“They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham. Ye do the deeds of your father. Then said they to him, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God. Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil…” John 8:39-45
One way to look at the New Testament is that it is as a set of 27 books with one aim which is to undermine the confidence of the Jew that his physical descent from Abraham, not only saves him, but made him a son of God, and a truly free man. John the Baptist publicly subverted Jewish confidence when the Rulers of Israel were coming to his baptism — they were, he said, a “generation of vipers.” Before going any further please note that Jesus’ use of the word “Jew,” Paul’s use, and our use of the word “Jew” is not a reference to Jews as a people, but rather it refers to the Rulers of Israel, the pharisees, the priests, the Temple officials who taught that by virtue of their physical descent from Abraham they were sons of God, saved and free men. Much of Jesus’ teaching ministry is meant overthrow that belief. Paternity is the whole matter. Who is the true child of Abraham? Who is the child of God? And how may one identify the child of Abraham?
Chapter eight is entirely taken up with paternity — not only the paternity of the temple officials, but Jesus’ paternity as well and by application the paternity of everyman. But as I have said before we have to be patient before we get to an application because if we are not careful and intentional we will misunderstand this narrative. Be attentive to the details, the voices, the beginning and the end of the narrative and resist looking for a payoff because looking for a payoff usually distracts us from understanding. When you read and study the Bible looking for a personal benefit, what’s in it for me, you take the well worn path of our day that reduces the narrative to a vehicle for delivering personal benefits. It is our first duty to understand the story.
This is what happened: After Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery he told her to go home and live the life she was created to live. Then Jesus declared to everyone remaining in the temple what we already know: He is the Light of the world and those who come to him as the Light of the world, those who follow him, will not walk in darkness, which is to say, that before Jesus, they were in darkness. This is what he means: life, real life is first of all a matter of coming to Jesus and receiving him as the Light of the world, as the one who sees the Father face-to-face, as the one who has come down from heaven proceeding from the bosom of the Father, as the one who will judge the world, as the one who will give eternal life to whom he wishes, as the one who deserves, by nature, the same honor that is paid to God the Father — that is what it means to “come to Jesus,” and to walk in the light. It is a matter of receiving Jesus to be just as he understands himself to be.
The Pharisees rejected Jesus’ self-understanding and by that very act they reveal their character and their paternity though it will take the whole of this chapter to get there. They tried to pick a fight with him by accusing him of self-praise which was another assault on his character. Jesus of course has made it clear, beginning with Nicodemus, that his mission is from God the Father and it is a mission of love and life. But above all it is not a mission of his own making: he is sent from God the Father who is his father by nature. This is all about identifying the children of Abraham, which is to identify who will enter the Kingdom that was promised to Abraham which is the only Kingdom that matters. Remember what Jesus declared to Nicodemus:
“Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God… Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.” John 3: 3 & 7
I have said this already: This is so simple and familiar that we frequently miss what is actually going forward in the Gospel of John. But this is exactly what is going on over and over again with the Rulers of Israel. Nicodemus was a specific, historical person that Jesus describes as a Ruler of Israel. Like St. Paul, Nicodemus was a Hebrew of Hebrews, born of a Jewish mother, circumcised the eight day, manifestly a son of Abraham. Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, delivered an extraordinarily offensive, blasphemous message to this Hebrew of Hebrews. What is most striking and powerful is that Jesus communicated to Nicodemus that being a Hebrew of Hebrews, circumcised the eight day, a son of the Torah, a physical descendant of Abraham means absolutely nothing when it comes to entering into the Kingdom of God.
This is the pristine, authentic teaching of Jesus the Messiah and it is exactly what St. Paul, St. Peter, as well as the whole first generation Church in Jerusalem declared to be the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah — those who believe in Jesus and have been baptized into Jesus are the Children of Abraham, heirs of the Promise God made to him which is what Jesus is calling the Kingdom of God. If one does not believe in Jesus then one is not a child of Abraham and not an heir to the Promise. That is the constant, unambiguous message of Jesus the Messiah from the beginning of his ministry and the Fourth Gospel makes it the golden thread that holds the synoptics gospels as well as the whole New Testament together.
After Jesus proclaimed to those in the temple that he would give true freedom to those who came to him, the Rulers of the Temple jumped back in and challenged him on the grounds that they were the children of Abraham and they were already free sons of God.
“They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham. Ye do the deeds of your father.” John 8:39-41
The Rulers of Israel are saying exactly what Nicodemus and the rest of that elite crowd took to be the only truth that matters — being physical descents of Abraham they are already free children of God. Jesus acknowledges that they are physical descendants of Abraham. But true sonship, Jesus says, consist in conformity of the son’s action to the action of the father. But the Rulers of Israel not only rejected Jesus’ teaching, they were seeking to murder him. They could not be more different from Abraham. Please recall the Old Testament narrative you know so well: through faith Abraham received the Three Visitors from God who warned him about the destruction of Gomorrah. He treated the Three Visitors as his revered guests, he took them at their word and he acted on their word and as they departed they renewed the promise of an heir. And as we know, Abraham’s Three Visitors were not mere envoys from God, but rather a manifestation of the Blessed Trinity. But a manifestation, a theophany is not like the Incarnation. The Incarnation is permanent. So Jesus is not only greater than Abraham, he is the God of Abraham in the flesh. And the situation is that Abraham’s physical descendants, unlike Father Abraham himself, not only rejected Jesus but they intended to murder him. They intended to murder God. Thus they are not true children of Abraham, they are not children of God, they are not free, they are slaves to sin, to hatred, and they, as Jesus put it, behave like their father.
“Then said they to him, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God. Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. 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.”
Paternity is the issue throughout. The Rulers of Israel rejected Jesus with the insinuation that he was born of fornication while they were the children of God. Their confidence in their physical descent from Abraham is unbounded but Jesus declares that their pedigree is meaningless. No, worse than meaningless — their father is the devil. The actions of the Rulers of Israel in the presence of the true Son of God, their rejection of his mission, and their resolve to put him to death lead to one conclusion from the Shepherd of Love: “Ye are of your father the devil.” Jesus himself, the way he is treated — Jesus’ flesh, has become the place of judgment against the Rulers of Israel.
Belief in Jesus is the work that pleases God the Father. True belief in Jesus is equivalent to true belief in the Father. If one does not believe in Jesus one does not believe in the Father. Jesus spoke openly to the Pharisees with the intent to overthrow their belief that by right of birth they were the true children of Abraham. Jesus is the Son of the Father made flesh and his flesh is the flesh of Abraham because he is the true seed of Abraham, his flesh is everything to us. If we are in Jesus, we are in Abraham. That is true for everyone – the Jew who is physically descended from Abraham, as well as the Gentile. I have frequently said, Jesus’ flesh is the place of judgment — therefore all who are baptized into Jesus — your flesh, my flesh, the flesh of every Christian becomes the place of judgment against unbelief in Jesus. Our flesh is the place of judgment against the atheism and materialism of this world when we knell to confess our sins and receive the Blessed Sacrament. Our children’s flesh is the place of judgment and benediction when we baptize them. And this is the way we live: Whenever we resist treating our flesh as though it has a life and purpose of its own apart from God, then we are consciously and intentionally making our flesh the place of true judgment against the world of unbelief and true benediction upon all who trust in Jesus — thus we do the work of our father Abraham.