“Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”
The Gospel reading appointed for today has a decidedly more direct and serious tone than the last few weeks. We are no longer faced with miracles but with the identity of Jesus himself. We are not wrestling with the presence of signs or images but the very being of God. The differences are stark and the conflicts are cosmic: “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” The Gospel reading is an encapsulation of this conflict, a summary of years of tension put in one tight passage. The Jews have been faced with Jesus’ miracles, they have been faced with his teachings, but now they are faced with a direct claim of his divinity. We as readers are put through the same challenge this Lent. We have seen his miracles and his teachings, and now we are faced with his divinity, the true divinity of a man born in Nazareth. This revelation drove Jesus to the cross, the same route we are following in the season of Lent. Lets take a look at how this came about. Today’s Gospel message takes place within the temple walls in a certain area known as the treasury of the temple. No Gentiles were allowed in this area, but both Jewish women and men were.
This physical context helps us understand which Jews, in Greek Iudaioi, he is addressing. We need to be careful that it is not all of Jews who are plotting against Jesus: John says as much in 7:40 and 8:30. When John refers to the Jews, he is referring to the temple leadership, the leading class of Jews in Jerusalem. Even then, it is not all the scribes, pharisees, and priests of this elite class. It is similar to political analysts using the term Washington to refer to our political leaders and their culture, not all the citizens of the district. When a journalist writes, “Washington is out of touch with the economic predicament of middle America” they do not mean every citizen in the District is blind to that problem. Rather, they mean that the leaders, the representative elite who control the power are out of touch. Likewise, Jesus is addressing a certain group within Jerusalem who have been trying to kill Jesus and pressure others to turn away from Jesus since chapter 5.
Here in chapter 8, immediately preceding our Gospel passage, the situation is growing very intense. Jesus calls upon the people to follow him, since “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The leaders of the Jews respond that they have never been enslaved and therefore do not need his word. But as representatives of Israel, this should come across as an absurd, or at the very least, bizarre statement! They do have an intense memory of slavery: in Egypt! Every year in the Passover liturgy, called the Haggadah, they cry, “Now we are slaves, next year may we be free!” Notice how their liturgy uses the present tense that hopes for a time of freedom in the future. These Jews have centuries of tradition weighing upon them, yet they evade the words of Jesus by a literalism that is laughable at best.
Jesus pushes their answer even further. This group of Jews insist that they are free since “Abraham is our father” (39), but Jesus points out that their actions show that they slaves, slaves to a different father, since they seek to kill him. And their response? Another nasty remark: “We were not born of sexual immorality” (41) threatening that they have secret information concerning the birth of Jesus.
Jesus does not give time to their slander, but instead focuses on their hypocrisy–how their actions have compromised their tradition and Law. He is finished with tiresome arguments that only darken the meaning at hand. You see, the leaders of the Jews rely on the claim (like in v. 33 and 39) that they are offspring (semen/sperma) of Abraham, but Jesus calls them to be children (filii/tekna) of Abraham. They might be descendants but in no way are they children because they do not act like their father. Notice how Jesus is distinguishing two different types of Jews: those that are offspring and those that are children. Jesus bluntly tells those that claim to be offspring:
“Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.”
Children act like their father. Since the Jewish leaders are problematic liars, their father is the devil. These words bring us right up to the Gospel passage: “He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.” And what is the Jews’ response? That Jesus is a Samaritan and has a demon, a base slander that avoids the issue at hand. Jesus continues to reply meekly, giving honor to his Father in heaven and further opening up about his own identity. He says, “I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me. And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth.Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death. (49-51).” While Jesus means eternal life, the leaders take him literally and claim that there is no way for Jesus’ disciples to avoid death if even Abraham and the prophets died. Yet this too is a bizarre answer for Jews, showing how this specific group has further alienated themselves from their true Father, YAHWEH. In another passage in Mark 12, Jesus challenged the Leaders: “Have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err” (Mark 12:26-27).
But this group of Jews does not see the light in their darkness, and therefore Jesus comes out and clearly states his identity: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.” They understand Jesus’ claim clearly. He has just named the unspeakable name of God and claimed that he and YAWEH (the personal God of the Jews) are one and the same. Jesus sets the contrast clearly: to be his disciple means being on the side of truth instead of lies, having God as father instead of satan as father, to be a humble child of Abraham rather than proud descendent of Abraham to know God and not live in ignorance, to recognize the Father’s Son as messiah and not seek to stone him.
In previous confrontations with the leaders of the Jews, the conflict arises around miracles, signs, or teachings. But now the Jews are faced with Jesus himself, presented clearly as the great I AM. Their response is not shocking given their reactions to his miracles and teachings. Chrysostom summarizes:
“He healed the paralytic, yet they believed not; nay, He wrought ten thousand wonders […] yet they believed not; and how would they have believed if He had paralyzed their strength? There is nothing worse than a soul hardened in desperation; though it see signs and wonders, it still perseveres in retaining the same shamelessness.”
The leaders of the Jews had seen the miracles, and yet they turned against Jesus. It is not accurate to say that they did not believe. They rejected, they denied the messiah. This is the great apostasy: the denial of the Son. It is fitting that we too are faced with his divinity before we go through Holy Week because it is his divinity that shows us the power and depth of his humility. And His example, giving honor to his Father, humbling himself not only in the incarnation but even in his conversations with those seeking to kill him–these examples set for us what it truly means to live as YAHWEH’s children. And as children, we must take on Christ’s life. At baptism we are reborn as children of God. But now we must not forsake our birth right but point ourselves, our souls, and bodies to be a living sacrifice for our Father. As Jesus proclaims his divinity, we must respond in humility as well, so that we might walk to the Mount of Olives, stand at Golgotha, and on the third day, run to the empty tomb, confessing that Jesus Christ is God.