John 8:39-47 CEB
They replied, “Our father is Abraham.”
Jesus responded, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do Abraham’s works. Instead, you want to kill me, though I am the one who has spoken the truth I heard from God. Abraham didn’t do this. You are doing your father’s works.”
They said, “Our ancestry isn’t in question! The only Father we have is God!”
Jesus replied, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God. Here I am. I haven’t come on my own. God sent me. Why don’t you understand what I’m saying? It’s because you can’t really hear my words. Your father is the devil. You are his children, and you want to do what your father wants. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has never stood for the truth, because there’s no truth in him. Whenever that liar speaks, he speaks according to his own nature, because he’s a liar and the father of liars. Because I speak the truth, you don’t believe me. Who among you can show I’m guilty of sin? Since I speak the truth, why don’t you believe me? God’s children listen to God’s words. You don’t listen to me because you aren’t God’s children.”
“Twice, once in North Carolina [...] and once in Tennessee,” Jewish New Testament scholar and author Amy-Jill Levine has been asked by “older women in Methodist churches when [she] had [her] horns removed.” The words of Jesus for this morning are difficult because of the ways they have supported and excused harm. There are Christians who believe Jewish people have horns, in part, because if their ancestor is the devil, well then, they must have horns like their forefather. However, these words go beyond breeding simple ignorance, as this passage along with other passages from John have given rise to virulent and violent anti-Jewishness and anti-Semitism across the globe. We often, without much thought, perpetuate words that hurt, dehumanize, and kill. What do we do with the Gospel of John then?
On the one hand, it is a gospel of profound beauty and depth, depicting the awe-inspiring depth and presence of the Spirit. On the other hand, it creates this image of “the Jews” as Christ-killers and enemies and children of the devil, dedicated to death and evil. How do we as Christians deal with these kinds of texts? Is it possible to exorcize them of the potential for harm they possess? I do not think this is a question that can be easily answered. I think a lot comes down to our willingness to understand the various contexts our scriptures were written for, and that means we have to be willing to acknowledge that these words on the page sprang out of human hands with human faults, fears, prejudices, and failings. Somehow, our God does still speak through these texts, but I think it can sometimes be as much speaking with the text as pushing against it as well.
Let me just say, the Gospel of John is weird. It is not at all like Matthew, Mark, or Luke. It shares a few stories, true, but on the other hand, the picture of Jesus we see in John is unlike any of the other three. For instance, while the Gospel assumes “Jesus and his disciples to be Jews, [...] they are never directly referred to as Jews,” except once. Instead, the “Jews” are depicted consistently as the enemy, the ones opposed to Christ and the disciples, leading to some odd moments in this gospel. In John 9, Jesus meets a blind Jewish man in the region of Judea, and he heals him. Nothing out of the ordinary yet, but then the Jewish crowds in the area do not believe it and so interrogate the man’s parents about whether he was blind from birth. The parents are afraid of the crowds, and we told in particular that “they were afraid of the Jews” (John 9:22 NRSV). Again, after Jesus has been crucified and resurrected but before the disciples know the latter, we are told that “the doors were locked where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19 NRSV). Now, we are not Jewish, so maybe we do not see what is so odd about these passages, but John’s description of these events is confusing.
You see, everyone described as afraid of “the Jews” is Jewish. To put it another way, it is “just as awkward as having an American living in Washington, DC, described as being afraid of ‘the Americans’ — only a non-American speaks [like that of] ‘the Americans.’” What is happening in John’s gospel then? Like all the gospels, this one is as much addressing the situation of its audience as it is talking about events that happened in Jesus' life. It is widely believed that the community that created this gospel went through some serious changes between the time of Jesus and when John’s gospel took its final form somewhere around 95 C.E. This community started off in the synagogues as many early followers of Jesus were Jewish. However, Jesus-followers are all about making everyone else Jesus-followers. You can imagine how this might have rubbed the Jewish community the wrong way, so some conflict happens, and these followers leave the synagogue. In leaving and feeling abandoned by the synagogue, they end up turning against the synagogue. This last step is important because often when groups “split off from larger communities [they] often feel persecuted, [...] and build ideological walls around themselves for protection.” These smaller groups often feel like they are excluded not because they were wrong but because the larger group was “willfully ignorant of the truth, or [was] evil or demonically possessed.” Hmmm… that sounds a bit familiar…
In turning to our passage from John 8, we see Jesus having an exchange with others in the Jewish community that fits this idea. Jesus tells the crowd that if they were truly children of Abraham, “you would do Abraham’s works.” Jesus connects this to believing his words and following him, as “‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God.’” Jesus connects himself with God here and says that being children of Abraham is dependent on being faithful to God, i.e. being faithful to Jesus who is God. As this crowd does not, he says that they are opposed to God, so they are instead children of the devil, as they instead seek to kill Jesus and thus do evil. Imagine how this would have sounded to John's audience. Imagine them hearing these words of Jesus, and saying, “Well, that’s the only way all these Jewish folks could have not listened to us and accepted Jewish as the Messiah! They must be evil and demon-possessed!” Now, Jesus may have said something like this, but he is talking as a Jew criticizing other Jews, which would have captured the attention of John’s audience which saw itself “engaged in a struggle over the proper interpretation of Jewish tradition.” They would have latched onto this kind of argument. It is like how we can end up arguing in America between Americans about who is and who is not a true American. While we may not claim that the opposition is descended from the devil, we still try to use other virulent words like Nazi or Communist in much the same fashion.
Why go into all of this? What’s the point of all this context? It is to bring us into the mindset of when these words were first used. To understand that these words did not always spring out of some concern for universal truth. Rather, these words sometimes sprang out of the bitterness, conflict, and anger of the community at the time. It is hard to say something good about the other group after so much fighting. It is like imaging that at the end of 2024, after months of struggle, campaigning, and mud-slinging, the presidential candidates suddenly find themselves at the final debate, and imagine that at this final debate, the moderator suddenly looks at the gathered candidates and says that they are to turn to their neighbor and compliment them. I mean really compliment them, not just “Your hair looks nice” or “That suit looks great!”, I mean really compliment them on their character, skills, and leadership. How would this go over? Would it happen? Now you can hopefully see the major problem in these difficult words of Jesus.
What do we do with these words then? We need to understand them in their context and understand the emotions behind them. If we do not and if we instead hear them as God’s word about the Jewish people, that they are demons, or at least demon-spawn, how should they be treated? The Bible shows God and the heavenly forces in conflict with the forces and powers of evil, committed to their destruction, so we no longer see Jewish people as God’s children but as evil beings to be destroyed. This is not an exaggeration as this kind of belief has lain behind over two thousand years of violence and oppression against the Jewish people.
I would prefer we remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 5 where he expands the penalty for murder to encompass anger and insults, to speak hate means “you will be liable to hell” (Matthew 5:22 NRSV). These words from the Sermon on the Mount remind us how seriously we should consider the words we use before we speak. Perhaps we should remember this as well as the calls to love neighbors and build each other up when we read these words from John that “have inspired not love but hate, not grace but bigotry.” Now, most Christians are not actively anti-Semitic or even anti-Jewish, but we need to be aware that our scriptures have been used for these ends. We need to be aware that there are harmful words in our scriptures, and we need to be prepared to change the ways we use them so we do not promote hate and vitriol. This is hard work as it means setting aside our own pride and listening to other non-Christian groups– like our Jewish siblings– when they point out the words we say are hate-laced, even if these words are ones pulled from scripture. It is on us to listen, to study, to understand. It is on us to actively seek to prevent harm and promote love, to see both the beauty and hurt found in our scriptures, and to listen for what God is trying to teach us through both. Amen.
 Amy-Jill Levine, The Difficult Words of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to His Most Perplexing Teachings (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2021),125.
 Maia Kotrosits, Rethinking Early Christian Identity: Affect, Violence, and Belonging (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 163-164.
 Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 41.
 Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 6th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 83.
 Ibid., 188.
 Gail R. O’Day, “John 8:39-47, Children of Abraham/Children of God” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, Leander E. Keck, ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 639-643. Both passages of the Mishnah and commentary from the Essenes in the Qumran community show that this kind of harsh language was not unusual in intra-Jewish arguments.
 Levine 2021,147.
Pastor Paul Grossman