4th Week of Lent (S)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula
Almost from the moment that John the Baptist starting preaching the imminent arrival of the long-promised Messiah in the person of the Jesus, those with the most to lose by his appearance, namely, the Pharisees and scribes, started throwing bombs at Jesus' ministry. The Pharisees and scribes know the scripture; they know the prophecies concerning the Anointed One and his role in Jewish history; and they know that the Messiah will inaugurate the “destruction of the temple,” that is, the dissolution of the burdensome and tedious religious laws that form the foundation of their political power among God's people. From a purely human perspective, we can sympathize with Jesus' opponents b/c his arrival among them marks the beginning of the end of their world. Not only does Jesus' preaching and teaching constantly challenge their authority as religious leaders, his ministry threatens as well the very delicate civil peace that the Pharisees and scribes have established with the Roman occupiers of Judea. Jesus rides a very dangerous tide that sweeps him onto the scene as both heretic and insurgent, an enemy of the Temple and the Empire. Despite the danger he poses to the status quo, some among the Pharisees (e.g. Nicodemus) listen to Jesus and hear the Spirit speaking through him. Even the temple guards fail to arrest him, reporting to their bosses, “Never before has anyone spoken like this man.” The power of Jesus' public ministry lies in the fact that he establishes his authority on the prophetic tradition of the Old Covenant and brings that tradition to its fulfillment in his words and deeds. Truly, he is the Christ!
In the reading from John's gospel, we hear the Pharisees rejecting that the notion that Jesus is a prophet based on their belief that he is from Galilee, “The Christ will not come from Galilee, will he? Does not Scripture say that the Christ will be of David’s family and come from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” Because some believed Jesus to be the Christ and others do not “a division occurred in the crowd because of him.” The Pharisees make the division worse by calling those in the crowd who support Jesus of being “accursed” b/c they do not “know the law.” Even in first century Judea, the experts allow their alleged knowledge to deceive them! And when Nicodemus, a Pharisee himself, questions his colleagues on their hasty judgment and their violation of the law of evidence, the Pharisees dismiss his objections by questioning his motivations rather than his arguments, “You are not from Galilee also, are you?” Obviously, dirty tricks in politics and religion are not a modern invention. Of course, the Pharisees reject Jesus b/c they mistakenly believe he is from Galilee. Or, they claim he is from Galilee so that he fails to meet the scriptural requirement that the Messiah be born in Bethlehem. Regardless, they are wrong and they are wrong b/c they place knowledge above faith, what they think they know above what they ought to trust.
What's the point of this gospel story? With what we think we know, we can either accept or reject that Jesus is the long-promised Messiah. Knowledge is always true by definition, but it is also always incomplete. Coming to accept Jesus as the Christ is not only a matter of assessing the facts and drawing the proper conclusion. What's required for faith is the wonder of the temple guards who confess to their bosses, “Never before has anyone spoken like this man.” What's required is the surrender of our mistrust, our anxiety, and our sin. Knowledge secures belief but only trusting in the Lord brings us to salvation. The Psalmist does not cry out, “O Facts, my gods, b/c of you I assent to the evidence!” He cries out, “O Lord, my God, in you I take refuge.”
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