Today’s Bible Lesson
Over at the Corner, Jonah Goldberg asked for, and Rod Dreher made a stab at giving, some background on Jesus’ remark that “Jews” are children of Satan. Here’s the passage, from John 8:
Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do what Abraham did, 40 but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God; this is not what Abraham did. 41 You do what your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God; I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
As Rod points out, this is spoken by a Jew to Jews, so we’re not talking anti-semitism here (though later anti-semites have used it as their favorite proof text). But beyond that, it’s worth noting the much much larger setting this passage exists in. Jesus words are not spoken, as Rod says, to Pharisees (a common and forgiveable misunderstanding since Jesus does have many harsh words for them elsewhere). It is spoken, amazingly enough, to “the Jews who had believed in him” (John 8:31). In short, it’s “interested inquirers”, not hostile Pharisees, who are told they are children of the devil. Why? Because the whole passage from about John 7 to John 9 is one huge comment on original sin and the necessity of baptism. Jesus tells his hearers, in effect, that they are slaves to sin and that only he can set them free. This ticks them off. He says, I know this ticks you off. If you were really sons of God it wouldn’t. But in fact it ticks you off enough for you to want to kill me. They argue further, with the result that they try to kill him–proving Jesus’ point. It’s a lesson that many in Catholic educational circles still have trouble with, since they think the mission of Jesus was to Affirm Us in our Okayness, not cleanse us of sin. After this exchange in John 8, we move to John 9 and a foreshadowing of baptism’s power to free from sin, The first person to experience true liberation from sin is not the “interested inquirers” whose pride got in the way of their listening, but the blind man who is told to wash in the pool of Siloam (think “baptism”) and who comes away seeing. And not just physically. He recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah and worships him.
So the point of the passage is not “Jews are satanic”. The point is “Humans are fallen and in need of baptism.” It’s a lesson Catholics need to hear and a sacrament they need to live.
End of lesson. But do yourself a favor. Read John 7 to 9 (skip the inserted story about the woman taken in adultery) and read it as a prolonged meditation on original sin, and the meaning and necessity of baptism. That’s what John is up to there. He’s not an anti-semite. He’s a Jew employing a very very subtle method of catechesis to teach us about the sacramental life Jesus has given his Church.