April 21, 2013
Easter 4, Year C
V. Alleluia! Christ is risen.
R. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
“If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
The setting for today’s gospel is the temple, specifically Solomon’s Portico, the magnificent colonnade enclosing the large Court of the Gentiles. It served as a market and public meeting place, a social space for meeting and mixing. It was built 800 years after King Solomon, but called that because it was the porch of judgment, the place where kings heard disputes and made decisions.
It was mid December, the Feast of Dedication, Hanukkah. Nearly two hundred years before today’s event, Antiochus Epiphanes, a Greek, had ruled Jerusalem.[i] Greek culture and customs had become quite popular among many Jews. Traditional, observant Jews took offense. Tension between the two sides escalated and grew bloody.
Antiochus foolishly got involved in this Jewish conflict about religious observance, siding with the Jews adopting Greek customs. Antiochus began persecuting observant Jews to crush them. He desecrated the Temple by setting up a large statue of Zeus, outlawed Jewish Law and its religious rites, and even forced Jews to eat pork.
This intensified the opposition of the observant Jews. Led by Judas Maccabeus, the observant Jews fought the imperial power and won, largely because Antiochus started another war, which distracted him. (Sound familiar?) The Jews removed Zeus from the Temple, ritually cleansed it, and re-dedicated it in 164 B.C. The Feast of Dedication, Hanukkah, celebrates this event. To the Jews of Jesus’ day, the feast made them remember that their revolt had achieved independence. It lasted about a century. Then another imperial power, the Romans, invaded and added Judea to their empire.
For many of Jesus’ contemporaries, the great national hero Judas Maccabeus was a model for a Messiah, someone who had rallied the Jews to attain independence. They longed for another grassroots leader to kick out the Romans.
According to John, that day in the portico a group of Jews surrounded Jesus and asked, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense?” That’s one way to translate it. Some say a better way is: “How long are you going to annoy us?”[ii] Then they demand, “If you are the Christ, the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus responded, “I have told you, and you don’t believe.” Jesus’ point is that he’s told them who he is through his works, his actions, his miraculous signs, his teaching. The character of his deeds reveals who he is. But this wasn’t sufficient for his audience. They sought greater clarity. “Are you the Messiah? Tell us plainly.”
Essentially Jesus’ response to them was: “There’s no longer any point in engaging with you. My sheep believe. You don’t and won’t. You’ve made your judgment.” Then he really annoyed them. He said, “My Father and I are one.” He claimed to be divine. We, of course, associate divinity with Messiah, now, after Jesus. It’s not how Jesus’ contemporaries thought of Messiah. Instead, it greatly offended them. Just after today’s gospel ends, the next verse: “The Jews took up stones again to stone him.”
Jesus did not fit into their preconceived ideas of the Messiah. He was no Judas Maccabeus, and perhaps we can have some empathy for those Jews because it’s very difficult to let go of previous ideas, to adapt, to be open to the new and different. Jesus had told his interrogators, “If you want to know who I am, look at my work.” As they picked up stones, he asked, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you stoning me?”
Jesus knew that they were not about to stone for his works. They were angry how Jesus had challenged their certainties, upset their expectations, and stirred up doubts. That’s a fundamental characteristic of Jesus’ ministry and teaching: challenging, upsetting, stirring up.
In John’s gospel, Jesus taught through dialogue, but often with cryptic, ambiguous, provocative sayings. In the other gospels, Jesus taught with parables, which are often confusing and mysterious and have multiple meanings. Jesus did not teach to provide clarity. His meaning was often not obvious. His teaching method was participatory, requiring his listeners to think, to talk about things, to live with uncertainty and confusion, to wrestle with him. The word “Israel” literally means “the people who wrestle with God.” Jesus is more interested in engagement with him, relationship with him, than in correct, plain answers. Wrestling with God is more important than understanding.
When I read the Bible, I find clarity about some basics: Jesus loves you, delights in you, cherishes you, cares for you. You are a child of God. He wants you to be part of his rule of love, his Kingdom. You can trust him. You have hope. Your life is meaningful. I expect to find good news, and there’s plenty of good news.
But there’s a lot of complexity and uncertainty and bewilderment, too. The gospel stories often offer multiple meanings and layers of meaning. When we read a story, first we can reflect upon what Jesus meant, what he was telling his listeners in that moment, the original setting. A second level of interpretation: there’s what the evangelist meant. Each evangelist tells the stories of Jesus in different ways to make different points. Each evangelist sees Jesus in a different way. Sometimes they don’t even agree, but it doesn’t diminish Jesus. It enriches our sense of him. Third, there’s the way the church has interpreted the story through the ages. Christians typically are not in agreement. Fourth, and most importantly, there’s what you make of it. Our own understanding helps us know and experience God.
Last Sunday, the bulletin had a couple of questions about today’s gospel. Jesus said that his sheep, you and me, his followers, know his voice. Do you? When have you heard Jesus’ voice? How do you hear Jesus?
Few of us have an experience like Paul on the road to Damascus where Jesus appeared in a great light and spoke directly to Paul. Some people have strong mystical experiences of God, even hear his voice, but those experiences tend not to be regular and sustained. How then might we hear Jesus? He does speak to us, to each of us. I think that I listen to Jesus best, feel closest to him, when I shut up and try to say nothing – just sit in silence, eyes closed, sit trying futilely to clear my heart and mind. I don’t hear a voice or see light, but it nurtures my relationship with Jesus, grounds me, settles me, helps me trust, hope.
We may hear Jesus in other kinds of prayer as well… when we talk to God, when we tell him what’s important to us and what we’re grateful for, when we reflect on our lives, the events, the pattern of things. We may also hear Jesus inside us, in our conscience, in our passions, in our longings. Jesus lives in us. We may hear Jesus in conversations with friends and family. Jesus is in them, too.
And, of course, we may hear Jesus in scripture. What grabs us as we listen? What demands our attention? How does it speak to us here and now? Does it help us feel something? Does it give us a new insight? Jesus is there. It may not be a hundred percent clear, but that’s a common experience encountering Jesus in the Bible.
Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit, told a parable he called “The Explorer.”[iii] The explorer left his home and journeyed across the planet to the Amazon and, after much exploration, returned home. He told his people about his adventures, and they eagerly listened to his stories. He tried to find the words to describe his experiences and feelings; he tried to express the impact of seeing exotic flowers and plants, hearing the sounds of the jungle at night, sharing the land with wild and frightening beasts, paddling a canoe through treacherous rapids. He couldn’t find sufficient words, and so he told them, “Go and find out for yourselves.”
He really wanted them to know the Amazon. He drew a precise, detailed map to guide them to the river. His people pounced on the map and studied it. They framed it and put it in the town hall. They made some copies to have in their homes. They discussed it. They memorized the explorer’s description. After a while, they considered themselves experts on the river. They knew its every turn and bend, where it was broad and how deep, where the rapids were and where the falls. But they never left their home.
They thought that they had achieved some clarity about the river. But do you think that they really knew the river? Or were they armchair explorers? The explorer’s message – “Go and find out for yourselves” – is the evangelists’ message. Go and meet Jesus. Experience him yourself. The Bible is not a clear map, but is full of meaning and possibility. It’s to encourage us to explore, to wrestle with God, to be in relationship with him and to know him for ourselves.
V. Alleluia! Christ is risen.
R. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
[i] Uriel Rappaport, ‘Maccabean Revolt,’ article in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol 4, David Noel Freedman, Editor in Chief, Doubleday (1992), pp. 437-438.
[ii] Andreas J. Kostenberger, John, Baker Academic (2004), pp. 310.
[iii] Gary D. Jones, article in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, Westminster John Knox Press (2009), p. 448, mentions Anthony de Mello, “The Explorer,” The Song of the Bird, Image Books (1984), pp. 32-33.