I honestly can’t think of a time when I’ve intentionally insulted someone to their face — though I tease a lot, so I may easily have insulted someone without meaning to. And indeed, there have been times when I’ve wanted to reel some humorous dig back in as soon as it left my mouth.
That’s not say I’ve never had insulting thoughts. I just don’t say it out loud. That’s not the way I was raised. And I can guarantee you that I’ve never, ever called anyone the spawn of Satan.
So I get just a wee bit uncomfortable when I read John’s story of Jesus getting into an argument and calling people children of the devil.
What happened? Did Jesus just lose his cool? It doesn’t sound like a very loving or compassionate thing to say.
If we’re going to acknowledge Jesus’ humanity, we have to allow the possibility of real exasperation. Jesus doesn’t just float through the gospels, untouched by human emotion. He hugs babies, drives out moneychangers, and dresses down the disciples when they deserve it.
And though Jesus sometimes seems to speak in riddles, his opponents show a stubborn refusal to listen or believe, even when he speaks clearly. It’s not that they can’t understand what he’s saying — they won’t. They don’t want to. As we’ve seen in a recent post, even when Jesus makes an offer of grace, they brush it aside and major on the minors. For someone with a passionate desire to bring the message of the kingdom, that has to be incredibly frustrating.
But there’s also this. As N. T. Wright reminds us, the scene we are facing in John 8 is a tense and dangerous one:
The chapter is about a man facing a mob. Some of their leaders and opinion-formers have already decided that he is leading Israel astray and ought to be killed. Several of them are ready to get on with the job immediately. A party had already been sent to arrest him, but had failed to do so. The crowd in front of him now were ready to stone him. This is no gentle, devotional discussion of deep personal religious truth, set within a framework of civility and mutual respect: this is a man facing a crowd set on lynching him, and bravely speaking up against their hypocrisy.
It’s not a civil discussion. The chapter as a whole emphasizes the theme of truth. Jesus must speak the truth, even if it gets him in trouble. Listening would set his opponents free. But as we’ll see in an upcoming post, refusing it only drives them further into darkness.