Commentary on John 8:31-36
Chapters 7 and 8 in the Gospel of John situate Jesus in the midst of reform.
These are hard chapters full of hostility on several levels. The initial layer of hostility is created by the complexity of the relationship between Jesus and the Jews of his own day. A second level of animosity has to do with the confusion of the gospel writer’s own community over its relationship with the post-temple Jewish movement.
The starkness of this hostility and the continuous dialogue that issues from John 8:31-59 should lead us to a cautionary preaching of the text. It is of paramount importance that we do not remove any of the subtexts of these two chapters from their socio-cultural and historical contexts. The context is that of identity. Who belongs inside and outside the true followers of Jesus? This is the chief question on this Reformation Sunday.
For liturgical churches, the color for Reformation Sunday is red. Red for the blood of the martyrs who stand within the line of reformist thinking. Reform sometimes causes the powerful to kill those with whom they disagree.
There is Jan Hus, the pre-reformist whose writings inspired much of Martin Luther’s thinking. Huss would not recant the writings about, among other things, the scriptural idea that Christ alone was head of the Church and the denouncement of the supremacy of the Pope. He was martyred by fire on July 6, 1415.
Perhaps, a more familiar martyr is Dietrich Bonhoeffer who resisted the schemes of Hitler from his firm commitment to “the cost of discipleship.” He was executed on April 9, 1945.
Reformation. Tension. Misunderstanding. Identity. Belonging. Kinship. These are the themes of this passage.
Jesus is in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (remembering God’s care for the children of Israel in their wilderness wanderings), and hostility is mounting. The chapter ends with the Jews picking up stones to kill Jesus. Hostility in relationship to theology sometimes has murderous consequences.
Discuss: Where is there evidence of literal and figurative murder for the sake of theology in our world?
Our text follows Jesus’ teaching the Jews in the temple about his own identity. John 8:31-36 begin a dialogue that is a response to those of the Jews who had believed in the things he said. The NRSV translates the first word in verse 31 as “then.” That is not strong enough for the context of this dialogue. The verse should read: “Therefore, Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him … ”
There is often a pattern in John where Jesus says something and it is misunderstood. Jesus is attempting in the conversation with the believing Jews to clarify what it is that they purportedly believe in. 8:31-37 is the first of five of these patterns that recur until the end of the chapter.
Jesus is essentially testing the new believers as to the sufficiency of their faith — faith forms identity. Or so Jesus is trying to teach them. The Greek word for “truth” is essential to the faith that Jesus is conversationally uncovering.
If “they” continue forward in Jesus’ word, “they” are truly disciples of him. Furthermore, “they” will know the truth, and the truth will free “them.” This promise uttered by Jesus is the entry point of the misunderstanding.
The Jews seize onto the wrong concept of the truth about freedom. They are descendants of Abraham and are free. The phrasing here is emphatic, what we might classify as bad grammar in English: “We have never by no means ever been slaves to no one.” This assertion of never having been enslaved is ludicrous in the context of these chapters. The very feast they are observing is that of God’s graceful deliverance of them in the wilderness as they made their way from Egyptian slavery to the promised land.
Jesus answers the ironic nature of their misunderstanding with some words that are almost a riddle. When we read “truly, truly I say to you,” in John, this is something of an emoticon — the words are a language picture to show that the next thing is important.
Slavery is about what one does — sin. The slave to sin does not have a permanent place in the kind of faith identity that Jesus is proposing. The only way out of that loop of slavery is to be made free by the son. Only the son can gift this kind of freedom.
Jesus is going against the conventional wisdom of his day (and ours, at times) that one’s birth status — slave or son/daughter — determines one’s character, value, or status. “Who’s your daddy” is the question that is behind this confrontation. Jesus says that being a descendant of Abraham is not enough. Jesus is the “Son of Man.” (v. 28) Jesus is a descendant of God (vs. 28 and 42). Only the son can grant the kind of freedom and place that they think they have claimed by believing.
The supreme misunderstanding of identities and place is the core misunderstanding of Jesus and his mission. Jesus is reforming the thinking of the Jews of his day, and they simply do not yet seem to comprehend.
Discuss: Where are there notes of reformation and rethinking of our religious heritage today? What do these reforming ideas have to offer our context?