Commentary on John 8:31-36
One year ago, the world took note of an important anniversary.
That 500th anniversary marked an event that shook the Christian world. In 1517 Martin Luther challenged the church, the papal authorities, in order to explore the truth and the freedom of the Christian life. Were people saved by paying the indulgences offered by the church, or were they saved by the grace of God alone?
As we mark year 501, many of Luther’s questions are asked anew. Like those in today’s gospel text, we are challenged to reflect upon who we are to follow and in what we are to believe. What will make us free? I would suggest that, on this Reformation Day, we need to examine this text from three points of view: the gospel writer’s frame, Luther’s context, and of course, how Jesus challenges us today.
First, let us reflect upon the context in which this text was written. It is a text about truth, about freedom, and about the locus of that freedom. Whenever we dive into a text it is crucial that we read “backwards.” In this text Jesus is engaging the “Jews who believed in him.” Doesn’t that strike us as a bit odd? Were there many non-Jews who believed in him? Certainly, by the time of the gospel writer, there were Gentile Christians, but most scholars argue that the author is a Jewish Christian writing to Jewish Christians.
It is clear that Jesus is being opposed by the Jewish authorities. In John 7 we see that the Pharisees and chief priests are arguing about who this man is and what they should do with him. Some were beginning to believe that this man may be the Messiah. But others argued he could not be. Jesus was not a descendant of David, “no prophet is to arise from Galilee” (John 7:52b). Therefore, Jesus is seeking to challenge those who would dismiss or arrest him, “I know where I have come from and where I am going” (John 8:14). What is important is that, even those who believed that Jesus might in fact be the Messiah, they continued to ground their identity in their Jewish heritage, “We are descendants of Abraham” (John 8:33).
It is this moment that is crucial for the gospel writer. At the heart of this controversy is one’s identity. Is one a follower of Jesus? Is one to find freedom in Jesus or in Abraham? Is one to know that Jesus spoke the truth, or rather the teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees?
As we read this debate it is important that we realize that Jesus is a Jew speaking to Jews who are in conflict with other Jews. In reflecting on this exchange, the context of the gospel writer and his readers is central. John’s community believed in Jesus, believed that he spoke the truth, and believed that their freedom lay in walking the way of Jesus. But for that they had been cast out of the synagogue. They no longer had their “place in the household.” Their freedom, their new life was to be found in “the Son,” even if that meant disagreeing with the Scribes and Pharisees. They were experiencing freedom, but it came at a cost, a profound loss for many.
What does it mean to look at this text through Luther’s frame? Freedom was crucial for Luther. Where was the truth, freedom, new life to be found? Luther argued that it was not to be found in the medieval pietistic accretions, the indulgences, that marked the Christians life at that time. Rather it was found only in belief in Jesus Christ. The challenge with reading this text on Reformation Day is that we must confront and admit Luther’s anti-Semitism.
When John wrote this gospel text, he still considered himself a Jew, as did those in his community. They were wrestling how to remain faithful to the teachings of Abraham and Moses while, at the same time following Jesus. Luther, on the other hand, while reading the law and the prophets understood that his freedom lay in the grace of God found in Jesus. He also understood that Jews, who did not come to accept Jesus, were slaves to sin and were to be rejected. They were descendants of Abraham, but they were not free because they would not accept Jesus’ word.
As we observe Reformation Day, we must be careful not to read an anti-Jewish approach into this text. The gospel writer is seeking to help a displaced community find a home. Luther was also seeking to find a true home for he, too, was soon displaced from his home when Pope Leo X excommunicated him on January 3, 1521. John and his community were cast out for what they believed. Luther was cast out for what he believed.
Finally, how is Jesus challenging us today? Where do we find our truth, our freedom? What is our place in the household of God? Do we find our freedom in the grace and love of God or do we cling to our worldly identity? These are crucial questions when we live in a sharply divided world. How are we to read this text in our world?
Jesus asks those of us who consider ourselves to be his disciples, to continue in his word. What word is that? The Son makes us free, and that Son challenges us to love our neighbor. He asks us to see all persons as beloved children of God. We are free when we recognize that we live in a household in which all are welcome.
In one of his first treatise, “The Freedom of a Christian” Luther observed that as Christians we are totally free and are not to bow down to anyone but God. He then went on to write that to be a Christian also means that one is to be a servant to all. We are challenged to live out this contradiction of servant-hood and freedom. Only then, as Jesus tells us, will we truly be free.