Today’s text raises one of the most challenging issues in John’s Gospel, and half-way through our Lenten journey, it is a good time to offer context on John’s relationship with the Jewish community that did not convert to Christianity. Indeed, John uses the phrase “The Jews” 63 times, (31 times with hostility), whereas the other Gospels have a combined total of 16. On this Lenten journey to the cross and the empty tomb, we will read challenging texts from Jesus’ trial, some of which have been contorted to justify anti-Semitic tropes and atrocities, including the Holocaust. On a personal note, some of the most important people in my life are Jewish, and I am keenly sensitive to the way these texts are heard in the 21st century. I’d like to offer three thoughts on John’s relationship to the Jewish community, seeking to understand his culture and context.
First, John was raised a Jew, writing about Jesus, who said that “salvation comes from the Jews” (4:22). Most of the early Christians converted from Judaism, and there was a heated dispute among Jews about Jesus. It was an internal Jewish conversation, not a case of outsiders slamming another group. Indeed, some of the harshest language erupts in these family feuds, like the words I save for Christians with whom I vehemently disagree. Violence between Christians and Jews happened much later, after these and other texts were distorted in hateful ways. Even though today’s readers see these texts through the historic lens of 21 centuries, we must remember that John was not trying to hurt the Jewish community. He was trying to get folks to consider the new faith he had discovered in Jesus.
Second, the Hebrew word “Ioudaios” has been translated “the Jews” but could also be translated as “the religious authorities.” John was angry that religious leaders cut unsavory deals with the Roman Empire in exchange for suppressing rebellions around Jerusalem. Rome feared uprisings, crushed them brutally, and religious authorities were rewarded handsomely to silence dissidents before movements could spread. We, too, should question any unholy alliance between faith and empire, which allows us to hear John’s heated critiques with a new understanding.
Finally, my approach to interfaith dialogue is to celebrate that Jesus of Nazareth was a deeply faithful Jew. He loved the Hebrew Scriptures, liturgies, and culture, and he reminded us that the first commandment is to love God and the second is to love our neighbors as ourselves. On these two commandments hang all the law and all the prophets.
If you are reading these meditations as a Jewish person, please know that your faith is honored, your culture respected, and your partnership needed in the Tikkun olam work God has given us all: to participate in the repair of the world.
Reprinted with permission from the Washington National Cathedral “Food for the Journey,” March 28, 2019, by The Reverend Andrew K. Barnett, Associate for Worship and Music
Appointed readings for today: Genesis 17:1-8, Psalm 105:4-11, John 8:51-59