How do you know who’s real and who’s fake?
Have you ever sat at the middle of a table at a big group dinner? If I’m sitting in just the right place (or wrong place, I guess), I find myself on the edge of two different conversations, and while I can juggle for a little bit, eventually I have to pick one to lean into and one to let go. Maybe I’m doing it wrong; do you do that, too?
Anyway, John 7 kind of reminds me of that, because there are a lot of different interesting threads, but eventually you kind of have to pick one (or two) to follow.
- It’s one of those places where Jesus has brothers, for instance. Lots to talk about there for those who venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary
- If you know the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert from the other gospels, it doesn’t appear in John, but instead plays out in real life – people ask him to make bread, they try to make him a king, and in John 7, Jesus’ brothers try to make him claim the theological role of Messiah. (h/t Fr. Raymond E. Brown, RIP)
- Jesus goes to Jerusalem for the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles (Sukkot, which happens to be going on as I write this), the only gospel that mentions this
- Jesus leaves home for the last time, not even halfway through the story
- Nicodemus makes a cameo; he ends up being a fascinating recurring character here
All of those are kind of interesting, but two other threads really jump out: “Who’s real?” And “Why does He go?”
In John 7:12, Jerusalem is buzzing about Jesus (who has not yet shown up). The Revised Standard Version translation is good: “And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, “He is a good man,” others said “No, he is leading the people astray.” (I feel like “Mutter” would have been a title for the social media platform than “Twitter,” personally.) Later the muttering escalates to “Is this guy the Messiah, the Christ, the Real Thing?” Or “Should we kill him?” (Which sounds even more like Twitter, come to think of it.)
The hinge of the debate is where Jesus is allegedly from. As in the other gospels, Jesus is from Galilee, and the unanimous opinion is that the Real Thing cannot come from Galilee. In other gospels, this gets solved by the birth narrative that places Jesus as born in Bethlehem and moving to Galilee later; in John, it’s the whole “In the beginning was the Word,” soliloquy. Either way, they defuse the “from the wrong place” bomb.
But when the people ask him why he is believable, Jesus doesn’t actually argue about where he’s from. What he says is, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me…He who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but he who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true.” (7:16-18)
What’s real, and what’s fake news? It wouldn’t have been my first answer, but Jesus’ response is a pretty good place to start. The guy who’s focused on talking himself up is more likely to be full of it than the one who’s talking up someone else.
Recently, Pope Francis gave a whole series of talks about old age (which, obviously, I paid a lot of attention to and hope someday to say more about). But the best kernel of that series was a challenge to elders themselves, to be willing to surrender being the protagonist of their life and instead be willing to be a witness to someone else’s life. That being “for others” is the difference between the older person desperately clinging to power and the one who can mentor the next generation. And it may be essential to graceful aging, but it’s not restricted to those of us who are older.
When Jesus makes his point about who is real and who is fake, he leans into that dynamic of witness and protagonist. I can tell you, it’s a good measuring stick, not only for the authenticity of others but for my own self-examination.
It also helps answer my second question: Why does Jesus go to the Festival, the way he does?
Jesus’ brothers** urge him to go with them to the Festival at the start of the chapter, and Jesus says he won’t, because the timing isn’t right. He knew about the muttering and knew that it wasn’t time for him to show up as the Real Thing the way he would later. If he went, it would call a question before it’s time, so he told the rest of the gang to go on without him.
But he went anyway. Later. And undercover, sure. But he went, and once he got there, he ended up taking the stage and sparking the debate that he had said he wanted to avoid. Why?
You could argue that he planned it that way all along and just didn’t let on; there isn’t anything in the text that intimates that, though, and it doesn’t play out as a particularly strategic decision.
You could argue that he was just impetuous and couldn’t help himself; the rest of John’s gospel features a pretty lofty view of who Jesus was, divinity-wise, so “lacked impulse control” seems like an unlikely angle here.
You could argue that Jesus neither planned it nor just lost his cool. Maybe he was just yielding his role as protagonist to the one he was there to witness to. Last week we heard God tell Habakkuk: “For the vision is a witness for the appointed time, a testimony to the end; it will not disappoint. If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.” And while a lot of times we may think God waited too late to show up, we also believe in a God who shows up in truly due time. Maybe halfway through the festival was that just-right time, like Jesus, the high-leverage relief pitcher being called in from the bullpen.
There’s no scriptural basis to this, but I’d like to think instead that maybe Jesus really didn’t want to go, just like he told his brothers, using the same rationale he used with his mom not to turn water into wine (which he also later did, just in time). I’d like to think that the humanity of Jesus wanted to wait for it, but instead yielded to the divine call to show up for others as a witness. It’s not in the text, but it sounds like the struggle I know between being the protagonist, doing what I want, and being the witness who does what love demands. I’ve said no to a lot of right things that I eventually came around to doing; maybe I find comfort in thinking Jesus wrestled with something a little bit like that.
Regardless, I can hope that someday I’ll figure out that pretending to be the protagonist of my own life is fake news, and the opportunity to witness to Love is where the real thing lives.
**In solidarity with the United Methodist hymnal I grew up with, which always put two asterisks next to “catholic” in the creedal statement about believing in “the holy catholic church**” so they could say, essentially “No, not THAT one.”
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