[Homily. Based on John 10:30-42. Jesuit Community. Mar 26, 2021.]
The Jews picked up rocks to stone him” (31). It was not the first time the Jews took up stones to kill him. When he claimed to be before Abraham, using language that identified him with God’s unutterable name, “Before Abraham came to be, I AM” (Jn 8:58), they picked up stones to throw at him. But at that time, he disappeared. Now in this 10th chapter of John, where Jesus introduces himself as the Good Shepherd, after he said the sheep that had been entrusted to him by the Father, the sheep that knew his voice, as he knew their voice, could not be taken away from him – not even by the self-righteous Jews who were attacking him – they again picked up rocks to stone him to death. This was because, after he claimed the sheep had been entrusted to him by the Father, he declared “The Father and I are one” (30). Hearing what they perceived to be an outrageous identification by Jesus of himself as a mere human being with God, they judged the statement to be blasphemy, a sacrilegious act of human arrogance desecrating the sacred Name of God. In consequently picking up rocks to stone him to death, they were only applying God’s command in Leviticus when Moses brought a man caught in blasphemy to the Lord, and the Lord commanded, “Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and when all who have heard him have laid their hands on his head, let the whole community stone him. Tell the Israelites…anyone who blasphemes shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; alien and native alike must be put to death for blaspheming the Lord’s name” (Lev. 24:15-16). Such is the inviolability of the Holy. We recall the first commandment: I am the Lord Thy God… There is only one God. How dare this Jesus of Nazareth make himself into a strange god not only before God but one with the Holy God! How dare he take the name of the Lord God in vain?
His words having sparked the controversy, Jesus could have again slipped away. After all, his hour had not come. But in the Gospel for today he stands his ground. He engages the Jews, his enemies. It was after all they who had initiated the open debate when they confronted him at the Portico of Solomon in the Temple on the occasion of the Feast of the Dedication: “How long are you going to keep us in suspense?” they challenged him. “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (24). Jesus answered them. He said, “I told you and you do not believe.” What he’d told them he’d accompanied with signs. “I’ve told you…and the works [the signs, the miracles] that I do in my Father’s name testify to me. But you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.” These Jews were not included among the chosen sheep. “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me. I give them life, and they shall never perish” (25-27a). In other words, Jesus was saying: You are not among them. I am the Shepherd. You are wolves. I lay down my life for my sheep. You shall “not be able to take them out of my hand. … No one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” This said, declaring the actions of his hand one with the actions of the Father’s hand, declaring the Father and he one, the self-righteous Jews picked up rocks to stone him to death for blasphemy.
But Jesus engaged them. “I have shown you many good works from my Father. For which of these are you trying to stone me?” (33). The Jews would easily have recalled the story of how Jesus had opened the eyes of the man born blind, or how he had fed the five thousand, or how he had healed the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda. “We are not stoning you for good works, but for blasphemy. You, a man, are making yourself God.” But Jesus replies – allow me to paraphrase – “Is it so outrageous that I, consecrated by the Father and sent into this world to do his work, call myself Son of God when in in the Old Testament they called the judges of the Israelites established during the Exodus of the people “gods” because judgement is a prerogative of God?” “In rendering judgement,” the Book of Deutoronomy said, “do not consider who a person is: give ear to the holy and the great alike, fearing no man, for judgement is God’s” (Deut 1:17). However, the all-too-human judges were not faithful to this sacred trust. In Psalm 82, God pronounces judgement on the unjust judges and magistrates of the people, who are referred to as gods. To understand Jesus’ defense against blasphemy it is relevant to hear the psalm, entitled Downfall of Unjust Gods:
God rises in the divine council,
Gives judgement in the midst of the gods.
“How long will you judge unjustly and favor the cause of the wicked?
“Defend the lowly and fatherless; render justice to the afflicted and the needy.
Rescue the lowly and the poor; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
The gods neither know nor understand,
Wandering about in darkness and all the world’s foundations shake.
I declare, “Gods though you be,
Offspring of the Most High all of you,
Yet like any mortal you shall die; like any prince you shall fall.”
Arise, O God, judge the earth, for yours are all the nations.
The judges and magistrates of the Israelites were called gods because their office was supposedly accomplished in the name of God. Their charge from God was not however accomplished with appropriate works. They were unjust and favored the cause of the wicked, failing to defend the lowly and the fatherless. So in Psalm 82 the Lord reminds all that these gods are mere mortals, subject to the judgement of God.
Jesus was directly confronting “the Jews,” who were purporting to stand in judgement over him like gods, recalling to them that they too will be judged based on the barrenness of their words and stench of their works. We recall his words in another context: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth. Even so, on the outside you appear righteous but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing…” (Mt. 27-28). “Gods though you be, offspring of the Most High all of you. Yet like any mortal you shall die; like any prince you shall fall” (Ps 82:6-7).
Meanwhile Jesus said in all clarity, “If the law [the Old Testament] calls them gods to whom the word of God came, and scripture cannot be set aside, can you say that the one whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world blasphemes because I said, “I am the Son of God’?[i] If I do not perform my Father’s works, do not believe me, but if I perform them, 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.”
The Jews tried to arrest him, but his time had not yet come. He who “from the beginning was with God, and was God” (Jn 1:1-2) escaped from their power and crossed the Jordan to the place where his ministry had begun. And those who had heard his voice, believed in him.
[i] In speaking of his eventual crucifixion, Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:1617).