“…for fear of the Jews” – John 20:19
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. - Psalm 51:17 RSV
We traditionally read John 20:19-23(24-31) twice a year: the Sunday after Easter Sunday and fifty days after Easter on the Day of Pentecost. As one who had at one time considered converting to the religion of Jesus, and as one who concluded my college career writing a dissertation on the then complete works of Elie Wiesel (it was 1972), reading and re-reading this passage from the fourth gospel has repeatedly broken my spirit and my heart. The thought that the disciples, not just the ten but rather a mixed crowd of those who followed Jesus into Jerusalem the week of the Passover and witnessed the brutality of the Empire and its state-sponsored torture and execution of three young men, are afraid of “the Jews” is strange. It makes perfect sense, however, that if you were a follower of Jesus that you would be hiding behind locked doors. Yet, it is at best confusing to read, “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews…”
It's the fourth gospel’s repeated use of the phrase, “…for fear of the Jews” that breaks my spirit and my heart. There can be no doubt that this passage, and others like it, has been used throughout the ages from the very beginnings of the early church to this day to justify vilification and violence against the Jewish people. Despite the obvious fact that Jesus and most of his followers were themselves Jewish – daughters and sons of the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel.
It won’t do to simply explain that the fourth gospel’s use of “the Jews” has mixed and varied meaning throughout the narrative: referring to the ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse crowds in Jerusalem every Passover; to the Jewish authorities, many of whom are on the payroll of Rome to “keep the peace;” to the mixed “opponents” of the Jesus movement made up variously of Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees. The fact of the matter was that the Jewish population of Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem was divided along many religious and political lines.
Lumping them all together is always the strategy of those who seek to capitalize on such divisions. As is pressuring some of those the oppressed to “manage” their “own people,” or be subject to the Empire’s brutalizing tactics yourself. A day spent in the US Holocaust Museum will help to understand all of this.
I would like very much not to have to get into this, but as the internet has made it possible for anti-Semitic groups to organize and find new improved ways to carry out similar vilifying and brutalizing tactics, to say nothing in the midst of Christian proclamation on this passage would be tantamount to allowing all this to go unnoticed and unopposed.
Just as dangerous is for Christians to assume that the ritual passed on regarding the forgiveness and releasing of sins is somehow new and uniquely “Christian.” As Richard Swanson observes, “When Christians imagine this, they are wrong. Or they are dangerous. Those would be the choices” [Provoking the Gospel of John (Pilgrim Press, Cleveland:2010) p.170]
Swanson correctly points out that the rituals of releasing/forgiving or retaining sins have a deep history in Jewish faith, especially on Yom Kippur, the high holy Day of Atonement when Jews seek to repair the damage that we do to one another. It is a day to confess sin and forgive sin. It is a time to take stock and make amends. If I had in any way cheated or otherwise sinned against you I would seek your forgiveness and offer to make amends. You can accept or reject my confession and offer of amends. I can return two more times. You can accept or reject my confession and offer of amends three times. I can then approach God for forgiveness. But if I am rejected a third, I retain the sin – and the offended individual retains the pain and suffering.
It’s a process. And we may as well admit it: some abuses are hard to forgive. Elie Wiesel when asked about forgiving the perpetrators of the Holocaust noted that he did not have the authority to speak for the millions of people, Jews, Gypsies, Invalid and Mentally Handicapped, and political opponents who were killed in the death camps. In our passage in John, Thomas recalls the torture, abuse and brutal execution two days previous. He asks to see the wounds of the risen Jesus. Thomas is to be commended for his courage, his memory and his integrity – and in no way deserves the slander of being called “Doubting Thomas.”
Thomas knows what we all know in our hearts: “Any resurrection, any resolution, and recovery [from abuse] that moves forward by forgetting the past will be insubstantial. Any moving forward that forgets the victims of past torture [and abuse] will be ill-prepared to deal with the continuing reality of violence and abuse.” [Ibid, p. 173] And we are those people keenly aware that it continues even in among those highest in our corporate, religious, military, sports and political spheres. We read about it every day. And frequently the victims are made to feel shamed or guilty of provoking the abuse. Consider the now established fact that in Maryland, and across the country, there are in storage thousands upon thousands of rape-kits that have never been processed to determine the veracity of allegations by the victims.
So Jesus breathes upon his disciples as a reminder. God my Father gives you breath to live and light to see through the darkness. This breath is God’s spirit that seeks “peace,” or “Shalom”: peace that secures justice and dignity for all people; not some people, not most people, but all people. This is what is meant by “Peace be with you.” And this breath is a reminder that all people, not just God, not just God in Christ, not just Christians, have the capacity and the responsibility to forgive or retain sins. That is, the charges against Jesus are bogus, as are any and all notions that this is some uniquely new Christian ritual.
“That is why,” concludes Swanson, “the scene with Thomas belongs with the scene in which Jesus talks about releasing and holding the memory of abuse. That is why the matter of forgiving is not as simple as abusers insist that it must be.” [Ibid, 173]
Jesus breathes on us. The word means puff, as if puffing on a fire with a bellows, of blowing on a dying ember to bring it from smoking to smoldering to a blazing fire of life, intensity and power. Jesus is literally meaning to set our hearts on fire to be those people in this world who like Thomas have the courage and integrity to name the wounds that cripple our society and become engaged in bringing peace, true Shalom, to all those who suffer and are oppressed in any way whatsoever. This is why the Word of God became flesh and lived among us. We owe it to him to become a refining fire for the life of all people and the world itself. Amen.