March 19, 2023 Hamilton Coe Throckmorton
John 9:1-41 The Federated Church, UCC
A couple of years ago, “Two young Orthodox [Jewish] boys were playing in their yard in California and [they] were shot with paintballs—red paintballs.” Emily Snider, whose work is to catalog such incidents, says “it was heart-breaking. Absolutely heartbreaking.”
This, of course, was not an isolated incident. A National Public Radio story from late last year says, “According to the Anti-Defamation League, 2021 was the highest year on record for documented reports of harassment, vandalism, and violence directed against Jews.” And it’s entirely likely that 2022 and 2023 have continued that trend. In the last five years, such incidents have tracked steadily upwards.
“The current streak,” says NPR, “includes the 2018 attack on the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue, where a gunman killed eleven Jewish worshipers, as well a deadly ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, VA, two years earlier where extremist demonstrators chanted, ‘Jews will not replace us’ during a torchlit march, but also thousands of smaller incidents like vandalizing Jewish schools and community centers, or extremist flyering campaigns.” Not to mention prominent national politicians dining with and lending credence to Ye (formerly Kanye West) and Nick Fuentes, prominent antisemitic Holocaust deniers, as well as two recent shootings of Jews outside synagogues in Los Angeles (https://www.npr.org/2022/11/30/1139971241/anti-semitism-is-on-the-rise-and-not-just-among-high-profile-figures).
Not only that, but we still live in the abysmal shadow of the Holocaust perpetrated in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Jews are regularly accused of being greedy and power-hungry. And striking at the heart of faith, far too often, Jews have been held responsible for the death of Jesus.
Because blaming Jews for the death of Jesus is such an appalling misreading of history, and because Jews continue to be victims of such vandalism and antisemitism and violence, it seems crucial for us as Christians that we take stock of our history, and that we look more closely at some of the causes of this travesty. So to try to make sense of this, we’re going to take a focused look at two verses in particular in this morning’s reading.
Because this beautifully told story in John’s gospel is somewhat long and dense, I’m going to give us a thumbnail version. A man who had been born blind has his sight restored by Jesus. Then ensue numerous conversations involving the disciples, the Pharisees, the man’s parents, the healed man himself, and Jesus. Everybody except Jesus is trying to figure out how this happened, and what this astounding event says about the one who has been the agent of this miraculous restoration of sight.
The problem we face arises because of two verses in that story. In v. 18, the text says, “The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight.” And more damningly, the text of v. 22 says, “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:18, 22, NRSV). You may have noticed that that’s not exactly the way we heard the story a moment ago. When we read the entire story, we read from a version of the Bible that, rather than saying “the Jews,” instead substituted the phrase “the religious authorities.” But “the Jews” is the way the story actually reads in its original Greek: “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews.”
The gospel of John uses the phrase “the Jews” some seventy times. Sometimes it’s said in a neutral way, without judgment. Occasionally it even has a positive connotation. In many instances, though, when the Fourth Gospel uses the expression, “the Jews,” it is said in a pejorative way. Maybe the most well-known example of this negative take on “the Jews” occurs in a passage we will hear four weeks from today on the second Sunday of the Easter season. Just after Jesus has risen from the dead and the disciples have gathered to try to make sense of what has happened, the story says that “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews” (20:19, NRSV).
So when Christians blame Jews for the death of Jesus, and, in the present day, express their suspicion and hatred in acts of violence and vengeance, it becomes incumbent on us who are Christian to attend carefully to the biblical stories that have shaped us, and to try to better understand some of the nuances of what’s being said there.
I want to acknowledge that this morning we’re doing something a little different from the sort of sermon we often hear in this church. And I’m aware that the subject matter is dense, complex, rather academic and, because of that, in many ways, it’s not easy to follow. At the same time, it’s crucial that we reflect on the ways we, as Christians, have heard and appropriated such troublesome stories. So today, we address this in a way that I hope will be salutary, a way that sheds some light on the manner in which we Christians have fostered antisemitism. And, as I say, this is a challenging and difficult subject. I’ll try to be as clear as I can be. And I invite you to go on this journey with me.
The history of scholarship on this matter has explained this apparent biblical antisemitism in two primary ways, both of which, it seems to me, give some context to these words that sound so ugly to our ears. I’m going to lay out both lines of reasoning this morning, and invite us to see these passages through these two lenses.
One way to look at these words is to remember, first, that everybody involved in these biblical conversations is a Jew. So when the Fourth Gospel uses the phrase “the Jews” in a derogatory way, it’s a Jew saying this about other Jews who are reflecting on this mysterious man Jesus, who is also a Jew. It’s not like a contemporary Christian criticizing Jews or Muslims or Buddhists. This is not one religion looking down on another religion. This is a Jew casting aspersions on other Jews.
So the argument that’s happening in John’s story is more like an intramural clash. Rather than one religion bashing another, it’s a fight between two or more divergent wings of a single religion, Judaism. It might help to imagine a contemporary argument between a member of the UCC and a fundamentalist Christian who takes every word of the Bible literally, or a disagreement between a Christian of our ilk and one who’s an avowed white nationalist. We would all be identified as Christians, but we would have a very different take on what the heart of Christian faith is all about. So when the writer of the gospel criticizes “the Jews,” he’s criticizing a member of the religion they all share. It’s a sort of internecine battle in which they’re engaged.
That doesn’t make the acerbic language any more palatable—it’s still awful. It does, though, give that sort of language a different spin. Not only that, but there’s a further dimension of this intramural battle. When we hear language like that, we tend to project our own cultural setting into that first-century biblical world. So when we hear that sort of flame-throwing language, we see it from the perspective of our culture in which Christians are dominant and Jews are a tiny minority. When those with power criticize and undermine those without power, we all recognize that as atrociously inappropriate. This is why racism is defined as prejudice plus power. Members of minority groups may well have prejudice. But they don’t customarily have power. And because of that, so often they are incapable of inflicting their prejudice on others in the same systemic way.
The factor that we may so easily miss is that, in the community in which the Fourth Gospel was written, followers of Jesus were not the ones who held the power. This is so different from our world. Followers of Jesus were, in fact, something of a minority. The Judaism that was dominant was the Judaism of the Pharisees and the rabbis, and that more powerful branch of Judaism was dismissive of the Jesus sect. As we see in today’s story, that more dominant Pharisaic branch of Judaism had the power to boot the followers of Jesus out of Judaism. This is precisely what happens to the man born blind after he’s been healed (9:34): he’s essentially excommunicated. And this is wildly hurtful and offensive to the Jesus sect. So these affronted followers of Jesus use the only real weapon they have at their disposal: they express their frustration in a kind of name-calling, and label religious leaders who have punished them as simply “the Jews.”
So to sum up this first way of looking at this volatile language, we note that everyone in these biblical arguments is Jewish—nobody is lobbing a grenade at Jews from outside Judaism. And further, the ones who are using this vitriolic language are the ones with the least power. These Jewish followers of Jesus certainly have prejudice in this story—they’re clearly biased against Pharisaic Jews—but they don’t have the power that would allow them to inflict suffering on their antagonists. So the criticisms against Pharisees and Jews that we see leveled in the gospel of John are night and day different from the situation in our world, in which a Christian going after a Jew is grotesquely inappropriate because the Christian, in our culture, is the one with the power.
So that’s one perspective on this obvious tension: this is Jews fighting against Jews, and it’s the ones without the power—the followers of Jesus—who are hurling the insults. As we say, the insults are still atrocious, but they are insults hurled without power. There’s a second, entirely different, way to read these stories about Jewish verbal jousting, though. And that is this: the real oppressor in all of these stories isn’t the Pharisees or any other Jewish religious sect. The real problem is Rome. And while Rome may not even be mentioned in these verses, it is certainly the backdrop to the entire story being told in the gospels. Let’s look some more at the context of that end-of-the-first-century Middle Eastern world. You may remember that Rome controls the entire area. And they rule with an iron fist. No rebellion is stomached. No wandering from loyalty to the empire is allowed. Dissidence is crushed.
All four gospel writers write near the end of the first century. They write, in other words, in the wake of Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem, and especially of the central Jewish Temple, in the year 70 CE. No Jew of the time could have been unaware of the threat to their lives and livelihoods if they spoke out in any direct way against the rule of Rome. It was simply too risky.
To use a kind of thought experiment, imagine for a moment that a terrifying foreign power were to take over the United States, and that this occupying power brooked no dissent and crushed any opposition. Who of us would be likely to question that occupying force? Who of us would dare to challenge the powers-that-be? That sort of power cows people into submission and a kind of coerced silence.
And what people tend to do in that sort of situation, as counter-intuitive as it seems, is, instead of going after the real oppressor, to go after each other. When I first met my spouse, Mary, she was the head nurse of a hospital intensive care unit. And I remember her telling me that what she saw among nurses when they were frustrated with working conditions was that instead of feeling empowered to speak out against the hospital administration that instituted the conditions that bothered them, they would turn against each other. Rather than take up their issues with those who were causing the problem, they would snipe at each other. The academic term for it is “horizontal violence.” Instead of confronting the real bully, the actual perpetrator, they would not uncommonly criticize each other and tear each other down.
This is essentially what we see in the gospel of John. Jews who are understandably intimidated and frightened by a brutal Roman Empire, instead of challenging that empire, push back against each other. It doesn’t solve any real problem. But it does keep the people out of danger.
The real cause of suffering for that first-century Jewish community wasn’t other Jews. It was the Romans who kept everyone under the thumb of the empire. And what we see in the Fourth Gospel is sideways sniping and slapping because it’s far too risky to attack the true source of the subjugation and cruelty. Rather than hold the Romans responsible, Jews of various sects end up criticizing each other.
This is a lot for one sermon. It asks that we approach things somewhat differently than we do in a customary sermon. But it seems crucial that we try to take stock of language that has provoked antagonism and hatred on the part of Christians toward our Jewish siblings. To sum up: there are two contextual factors that shade the words we’ve heard this morning in a way that we usually don’t take in. First, these words that blame “the Jews” for their perceived faults are really the product of an internecine battle between two different sects of Judaism, Pharisaic Jews and Jewish followers of Jesus. And the sect doing the complaining—the Christ-following sect—is the one without any real power. So they use vitriolic language as the only weapon evidently available to them to convey their unhappiness with the more powerful Jews. This intra-Jewish dispute is a distinctive factor in the antisemitism that has entirely inappropriately arisen from this story.
More subtly, and more destructively, the real antagonist in these stories is the empire of Rome, which rules with an iron fist and brooks no dissent. So instead of going after Rome, these various Jewish parties do what many of us would likely do, as well, and go after each other. In a kind of horizontal violence, they bitingly criticize their siblings in the faith for their perceived failings. This ubiquitous Roman tyranny casts an enormous shadow over the writing of the gospels. And it has shaped those gospels in unfortunate but understandable ways.
All of which is to say that the gospel of John has been shaped by some painful and difficult factors that have led it to frame some matters inappropriately. At the same time, though, it needs to be said clearly that there is no warrant for antisemitism in the gospel of John. What we are called to, as followers of Christ, is to be active voices for the healing that Jesus practices with the man born blind. If we’re being true to Jesus, we’re part of undoing the metaphorical blindness that affects us all, and coming to to see clearly the grandness and worth of every human being, and indeed of the earth itself. Jesus heals simply because this is who he is. And our vocation as Christians is to be agents of that healing wherever there is brokenness and pain and sorrow. May it always be so.
For further reading, see:
The Jewish Annotated New Testament (edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler)
The New Interpreters Bible, Volume 9 (edited by Gail O’Day; commentary on chapters 8 and 9 of John’s gospel)
“Rome Will Destroy Us: Resisting Anti-Judaism in John,” (webinar led by Rev. Anne Dunlap on “Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ)”; Feb. 24, 2020; transcript: 2020 Gospel of John Webinar Outline PDF.pdf)