Children of the God of Israel
Pentecost A: John 20:19-23
By Ellen Charry
John 20:19-23 is one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appear- ances to his remaining 11 followers who had locked themselves in on the night of the Resurrection, fearing that the forces that had conspired to execute Jesus would come after them too, and they were not ready to martyr themselves.
The phrase “fear of the Jews” also appears in John 7:13, when there was considerable complaining about him, but Jesus went to the Temple on the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), and spontaneously started teaching there. The phrase recurs at 19:38, when Joseph of Arimathea sought the body of Jesus to give it a proper burial. Those who have locked themselves away according to John 20:19 are Jews, as are Jesus’ opponents whom they fear.
Other verses in John that indicate fear of other Jews are John 9:22 and 12:42, where Jesus warns his followers that they could be evicted from the synagogue. John 16:2 speaks of two fears; one is of being unwanted in the synagogue. There is no indication anywhere that Jesusites were banned from synagogues or that anyone was out to kill them, only that they feared that they might be. These verses rather illustrate that early Jewish Jesusites did not see themselves as leaving Judaism. The debate in Jerusalem reported at Acts 15:4-29 also indicates that pharisaic Jesusites understood themselves to be Jews.
John’s designation of non-Jesusites as “Jews” is anachronistic, because the Jesusites holed up after the Resurrection were not Gentiles. John reveals what had by his time become a vicious struggle to determine the future of Judaism after Rome had burned the Temple. “The Jews” had become Jesus’ enemies, while the implication was that his followers were therefore not Jews. But John does not use the word “Christians.” Neither do any of the other canonical gospels.
In considering this situation, it is important to keep in mind that “the Jews” here retrojects a division between Judaism and Christianity that had not occurred when the text was written, but John was helping it along. We are in a rapidly moving intra-Jewish clash that is livestreamed here. The epithet “the Jews,” which later would become a term of scorn, expresses the writer’s hostility, 85-90 years after Jesus’ death. Separation was fitful, gradual, and painful.
Jewish animosity toward Jesus, expressed in all the gospels, has flummoxed Christians ever since. Why do Jews reject him not only as their messiah but even as a savior for Gentiles? Jesus warned the disciples that they would be persecuted for believing him, and so it was until Christians gained political power and turned the tables. Answers to these questions are complex and shift from age to age.
How might we read this passage in the Church today? One historical perspective is that the Judaisms that Paul, Hebrews, and other nascent Christians were suggesting are what they think Judahite religion could or would become in light of the Jesus movement. Or perhaps (more likely) they were proposing new Jewish sects or parties alongside Essenes, Sadducees, Pharisees, etc. These reconstructions, as well as John’s, were simply unrecognizable to most Judahites. Worshiping Jesus as the Son of God, incarnate in a person, as may have already been happening in John’s day, was idolatrous. Idolatry, murder, and sexual impropriety are Judaism’s three great sins.
What would constitute idolatry for Christians today? Might it be corrupting entertainments — pornography, violent action films, and games that promote violence, for example? Should Christians lock themselves away from these dangers and boycott them? Might producing and using products whose byproducts pollute our air, water, and land, including non-biodegradable plastics, be considered idolatrous because they destroy God’s very good creation? Might abandoning or withholding alimony or financial support for children express greed that is a form of self-worship? The prevalent fear of being harmed in this gospel is fecund ground for preaching and teaching when it is understood in its original context and its kernel extracted for us to explore its applicability generation after generation.