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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
In this week’s passage, it would be more life-giving to us and to our Jewish siblings to read “the people” or possibly “the political leaders” where the text reads “the Jews.” These stories are better interpreted as a struggle among classes within Jewish society, a struggle between the powerful elite and the masses, between insiders and the marginalized. These Jewish voices were having an intracommunal conversation on what faithfulness to the Torah looked like socially, economically, and politically. Not until Gentiles who wanted to distance themselves from Jewish people began to tell these stories did people begin telling and interpreting the Jesus story as a religious contest between Judaism and Christianity.
This section of the chapter also continues the Shepherd theme in verses 1-18. This theme repeats through the gospel of John because it reflects the community’s efforts to define itself. Here, the Johannine community are Jesus’ sheep and Jesus is their shepherd. But I’m afraid they define themselves in a way that harms others. We’ll unpack this in just a moment.
In these verses, the Johaninne community is once again seeking to define Jesus here, too. The gospels repeatedly define Jesus’ relation to Abraham, Torah, Judaism, and to God (see versus 31-42).
These verses define Jesus in the context of the Jewish/Christian debate, within Judaism and between Christianity and Judaism, illustrated by Jesus’ reaction to “the Anointed one,” the Messiah.
But the way the Johaninne community defines Jesus and themselves by implication in this week’s story is not life-giving.
There is a contrast between those who believe Jesus is the Messiah and those who don’t. Those who do are believers, and by implication those who do not are unbelievers. Those who believe are Jesus’ sheep and Jesus is their shepherd; those who do not believe are left out. Those who do believe, will live forever, whereas those who don’t will perish.
This is not a discussion about individuals. It’s a discussion between two communities, the Johannine community of Jesus followers and the Jewish community. The Jewish community saw massive destruction at the hands of the Roman empire in the 1st Century before this version of Jesus’ story was written. But the Johannine community implied through these verses that if they had believed Jesus was the messiah, their community would have lived forever, and because they did not believe in Jesus, they perished.
This is wrong. Whatever political and economic events happened to Jewish people in the 1st Century were simply events born out of economic and political structures (Jesus did have something to say about economics and politics). The people’s destruction or “perishing” under Rome was not an arbitrary divine punishment for Jewish rejection of Jesus as the religious, Christian Messiah.
The Johannine community defines itself as “more than” and those who do not define Jesus the way they do as “less than.” This is an intrinsically harmful exceptionalism or supremacy.
I’ll offer another option, next.
(Read Part 3)