Saturday in the Fourth Week of Lent: Jeremiah 11:18-20, John 7:40-53.
Today’s readings display the evil plots of those who willingly disbelieve. In the Old Testament and New, we see those with hardened hearts speak ill of and plan the destruction of the righteous. We must beware of this tendency that arises when we are not open and inquiring, always humble in the presence of God.
Jeremiah was a spitfire of a prophet, to be sure. He did God’s will without fail, but also reveled a bit in divine justice, or vengeance as he would call it. In today’s reading, God reveals to him that there are those who dislike his preaching and are plotting against him. We hear, “Let us destroy the tree in its vigor; let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will be spoken no more.” We hear similar evil words throughout sacred scripture and secular history. It reminds me of our Lenten reading of Joseph’s brothers (sons of Jacob), plotting against him and selling him into slavery (see Tend to the Good Fruit of the Vineyard). They say, “Here comes that master dreamer! Come on, let us kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns here” (Gen 37:19-20). Both of these episodes display a disease at the heart of the speakers, their flawed hearts allow jealousy, anger, self-centerdeness, defensiveness, and, ultimately, malice to grow.
Even if murder is not physically enacted, Jesus tells us that the intent is enough to condemn us. As the fulfillment of the law, Jesus warns us that we must be more than just followers of the letter of the law; we must allow God’s Law to inhabit our hearts. From another reading this Lent, He illustrates that while we know we should not kill, “whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Mt 5:22). His point is that while we might refrain from the physical act of murder, we may still hold murderous intent — malice — in our hearts (see Salvation is Based on Our Core Person … for a fuller reflection on this). The reading from Jeremiah (and Genesis) displays this murderous intent in stark words.
Turning to today’s gospel reading from St. John, we encounter a crowd of very divided Jews reacting to Jesus’s words. Some were convinced that he was “the Christ,” while others wanted to arrest him. What has them in such a state?
In the verses just prior to our reading, we learn that it is “last day of the festival, the great day,” which is known as Hoshana Rabbah. This is the last “day of judgment” in the Jewish calendar when they process around the temple seven times and have a great temple service, imploring the Lord for a bountiful year ahead. Water played a special role throughout the festival of Sukkot during this period of history. On each morning of the seven days, the priests would travel down to the river to gather water and bring it back to the altars, where it would be poured into special holes that would allow the water to drain at a slow rate, flowing from God’s altar. On this last day of Hoshana Rabbah, the priest makes a great show of the water libation as an appeal to God to provide water for the people in the year ahead. It is at this time that Jesus cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water'” (Jn 7:37-38).
No wonder the crowd is aghast! Jesus, as if in answer to the priest’s prayer, tells the people to come to him for living water. He is establishing that He has God’s power of restoration for the people. This proclamation forces the Jews to make a decision, to react. Will they accept the Messiah in their midst or reject Him? If they believe Him, they must follow Him in order to receive this living water that God will provide. Here, at the culmination of a great seven-day festival, replete with rituals and priestly roles, they are facing the option of potentially replacing all of these things that define them with faith in a single man (a Galilean at that!). On the persuasive side, His preaching during the festival has “astounded” them with his wisdom and command of God’s Word. Plus, he is renowned for working miracles, in the temple and beyond. But the stakes are incredibly high for them. The alternative to following him is that they maintain the rituals and beliefs that are much more comfortable to them. It’s inertia vs. actuation. Comfortable doubt vs. faith in something new.
We hear that “Some of them even wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.” These are the ones who have chosen doubt, and we see where it leads them: arrest, persecution, shutting him up. The gospel emphasizes that these feelings from diseased hearts lead nowhere. St. John Chrysostom explains in his Homily 51 on the Gospel of John:
Such a thing is malice! It will give way to nothing, it looks to one thing only, and that is, to destroy the person against whom it plots. But what says the Scripture? “Whoever digs a pit for his neighbor, shall fall into it himself” (Proverbs 26:27). Which was the case then. For they desired to kill Him, to stop, as they thought, His preaching; the result was the opposite. For the preaching flourishes by the grace of Christ, while all that was theirs is quenched and perished; they have lost their country, their freedom, their security, their worship, they have been deprived of all their prosperity, and have become slaves and captives (Homily 51, 3).
The problem with plotters is that they are too caught up in the short-term and in themselves. Chrysostom shows us that the long view, the perspective where we interact with the eternal, has a “rightness” that does not belong to us. This eternal perspective God invites us to share shows us that those malicious Jews (and all who exhibit malice) “have lost their freedom” in that they are captive to their own prejudice and small-mindedness; “they have been deprived of all their prosperity” in that they no longer grow as human beings but shrink into desiccated shells of hatred.
Today’s gospel continues by showing us the diseased hearts and malice of the chief priests and Pharisees. They chastise the guards for not arresting Jesus: “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him?” They attack the guards as being feeble-minded and offer themselves as the authorities on what is correct. They display their myopic determination to be seen as “right.” And when Nicodemus, a Pharisee who has come to Jesus previously with an open mind, urges them to give him a chance to talk with them before condemning him, they lash out. They venomously reply, “You are not from Galilee also, are you? Look and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” We are shown that the diseased hearts of these impotent plotters devours them, so much so that they begin attacking their own.
What a stark choice we are given in John’s gospel. On one hand, we have the Son of God, speaking with authority, working miracles, and offering life-giving water. On the other, we have the chief priests, Pharisees, and doubters — plotters all — who have no light and no truth to offer their people. All they offer is malice. If we judge by the fruits, we can see that this tree is diseased. And as Chrysostom points out, “it will come to nothing.”
The passage ends: “Then each went to his own house.” They are left with nothing but themselves and their evil thoughts.