Author’s Note: The use of “The Jews” here does not mean all Jews but instead those who oppose Jesus and his life giving ways in the Gospel of John.
If you’re anything like me you may find the readings for Reformation Sunday to be rather boring simply because they are the same every year. Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 3:19-28 and John 8:31-36; all very Lutheran texts or so it seems. Jeremiah is about God giving us a new covenant and new heart through the one who fulfilled the law for us. Romans 3 is the ultimate Lutheran text wherein Paul clearly articulates the doctrine by which the church stands or falls: justification. Lastly, there’s John 8 wherein Jesus says the famous line, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” A simple Lutheran reading of that line would be that the truth is that which justifies. Namely, Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, the ones to whom Jesus says this to, “The Jews,” simply don’t get it because they are self-righteous. Many caricatures abound with these texts and us Lutherans. Enough to make Krister Stendahl roll over in his grave and prompt N.T. Wright to consider suicide.
But it’s the John 8 text that really jumped out at me this past Sunday. Jesus is speaking with the children of Abraham, “the Jews,” who refuse to believe in him. This refusal goes much deeper than works-righteousness or self-righteousness. Rather it’s the product of cultural and systemic sin and corruption. If they listen to Jesus, if they believe in him, then they must begin anew. We have to remember that John speaks of the world as being against God’s purposes. “The Jews” are the epitome of this problem. They have taken what was and is good, namely the law and the tradition, and turned them into hindrances and oppressors. This is a recurring problem throughout history. Often movements turn into the exact opposite of what they were initially founded for. The early Christians were entirely subversive but by the 4th and 5th century they are legitimating the social order. Francis was opposed to being ordained but in due time Franciscans would be ordained.
Holding to their identity as the children of Abraham “The Jews” were always able to fall back on knowing that they were God’s chosen people. Even though they did not exhibit the faith of Abraham revealed by their loveless actions his blood coursed through their veins. Life was good for them, they benefited from things as they were and not as they could be. There were boundaries, people knew their roles and what was expected of them. Jews didn’t intermingle with Samaritans especially with Samaritan women. Faithful Jews did not work on the Sabbath, let alone heal on the Sabbath for that was the Lord’s day. Any faithful Jew would not freely hang out with the masses and even break bread with them showing a clear sign of fellowship. There were rules and good ones at that and “The Jews” followed them. Bureaucracy and all its heartless dehumanization worked well for them.
But then comes Jesus who disregards it all.
We can easily get out of this uncomfortable notion by simply reminding ourselves that he was and is God. John makes that much clear in his first chapter. But still, he knowingly breaks Torah in ways that are a bit unnerving. He could’ve waited until sundown in order to heal the invalid but not so with Jesus. It was about more than that. It was about exposing the injustice that was being perpetuated in the name of God.
“You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
The truth was and is that all people are loved by God, in fact he even loves the world/cosmos that works against his purposes. It’s his, no matter how messed up. What’s more, tribal identity, us vs. them, patriarchy, violence in the name of God, nationalism, oppression of the poor, are but products of a world gone mad than of God. These are products of the devil, of the divider, the accuser. The one whom “The Jews” are children of in all actuality. He has been dividing human beings since we left the Garden of Eden. They are illusions keeping us from the truth and from the deeper reality of the kingdom and of God’s Way.
The Samaritans were made free by this truth. They spent time with one they were supposed to hate: a Jew. Yet their lives were transformed. He went from being a Jew to a prophet to their Messiah and Savior, all because he reached out to them. All because he broke with the misogynistic leanings of the day and spoke to a woman in public. The woman was an adulterer, he should’ve avoided her and her impurity but instead he engaged her. She shared with others and it was a Jew that would set them free, that bring these unclean Samaritans the truth. Set free from the illusions that bind into the essence of freedom, of Jesus and his Way.
Nothing good could come from Nazareth. Or so Nathanael thought.