Majoring on the minors

Why is Jesus so hard to understand sometimes?

Jesus often speaks in abstractions which lead to misunderstanding. The people in Jerusalem can’t understand what he means by rebuilding the temple in three days. Nicodemus can’t understand what it means to be born again. The Samaritan woman can’t understand the offer of living water. People who have just witnessed the miracle of a lifetime — the feeding of the 5,000 — can’t understand what it means for Jesus to be the bread of life.

But here’s the other side of the story. Over and over, Jesus tries to say something important, making a major offer of grace — and the people listening fixate on the minors and miss the message.

As we saw in an earlier post, for example, Jesus offers light and life to people in darkness, and their response is, “Nah, can’t even listen to that stuff unless you have another witness to back you up” (John 8:12-13). And shortly thereafter, it happens again. Jesus’ opponents major on the minors:

Again he said to them, “I am going away, and you will search for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” Then the Jews said, “Is he going to kill himself? Is that what he means by saying, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” (John 8:21-22, NRSV)

What should be the major message in what Jesus says, the thing that should catch their attention? Shouldn’t it be, “You will die in your sin”? Indeed, he says it three times in the conversation: “I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he” (vs. 24).

There is both a warning and an invitation here: you will die unless you believe. But nobody asks what this means. Instead, they argue about where he’s going that they can’t come.

Translators differ on how to render that last phrase. Is Jesus saying that they need to believe that “I am he,” as in the NRSV, or that “I Am,” as in the CEB? Unlike the other “I Am” sayings in John, here there is no predicate in the Greek (i.e., no “X” as in “I am X”). At the very least, there is in Jesus’ words the overtone of divine speech (cf., e.g., Isa 43:10).

And his opponents respond accordingly: “Who are you?” (John 8:25). The construction in the Greek may suggest that they were more contemptuous than awestruck: Oh, really? Who the heck do you think you are?

In response, Jesus continues to speak of the close relationship he has to his Father: he doesn’t say or do anything that doesn’t meet his Father’s approval (vss. 26-29). But they still don’t get it. And they won’t, he says, until they have “lifted up the Son of Man” (vs. 28) — a prediction that they will later lift him up on the cross (cf. John 3:14-15).

In the way John portrays the arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees, the problem is not that Jesus can’t be understood. The problem is the Pharisees’ unwillingness to believe, or even to listen. They’ve already decided what can or can’t be true, and judge Jesus accordingly (cf. 8:15).

One has to wonder: are our ears ever stopped up in a similar way?