High Stakes

By Tom Bair

A Reading from the Gospel of John 7:37-52

37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive, for as yet there was no Spirit because Jesus was not yet glorified.

40 When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, “This is really the prophet.” 41 Others said, “This is the Messiah.” But some asked, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? 42 Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” 43 So there was a division in the crowd because of him. 44 Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.

45 Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, “Why did you not arrest him?” 46 The police answered, “Never has anyone spoken like this!” 47 Then the Pharisees replied, “Surely you have not been deceived, too, have you? 48 Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 But this crowd, which does not know the law, they are accursed.” 50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before and who was one of them, asked, 51 “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” 52 They replied, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.”


Here is Jesus acting on the great stage of the temple precincts. The stage is set; conflict escalates between the authorities and Jesus, and it is now happening on the authority’s turf. The corruption of the authorities is the reason for their fear; They have made the “house of prayer for all nations” a “den of thieves.” They have put their own traditions above the Law of Moses. They seek the high places at the table. They make long public prayers as a show of holiness.

The crowd is a character in this scene. The authorities fear the crowd and possible loss of their power over these people. They fear the Roman authorities that they well know will violently deal with any outbreak of civil unrest. The authorities have vowed they will deal with Jesus, “but not on the feast day.”

Whose teaching is right? That is the question.

“No one has ever spoken like this,” the police say. The authorities frame it as an either-or situation: “No one in authority has believed him; why do you question us?” But even some stalwarts have questions. Nicodemus, one who feared God and awaited the Messiah, hints at the malevolent intentions of the temple authorities when he suggests that judgment has already been rendered in the absence of evidence.

This situation is volatile and dangerous. The stakes could not be higher in this arena. Jesus, our Lord, knows the outcome of these preliminaries. And he presses on into his sacred mission; into this dance with death.

In the chaos, pressure, complexity, danger, the Lord is unmoved. The defeat of death, he knows, is certain.

Tom Bair serves as a lay leader in the Episcopal Church. He teaches stewardship and holds an Education for Ministry (EFM) practicum from the University of the South. He is married to the Rt. Rev. Gerry Wolf.

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