Talk You Down

For 8 April 2022, Friday of the fifth week of Lent, based on John 10:31-42

The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus replied, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?’ The Jews answered, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.’ Jesus answered, ‘Is it not written in your law, “I said, you are gods”? If those to whom the word of God came were called “gods”—and the scripture cannot be annulled— can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, “I am God’s Son”? 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.’ Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.

He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and he remained there. Many came to him, and they were saying, ‘John performed no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true.’ And many believed in him there.

Talk You Down

One of the few bands my mother and I can both agree on is the Irish rock band called The Script. A verse from their song Talk You Down says this:
We’re standing on a tiny ledge
Before this goes over the edge
Gonna use my heart and not my head
And try to open up your eyes.
It came to my mind because in today’s rather sinister Gospel reading, Jesus finds Himself standing on a metaphorical ledge of hostility before an angry and armed crowd, trying to talk them down from dealing him a mortal blow through stoning. Stoning was the punishment of a blasphemer and the retribution laid down in Leviticus 24:14-16, so Jesus’ adversaries believe they are acting under the righteousness of the law.
The full force of this religiously justified violence is brought home when we understand that today’s Gospel is set in Solomon’s Portico. This was just one part of the larger Temple complex, the Temple of course being the place immediately associated with sacrifice. The text from 2 Chronicles 3:4 describes Solomon’s Portico as 20 cubits wide and tall –which is about 30 feet. It was a grand building – tall, offset with ledges and fit to accommodate a large crowd. It was a place where Jesus taught, and by extension, one of the places of His undoing, for ultimately Jesus was put to death for His teaching.
Now, sacrifice, in order for it to be a sacrifice and not a mistake or an accident, requires those making it to have the intention of deliberately offering something of value. What we see in today’s Gospel was not the result of sudden passion but a premeditated confrontation. We can infer this because the Greek word choice implies that the crowd ‘carried stones’ with them on their way to Jesus and we also know that the Portico did not have collections of loose stones lying around to pick up. The crowd came with intent. This is not entirely unpredictable – preceding the events in today’s Gospel, John chapter 5:18 says that there was a plot to kill Jesus; and in John chapter 8:59, another incident is recorded in which the crowd picked up stones to throw at Jesus, also when he was in the Temple.
What is ironic is that despite the crowd’s intent and their presence in the Temple, they see Jesus of little worth. Theirs is not a sacrificial offering but merely a license to kill. This scene is part of the continuity and gradual climax of spiritual blindness manifested by the crowd, one fuelled by rage at Jesus and his teaching. The Desert Father John Cassian said that the consequence of anger was spiritual blindness, and we still have the colloquial phrase of ‘blind rage’ to indicate the loss of vision associated with nurturing and acting on angry thoughts.
But Jesus comes to heal the blind. He wants to open up their eyes, to return to our song lyrics. On this occasion, he does it not through the head, by use of reason and argument, which is powerless against the emotional charge of the crowd. Instead, Jesus asks them to look at the evidence before their eyes and to connect with their own experience. He puts this challenge to them:
‘ even if you refuse to believe in me, at least believe in the work I do’
Here Jesus does something interesting – he reverses his usual modus operandi. At the heart of the Christian message is the Person of Jesus Christ – and the nature of who He is – is at the centre of the call to faith. What happens here is that he shifts the focus away from the primacy of faith, which is the act of trust of a being (which is us) in a Being (which is God incarnate in Jesus Christ) and instead puts the individual’s experience at the centre of the question. Jesus is asking them to be faithful empiricists, to trust the evidence and experience laid before them even if they cannot trust in Him.
In the words of the twentieth-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, Jesus here allows ethics to precede ontology. This means that he calls each of the hostile individuals standing before him to first seek and see the good found in the face-to-face encounter with the other, with Himself, and let this encounter heal their vision of truth and reality. It is this outlook which is fundamentally behind Jesus’ insight that you shall ‘know them by their fruits’. Jesus asks the crowd to consider what their eyes have seen, he asks them directly which of the good works they want to stone him for – which of the miracles, healings and conversions throughout the years His public ministry, is to be the death blow. But this they cannot do. They cannot acknowledge the goodness. It’s quite common in our own day to hear non-religious people remark that they will only believe what they can see. Today’s story shows us that even some of those who see do not believe, and sometimes this is fuelled by wilful blindness for the sake of expediency. Jesus was the inconvenient truth. The crowd are willing to deny their own experience and visible evidence and make reality conform to ideology.
This is one of the most dangerous things we can do. It is the origin of the post-truth mindset. The philosopher Hannah Arendt, observing the effects of ideology, writes that “what convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.” Jesus’ enemies had spread a false narrative about Him, a man of impiety, revolution and lies, a narrative contradicted by His good works but convenient to believe. This is why gossip is so destructive. In the circumstances of our own lives, whatever we hear about somebody from somebody else, let us keep our eyes and minds open and stay true to our own experiences, which are complex and necessarily subjective. Let us not condemn or ignore on the basis of vicarious testimony.
If you are struggling with your faith, first come back to your experience – come back to the works of God made present in our churches, your relationships and your own lives. As Catholics we see miracles on a daily basis – the Holy Mass, conversions, reconciliations and more. Let God’s work in your life be the first story you share when people ask you for evidence of God’s existence and His goodness. May this be the catalyst for many people coming to believe in Jesus, who is in the Father and the way to the Father.

Scripture passage from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.