Hotheads and Zealots

Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent: Jeremiah 20:10-13, John 10:31-42.

I feel that I have less and less to say about the readings as we approach Holy Week. This could be a result of the distractions at home and in work or it could be because the weekday readings are the same from year to year and I don’t wish to repeat what I wrote in previous years. I can say that today, though, it is also in part due to a reaction against the people who rejected Christ in the gospels. I don’t know if it’s a sense of weariness over this rejection that we never forget in the life of the Church or perhaps a question of how many times I can reflect on the wrongness of humanity for not recognizing God in our midst. In any case, St. John’s gospel presents us with a number of episodes where the Jews continue to disbelieve, test, not listen to, and flat out insult our Lord, and today’s readings are another example. This being said, I hope to lay out a few observations below.

Study of five grotesque heads (c.1494), Leonardo da Vinci | Wikimedia Commons.

When we read that “The Jews picked up rocks to stone Jesus,” it’s a little jolt of surprise — wait, that’s not how He dies! Reading the gospels, we realize that Jesus came face-to-face with murderous intent several times (getting thrown off a cliff at Nazareth being another). Imagine if a random stoning over blasphemy was the story of His death. He would of course accomplish the Resurrection because immortality cannot be subject to death, but the great drama of the Passion is missing. As we approach Holy Week, we can reflect on the importance of the sequence of events happening in the way God intended for them to happen. We will encounter the praise and worship of His entrance into Jerusalem, a forecast of Christian worship in the form of the Church, but also a darkly ironic celebration just before betrayal, torture, and crucifixion at the hands of the people. Perhaps the stoning that could have happened in today’s reading was not enough of a judgement; by this I mean that all of the secular and religious powers had to participate in their wholly inappropriate judging and condemnation of the Son of God — today’s cluster of angry Jews did not fulfill the requirements that all of human powers must symbolically play in the drama of the Lord’s self-sacrifice. 

While not the great drama to come, today’s pericope offers a different type of deliverance. It is a lesson in contrasting patience and human reason with hothead zealousness. Jesus surely shows us how reason and intellect are a blessing from God, but also how they must be joined to a spiritual reality that they cannot explain. In response to the Jews picking up stones with the intent to kill Him, Jesus the master of the law asks which of his “many good works from my Father” justify death by stoning. He is meeting anger and impulse with dry facts and the law. When they respond it is not His deeds but rather blasphemy, let’s understand how difficult and frustrating it would be for the Son of God to hear that He’s the one blaspheming, much less have to defend Himself from these accusations. By definition, God cannot blaspheme against Himself. All that He says is creative and generative; He does not contradict Himself. But if they don’t accept Him as God (in fact, this is the very thing they think makes Him a blasphemer), then how to explain it to them? In the verses prior to this He has just said, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:25b-27). In other words, either they recognize Him as Lord through His deeds and words, or they simply do not because they do not have the Father in them. By this point, the whole conversation is moot, which is likely why the Jews picked up stones — they had nothing more to say with words.

But Jesus does not give up, much less participate in violence. He continues to reach out to them, long past the point when they were open to listening. He goes on to justify His words by pointing to scripture (Psalm 82), and justify Himself by pointing to “my Father’s works.” This is the action of the Father — endless mercy, endlessly reaching out to us even when we push Him away. Jesus even goes so far as to say, “even if you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may realize and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” He simply wants them to honor the Father here, knowing that a rejection of Himself is a rejection of the Father.

But it is not to be, and when they try to arrest Him, “he escaped from their power.” What an interesting turn of phrase here. The power they have is the power of the world, the power of Satan whispering in their ears, and this is a power that has no grip over Christ. The original Greek reads that he “went forth from” (ἐξῆλθεν / exēlthen) — interestingly, the same verb used to describe the water and blood that “flowed” from his side when he is pierced by a spear on the cross — “their grasp” (literally, their hands). This sense of “going forth” like flowing water reinforces the sense of irrefutability of the logic that we hear from the Logos of God. When water flows, we are somewhat at a loss of how to stop it, just like the Word of God can’t be stoppered and Jesus can’t be arrested before His time. These things are not subject to the will of humanity; they operate on a different plane and they are inevitable.

Crucifix of the Pierced Heart of Jesus from the Mother House Chapel of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Ixelles, Belgium | image from rscjinternational.org.

My prayer for today is that we learn some specific lessons from our Lenten gospel readings: that our role is never to be judge or executioner; that we refrain from trying to interrogate the Lord or pin Him down (hold Him in our grasp) and instead trust that He’s always there for us and look to join Him in the Spirit, which blows where the Father wills it; and that we check our own blasphemy any time we hear disrespect against the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit.

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