In keeping with our Three Days’ practice of using John’s chronology, we heard John’s passion account tonight. One of the identifying traits of John is his use of the term “the Jews,” in Greek oi Joudaioi. He uses it seventy times, where Matthew, Mark, and Luke each use it about five times. We live in a world where the events of Charlottesville, VA last summer are reality, and where those who gathered last year to celebrate their alleged white supremacy want to make their hate rally an annual tradition. In such a climate, it is on us to explain ourselves if we wish to continue reading a religious text that seems to give ammunition to those who want to impose an anti-Jewish worldview on us.
Raymond Brown, the great Johannine scholar, argues that John “uses ‘the Jews’ as almost a technical title for the religious authorities, particularly those in Jerusalem, who are hostile to Jesus.” There are a couple of obvious exceptions, as when Jesus speaks with a foreigner and they compare Jews and non-Jews. The clear majority of the time, though, Brown notes that the term “the Jews” seems to have no ethnic, geographic, or even religious content, like a scene in which two people who are obviously Jewish will not speak about their son for “fear of the Jews.” There are places where John uses “the Jews” interchangeably with “the chief priests and the Pharisees,” and there are also places where, say, Mark tells us the authorities did something, and John’s version says “the Jews” did it. In the Passion, John uses “the Jews” to talk about the authorities.
That means when we read John saying “the Jews” and think he is talking about Jews we know, or medieval Jews, or even most Jews in Jesus’ day, we are misunderstanding and misinterpreting John. The Church has a long, shameful history of such misinterpretation in the service of bad, bigoted theology. It is probably best expressed in the Solemn Reproach—a Good Friday text we aren’t using today, spoken from God’s point of view: “O my people, O my church, what more could I have done for you? I grafted you onto my people Israel, but you made them scapegoats for your own guilt.” The authorities who plotted to murder Jesus, and the Romans who crucified Jesus, these people are guilty. Jews in general are no guiltier than anyone else living in that system who did nothing to stop it.
On this evening in which we gather around the cross and hear the story of our creator’s murder, we do something very important. We pray to our creator on behalf of the world that did this to him. He showed us he functions this way. At his first public appearance in John, his mom tells him a party has run out of wine. He says, “What does that have to do with me?” And then he provides the wine. We follow her lead: we go to him with the pain of a world that doesn’t necessarily care about him, with the sin of a world that kills him for offering it new life in fellowship with God and each other, and we tell him, “It’s still a royal mess. Your cross was not the first, and sadly it has not been the last. There are billions of people who need you. Some of them, we know this because we cause their problems. Others, we know because someone told us about them. Others, well, we know we need you.” On this evening, Part Two, we gather around the cross and hear the story of our creator’s murder, and we pray to him. And he hears.