inferior and socially outcast, of course. His opponents shouted that he was demon-possessed, which is another way of saying “you’re crazy.” Many Christians are shocked when they read the gospels and learn that Jesus was often called crazy. One of the best arguments for the authenticity and believability of the four gospels is that they all include the charge that Jesus was possessed by unclean spirits. His words and actions were so unexpected, so counter-cultural, that people thought he must be possessed. Indeed he was, but it was by the Logos, not Beelzebub.
This raises an interesting question for evangelism: Why do we think people today will respond to the message of Jesus when so many of the original hearers thought he was talking crazy? Perhaps it is because we have so domesticated and truncated Jesus’ message that we no longer see just how radical he and his teachings were. Go into the streets of Winston-Salem today and tell people to love their enemies and do good to those who harm them, and they will call you crazy. Go to any university in the country and tell people that they should give up their hopes for financial success in order to dedicate their lives to something meaningful, and see how people respond. Tell your lawyer that you do not want him or her to lie on your behalf. Tell your advertisers to tell the truth about your product. Tell your Senators and judges that you want courageous peace and compassionate justice. What will they say to you? Yes, true Christianity remains a crazy quixotic message of radical hope and self-sacrifice in a world bent on hatred, greed, and destruction.
Life There is more to the story, of course. Jesus says that if we live in the truth, we can endure the persecution of those who try to kill all that is good and beautiful and true in this world. Those who follow the Logos will never see death. This has often been misinterpreted by Protestants and Catholics alike as saying that whoever professes belief in Jesus will not die, as if salvation depends on knowing the “Jesus” passcode as you try to access the security gates of heaven. Notice that John wrote that it is those who keep Jesus’ teaching who will not experience death. The focus is on obedience not a verbal profession of faith.
The audience immediately points out the apparent flaw in Jesus’ statement: those who were obedient to the heavenly Father died, including Abraham. We must assume that the phrase “never see death” meant something different than the death of the body. The concept of eternal life in John focuses on the spirit or the life-force rather than the body. Jesus himself will truly die in John’s Gospel. He sees physical death, but it does not have final victory over him.
Torah Ch. 8 ends with a reaffirmation of one of the major themes of the prologue: the Logos existed before Abraham, and Abraham himself looked forward to the revelation of God in Jesus. Despite John’s hostility toward the Jews who had rejected Jesus, it is this gospel that most clearly makes the claim that Abraham himself would have recognized Jesus as the one sent by God. For John, Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise of the OT, the one who makes it possible to follow the essence of the Torah, which is to leave the enslavement of sin and embrace the entire creation in self-giving love. Once you give yourself in love and rest in the arms of God, then death has no sting and the grave will not be victorious.
Verse 58 is another “I Am” statement of Jesus. “Before Abraham was, I am.” Notice that it is not: Before Abraham, I was. Jesus speaks in the eternal present tense. He is identified with the one who spoke out of the burning bush and who dined with Abraham. Many scholars doubt that the historical Jesus ever said such a thing, especially not in the Temple to his opponents. All I can say is that John’s Gospel makes this claim more strongly than any other book of the NT. John make the bold claim that when Jesus spoke, healed, and taught, it was the Word of God speaking, acting, and teaching. The big question John asks is how will you respond?