Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Come My Way, My Truth, My Life

a few days ago, my wife and i went to a bible study led by one of our pastors.  the passage under consideration was john 14: 5-6, “Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’   Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  the group participating in the bible study was large, and our time was limited.  a few comments were made and questions asked, but i said little because of the time constraints.  the paragraphs below are what i wanted to say and later shared with the pastor who led the bible study.  she said that she had hoped that her teaching would lead us in this direction, but none of the other participants could see the passage except from our present-day christian viewpoint.

when jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except by (through) me," he may have been saying something far more complex than a surface reading of the text conveys.  seeing  jesus as the most influential of a group of jewish reformers that included his cousin john gives a different color to jesus' statement than viewing it from a modern christian perspective.  could jesus have been saying that his "way," in contrast to the "way" of the jewish religious elite was the "true way," while theirs was a "false way, that jesus' "way" gave the people their "life" back, while the "way" of the religious leadership robbed the people of their "life?"

the intricate rules of daily life which had once been essential to preserve the religious/ethnic identity of the jewish nation in captivity, lest they fall into assimilation with their captors or compromise their beliefs like the samaritans, had grown to become a religion of its own, rather than a means of preserving the essentials of the jewish religion.  in substituting these burdensome rules for the foundation of the law (love of God, love for your neighbor), the religion of the law and the prophets had been obscured, and jesus called the people back to remembrance of the simple truth, the "way," on which the jewish religion rested.  It is jesus' call to return to the basis of the jewish faith that attracts not only common people chafing under roman, herodian, and “jewish" rule, but also religious thinkers like nicodemus, joseph of arimethea, and the "rich young ruler."

john the evangelist has jesus returning again and again to the seat of power for this religious elite.  each time jesus returns the power struggle, as seen in the eyes of those “jews," intensifies, until at the end they see jesus as a profound threat to the power structure they have so carefully built, first by collaborating with herod the great and later by playing off the romans against the people the “jews" hope to continue to control through the demands they place on the people in the exercise of the religion, a religion which the people see as a powerful means of protest against the roman rule.

here is Jesus in the second temple that is the very symbol of collaboration with the false jew, herod, challenging the rule of these religious leaders, and the people increasingly see him not just as a religious reformer but as the promised one, the messiah, who will restore the religion and throw off the rule of the romans.  these powerful religionists must do something, or their control of the people will be compromised, their position will be jeopardized, their ability to act with some degree of freedom from the romans will be lost, and roman oppression will increase.  the something they must do is get rid of jesus, and they pursue this with a sense of urgency.

in this light, jesus' farewell discourse is both powerful and poignant, because he knows that it will be up to his inner circle of followers to continue in the "way" jesus has preached.  if they fail to continue his work, the reforms he has begun will be abandoned and the true religion will be lost in the struggle to maintain control that is at the heart of the religious leaders' lust for power.  so, jesus becomes a martyr so that his teaching can live on and its sphere of influence can be widened.

it is a mistake to see the teachings of jesus through our 21st-century christian eyes, but we must see them in the context in which they were spoken.  my prayer today is that we who call ourselves christians will not make jesus’ teachings something they were never intended to be, using his words to exclude others, to make ourselves as his followers a closed society that purports to have all the solutions to the struggles of life.  may we see how others who are not christians live out the teachings of jesus far better than those of us who call ourselves christians and love them for it.  shalom.

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