This is the text of a sermon written for a chapel service in a theological college; the gospel text for the day, on which it is based, is John 10:31-42.
I don’t know about you, but when I was a small child, saying “Oh God,” or “Jesus” or some such thing would have earned me a telling off for blasphemy, and the same punishment as swearing – a mouthful of chilli and five minutes before a drink. I’m told that on the whole I was a remarkably well-spoken child.
But my mother, earnest disciplinarian though she was, I think missed the point of what blasphemy is, at least from a Scriptural point of view. So while we might still want to avoid careless reference to God, today’s gospel, with its accusations and counter-accusations, gives us the chance to consider the question in a little more depth.
The English word blasphemy comes straight from the Greek blasphemia, and it basically means “to speak badly of.” Blasphemy isn’t so much speaking casually about God as it is about slandering or misrepresenting God. And this is where today’s reading gets interesting, because the accusations of blasphemy point us not so much to a clash of moral codes between Jesus and “the Jews” as a clash of theologies. Looking at what’s at stake in their disagreement might be a useful point of reflection for us, then.
“The Jews” – or rather a subset of Jews, probably some of those associated with the political and economic system centered on the Jerusalem temple, but we’ll come back to that – took up stones to stone Jesus. And they say that they are doing this “for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.”
You, though only a human being, are making yourself God. So what? What harm does it do or say about God if Jesus does make himself God? It challenges the profound monotheism of Judaism, of course; and the centrality of the God who, according to Isaiah, is the first and the last, with none beside him. So – in the eyes of his accusers – even if Jesus’ claims were true, he would be diminishing the God of Israel to make him one amongst a number of gods, and opening the possibility of idolatry. This is serious stuff.
On the other hand, Jesus doesn’t shrink from their challenge. He only quotes one line of the psalm, “I said, you are gods,” but the reference to the rest of the psalm would be understood, and it runs thus:
God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgement:
‘How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’
They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, ‘You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.’
Here, God judges in the harshest terms; and Jesus in quoting from this text says that it pertains to those to whom his word had come; they judge unjustly, show partiality to the wicked, lack knowledge and understanding, and shall die. Jesus responds to his accusers with an accusation of his own; you say you are those to whom the word of God has come, and yet your own Scripture condemns you as unjust and ignorant.
Listen to what Jesus says in his own defence: “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Actions, as they say, speak louder than words. In Jesus’ eyes, his accusers are themselves guilty, because they claim to have God’s word and yet do not act in accordance with it. The actions of Jesus’ accusers misrepresent God and are a form of blasphemy.
So, pondering this rather unedifying little exchange leaves us with some challenges which seem quite timely as we come to the end of Lent.
The first, and more obvious, is that of blasphemy. We here are a gathered community of people who are – or are being formed to be – public representatives of God. We wear ourselves out with reading and essay writing and struggling to get into our heads and out onto the page just what that means. But until it’s not just a matter of the head, but something embodied in the whole of our lives; as long as there is any mismatch between what we say and how we live, we aren’t just lacking in integrity; we aren’t just hypocritical; according to the reading today, we are blasphemous. We misrepresent and slander God while claiming to represent him, when we act in a manner not in keeping with God’s nature. And that’s a more serious problem than is going to be fixed with a spoonful of chilli. So here is a challenge: to recognize and reform our own instances of hypocrisy.
But I think that beyond the question of blasphemy there is another and more subtle challenge for us as well. And that’s the question of idolatry.
When “the Jews” accuse Jesus of blasphemy, that tells us something about what they hold sacred. Jesus had crossed the line; he had trespassed into an area they felt he should not touch. Earlier I said that was about their theology, and no doubt it was, but it was also about a great deal more than that. Jesus’ claims, had they been accepted, would have marginalized the temple cult, with its system of intermediaries, its controlled forms of worship, and its economic importance to the surrounding area. Jesus wasn’t just threatening an abstract set of ideas about God, he was threatening a whole way of life. And it seems likely that the strong response he got, with people wanting to stone him, was because the threat he posed touched on the insecurities, the fears, and the emotional investments of his opponents. In effect, they took up stones not just to defend the orthodoxy of Judaism, but to defend the idols of their social, cultural and economic security.
Now societies and cultures change, but people don’t change all that much. Threaten the things in which I’m emotionally invested, and I’m just as likely to have a violent reaction as a first century Jew. And I observe that the process of formation for ministry has a habit of threatening the things in which we are emotionally invested. I’ve seen outbursts from students feeling this sort of pressure more than once; and some of you who have been here for a while might remember that I’ve had one or two such outbursts myself. So I’d just like to put it out there for your consideration that perhaps these moments of anxiety or anger, when our commitments are called into question, might provide us with clues as to where our idols remain. Here is a second challenge: not to dismiss or ignore or “manage” these emotions away but to take them as a serious prompt to reflection.
I realize that I’ve said some hard things today. Blasphemy, idolatry; these are ugly words to have to contemplate and confront. And yet they are such recurring problems through Scripture precisely because they are something of a human constant. My friends, we are almost at the end of Lent. In the busy-ness of these last days before Easter, perhaps we can find some time to take an honest account of our hearts with regard to these things, confident in God’s grace and knowing that the morning will come when they will hold no more power over us.
The Lord be with you.