John and the Jews

The Gospel Reading is John 18:1-19:42.

I’m always uncomfortable when I hear in the gospel according to John, the phrase “the Jews.”

It’s a phrase John uses a lot when compared to other gospels(over 60 times compared to only 6 in Mark). Living 2000 years after Jesus’ ministry, this phrase might not sound too strange to us. But as the scholar Raymond Brown writes in reference to Jewish parents of a blind man in Jerusalem who are “described as being ‘afraid of the Jews’ (9:22) is just as awkward as having an American living in Washington, DC, described as being afraid of ‘the Americas’ – only a non-American speaks thus of ‘the Americans.'” John isn’t being descriptive in his use of the term; he’s being hostile. Scholars believe that the author of John was part of a community that had been expelled, or split, from Jews worshipping in synagogues. John’s community probably couldn’t understand why those in the synagogues did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and those in the synagogues couldn’t understand how these people did. They split apart and, like all breakups, mutual hostility and anger broke out. John community was so angry that Jesus’ story started to be reduced. The diversity of Judaism as witnessed in Mark, Matthew, and Luke (i.e. the Sadducees and the Pharisees) disappeared in John. They are all just “the Jews” and John does not like them very much.

So what should we do with this aspect of John? Do we removed the references or replace them with something softer, like “religious authorities?” Such a tactic, I believe, fuels the problem. The reality is that John says some hateful things and he’s been used to fuel Anti-Semitism for centuries. We shouldn’t mask the hateful things that Scripture sometimes says.

And I believe that’s what helps make Scripture powerful for us. Scripture isn’t just God’s word; scripture is also the human story. We are sinners. We feel hate. We exclude others, act out in anger, and discriminate over religion, race, sex, gender, and sexual orientation. We’re very good at not loving our neighbors or ourselves. And John’s gospel captures that. We see in John our inability to follow the commandments as Jesus taught us. John is showing us a community who are full of followers of Jesus but who still, like us, are caught up in sin. John’s community, like ours, still needs God’s love and grace to be transformed into the disciples God calls us to be.

John’s antagonism and hateful sayings are things that we, as disciples of Christ, stand against. Our love for our neighbors and for God’s creation calls us to do nothing less. John’s community, as a community in our world, still struggled with darkness. We still struggle with darkness too. But Jesus promises to keep coming to us, bringing light into our dark places, and showing us how to love.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 4/03/2015.