Monday, July 14, 2008

John 8: 12-19

Lisa's latest sermon series in on the "I Am" statements of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. As these are directly related to the proclamation of the name of the LORD in Exodus ("I am who I am, or I will be who I will be"), there is a radical association of Jesus and the God of Israel in these statements, even as Jesus is distancing and dissociating himself from Pharisaical interpretations of who this God is. Lisa used this passage, in which Jesus proclaimed himself "the light of the world", and John 15, where Jesus proclaimed himself "the true vine". She preached on the latter image, but it is the former one of which I wish to speak. The exchange with the Pharisees here is interesting. First, from the Revised English Bible (oh, those nutty Brits and their translations!), here is John 8: 12-19:
Once again Jesus addressed the people: "I am the light of the world. No follower of mine shall walk in darkness; he shall have the light of life." The Pharisees said to him, "You are witness in your own cause; your testimony is not valid." Jesus replied, "My testimony is valid, even though I do testify on my own behalf; because I know where I come from, and where I am going. But you know neither where I come from nor where I am going. You judge by worldly standards; I pass judgment on no one. If I do judge, my judgment is valid because it is not I alone who judge, but I and he who sent me. In your own law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. I am a witness in my own cause, and my other witness is the Father who sent me." "Where is your father?" they asked him. Jesus replied, "You do not know me or my Father; if you knew me your would know my Father too."

One thing to note here is how Jesus creates distance between himself and his Jewish milieu, by referring to "your own law". There is, in the Fourth Gospel, this distancing between Jesus and the Jews, and it most likely resides in early (Gentile) Christian anti-Jewish feeling (I refuse to use that anachronistic term "anti-Semitism" here). Without surrendering to such prejudice, nonetheless, I think we can use this distancing in a less problematic fashion, perhaps. That is to say that Jesus is here not so much separating himself from his own Jewish roots so much as he is offering to the Pharisees a dose of their own medicine; they are quick to paint themselves as the true interpreters of God's law, and on this basis call Jesus and his life and ministry in to question. Jesus here is turning the tables on them.

To that end, it is important to realize that the Pharisees do not take the time to deal with what Jesus has to say. They become nit-picking lawyers, claiming that his testimony is out-of-bounds because he is doing so on his own behalf. Jesus does a double-whammy on them, first, by saying that they are judging based on "human standards" when in fact they are using the Mosaic code, which is supposed to be God's law. Further, he says that he does not judge, even as they are judging him.

How often do we get all caught up in discussions that hinge on how others insist our words are to be interpreted? How often do we hear people say they were "misquoted" or "misunderstood"? Jesus here is showing how to deal with these problems. Simply throw it back on those who would try to go all "meta" on us, telling us how wrong we are. Jesus does not defend his words in some kind of reasoned argument. Rather, he say, in effect, "Your criticism is illegitimate because you do not understand what I am saying. If you understood, you wouldn't be all critical. Your criticism is evidence of your willing ignorance."

I like this. I like Jesus showing how to ignore an argument started by others by saying, "Homey don't play that way." He is telling the Pharisees their rules no longer govern the way human beings are to live in relation to God. He is offering people the possibility of getting beyond legal nit-picking and the trap of literal belief. By telling people that, in following him, Jesus is offering them a light to freedom, a light that will never be extinguished, he is telling people that his, rather than the authority of others, even of the tradition of which he is himself a part, is the way God wants people to live. By arguing with Jesus over the whole issue of the legitimacy of his own words, the Pharisees indict themselves, hoist on the petard not of their own, but Jesus' words.

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