Devil Talk, Part 3

Published March 24, 2021
Tags: Sheavings

And now the final installment of our look at John 8:44 and the way in which John uses the teaching of Jesus to catechize his flock about the meaning and power of the sacrament of Baptism:

As the narrative of John proceeds, the crowd debates about whether Jesus is a prophet. Some (particularly among the authorities) reject him. (By the way, skip the whole section about the woman caught in adultery in John 8:3-11. It’s basically a chunk of apostolic tradition that John probably did not write, but that the Church could never bear to part with.  It’s been attached to different gospels in different manuscripts of the New Testament and eventually got inserted here for want of a better place to put it, but it’s not really part of the original narrative of John.)

As the conversation continues, we discover that not all reject him. Some “believe in him”.  And this is where the plot thickens.  For notably, it is not to the Jews who reject him, but to “the Jews who had believed in him” (John 8:31) that Jesus addresses his next remarks, including the shocking statement, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:44). In short, it’s “interested inquirers”—people like the unbaptized catechumens and “inquirers” in the Evangelist’s own community—not hostile Pharisees and “outsiders”, who are told they are children of the devil!

Why does Jesus address ostensibly friendly people in this way?  Because there is belief and belief, as every catechist who has had to teach cafeteria Catholics knows. Some people come to believe in Christ in humility. Some come to ‘believe” in him in profound pride. Such people need a wake up call. They need to know exactly what Paul had told the same Ephesian community decades earlier: that apart from Christ we are

dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:1-3)

Note once again that this is “devil talk”, arraigning the reader as a slave of Satan (the “prince of the power of the air”).  Yet it is not directed at Jews, but at Paul’s own Christian readership, reminding them of what they were before “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened” (Ephesians 1:18).

Note how both Paul and John use “enlightenment” and “baptism” interchangeably (as do the Fathers after them).  John gets the habit from Jesus who, speaking to “the Jews who had believed in him” warns starkly that they are slaves to sin and children of the devil.  The “believing” Jews take offense and appeal to their heritage as children of Abraham.  What is John’s point in recording this?  Not “Jews are peculiarly demonic” but rather that we are all in bondage to sin, of course, and that this bondage infects the whole human race without regard to ethnicity. And that’s the point.  Jesus’ strong language is the same language that could be (and is) applied to any catechumen from any ethnic background who tries to insist that he doesn’t need freeing from any sin: he is speaking a lie from his father, the devil. In short, John 8:44 presupposes a doctrine of original sin which afflicts the whole human race–a belief that all, not just Jews, are under the dominion of the “prince of the power of the air” and require enlightenment from darkness and washing from sin. Jesus does not teach that there is something peculiarly satanic about Jews. He simply points to the fact that humans are, apart from him, in bondage to sin and that the purpose of Baptism is to free them from that. Mere physical descent from Abraham cannot save any more than being a True Blue American can.

Those “who believed in him” are scandalized at this and the conversation quickly disintegrates when Jesus chooses to test this “belief” by challenging it with the full import of his claims. He will not let “those who believed in him” settle for believing in him as a mere prophet, nor as a prop for feeling good about themselves (people become Catholic for such reasons to this day). He insists that they are slaves to sin, not because they are Jews, but because they are human. They retaliate by calling him demon-possessed. He ratchets up the ante even higher, with an explicit claim to be God (“Before Abraham was, I am.” [John 8:58]). In short, John points out the full meaning of what the catechumen is signing on for when that catechumen lightly decides to indulge his pride with a little religious enthusiasm. Result: “those who believed in him” (shallow catechumens, not his Jewish enemies in the Sanhedrin) try to stone him. In short, it is the catechumens who are most offended by the promise that they will be freed from sin.

John then continues his meditation on Baptism, and continues to dilate on the themes of water and light with the story of the man born blind. In that story, the man’s eyes are opened and the “eyes of his heart” enlightened to see Jesus by, you guessed it, Baptism. He is told to go to the Pool of Siloam (the same pool used for the rite at the Feast of Tabernacles) and wash.  For the first time, he sees not only physical light, but Jesus.  In the course of the entire controversy beginning in John 7, he is the first person to acknowledge that he cannot see and the first to be enlightened.  That enlightenment takes place by degrees.  First, Jesus is called a man (John 9:11), then a prophet (John 9:17), then “Lord” (John 9:38). 

Unlike the prideful catechumens, this man recognizes that he is blind. But note this: all are Jews.  What distinguishes the man born blind from “the Jews who had believed in him” is not his ethnicity, but his humility and their pride.  What keeps “the Jews who had believed in him” slaves to “the prince of the power of the air” is not some peculiarly demonic ethnic trait, but the simple refusal to acknowledge their need of cleansing from sin through the sacrament of Baptism.

That is precisely the point of the coda at the end of the story:

For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind… If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say ‘We see,’ your guilt remains. (John 9:39-41)

The “devil talk” of the New Testament is not aimed at saying there is something peculiarly wicked about Jews but to pound home the doctrine that all humans are bound by original sin, that mere ethnicity cannot save, and that Baptism is the sacrament which frees us from sin.

2 Responses

  1. I have to admit, I’m having trouble following John through this in parallel with what you added, since as I read those chapters, the dialog seems to jump around. The link to Ezekial and then Ezekial’s link to baptism is very subtle.

    I guess one simple takeaway is that when I see prophesies about the temple in the Old Testament, I should examine whether it is really talking about the temple building in Jerusalem, or actually refers to the Messiah.

    Going back to the introduction of your exegesis: the statement about being “of the devil” was never any challenge for me. Somehow, my early catechesis instilled a very clear sense of Christianity being the continuation of Judaism into the new covenant, even though I never heard that explicitly explained until high school. Therefore, almost everything Jesus said to the Jews, I always heard directed at Christians, too. Passages like this never seemed anti-Semitic because they were directed every bit as much to non-Jews as to Jews. That makes all the more sense for this passage since it is explicitly directed at those who believed in him.

    For a long time, I did tend to discriminate rather than universalize statements made to the particular “brood of vipers,” the Pharisees, who of course were only a subset of the Jews. Over time, though, I started to recognize or have pointed out Pharisaical tendencies of my own (and also started to see the Pharisees less as the bad guys and more as a group that struggled with probably some combination of pride and scrupulosity). Therefore, it became necessary to view Jesus’ words to the Pharisees also as universal admonitions applying to myself, as well.

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