Like Father, Like Son
In the Gospel of John Jesus confronts his accusers, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34). It’s the same dynamic that we have seen throughout this chapter. Slaves are bound, but they are not helpless. There are choices that could be made, but they are almost impossible choices to make considering the circumstances. The fear and the frenzy of those circumstances, the sense of being lost and alone, make other choices very difficult to see. In Jesus’ eyes, the devil is behind it. They are slaves, but they still choose.
He continued, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is not truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44) For Jesus, the devil is not a figure who lurks in the dark and tries to get us to watch naughty movies and steal a drink from grandpa’s whiskey. For Jesus, the devil murders and the devil lies. And, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Those who stood before Jesus were doing more than accusing him. They were trying to dehumanize him so that they could justify killing him. Jesus’ accusers were willing to make things up about who he was and what motivated him. They confronted Jesus with the claim, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” What they wanted people to think was that Jesus is a stranger, someone with whom they had nothing in common. He was an “other.” To top it off, he was not right in the head. He was possessed by a spirit of evil. Like the devil, they are liars.
If they were right, then the next step would be much easier. The back and forth continues. Jesus asserts his truth. His accusers question him and deny him. They were used to being in control, but could feel it slipping away because of this Jesus. They were willing to become cruel to get control back. You can almost feel the frustration building. Jesus’ accusers pick up stones in order to unleash their anger and kill him. Stoning is a cruel spectacle to say the least, a frenzy of violence that leads to death. Like the devil, they are murderers.
Like father, like son.
This is not the first time that stoning has crossed the minds of the men who stood before Jesus. This encounter began when these same men brought a woman before Jesus. She had been caught in adultery. They didn’t say how they caught her or where the other guilty party was, but that didn’t really matter. It wasn’t really about the woman. She was not really a human as much as she was a prop. She was a tool in their scheme to charge Jesus. They said to him, “Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
Of course, they were right. They can quote chapter and verse (but did ignore that both the man and the woman were to be stoned). Either Jesus was going to join them in stoning the woman or he would deny the law and give them good reason to accuse him of blasphemy. Jesus found a way to do neither. He challenges them to consider their own sin, some of which may have deserved the same penalty. Whoever was without sin could cast the first stone. None of them was, so none of them could, so none of them did.
Jesus said to her, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you.” The contrast between Jesus and his accusers couldn’t be more stark. They are cruel and controlling. He is kind and compassionate. It is the contrast between condemnation and salvation. It is the difference between truth and lies. The chasm between Jesus and his accusers is as wide as the difference between life and death. What we are meant to see is that the reason for this separation is that they are children of different fathers.
“You are from your father the devil,” Jesus tells his accusers. “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” The father that Jesus was claiming was God. He said, “I came from God and now I am here.” Jesus’ accusers would claim the same God, but Jesus wants them to see that while they might worship God, the devil is their father. He sees it in their desire to lie and to kill as if it is their nature. He knows that they are enslaved to it. He wants to set them free.
If you’re like me then you would like to distance yourself from such cruel and controlling men who would sacrifice a woman and stone a good man. But, I would be willing to guess that they were good in other settings; good husbands, good fathers, good friends (maybe). But, good people do bad things when they feel that control is slipping from their fingers. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were at the mercy of a larger, Roman empire. Any control they did have was given to them and could just as easily be taken away. They would control any threats to that power even if it meant becoming cruel. There seemed to be no other choice.
“The Truth Will Set You Free”
Parker Palmer, from whom the quote at the beginning of this chapter comes, shares an illustration about how farmers used to respond to blizzards. If the blizzards were thick enough, people were known to wander off. Lost and alone in the frenzy of the storm they were bound to panic. They would lose their ability to find their way back home and get out of the storm. In the worst cases, it would mean death. So, at the first sign of a blizzard, farmers would run a rope from the barn right to the back door. It was a lifeline that would lead people out of the darkness and away from death.
Often times when you hear Christians answer the question about why God sent Jesus, their answer is, “God sent Jesus to save me from my sins.” If you pressed them a little, you would hear them describe their moral failings that break God’s law. Those sins deserve to be punished. In their mind, God sent Jesus to take on that punishment for us. What they mean when they say, “God sent Jesus to save me from my sins” is that “God sent Jesus to be punished for the bad things I’ve done.” By now you can see how God has become the problem. God is not saving us so much as finding someone else to punish.
It is more helpful to think about sin as a blizzard, a force that surrounds us and threatens to consume us. Sin is a storm, orchestrated by the devil, that swirls around us, confuses us, and makes us afraid. Unstable and uncertain, we grope for freedom and often wander away from our own souls, experiencing a fall of our own. Like Lucifer, the angel of light fell from heaven. In the right circumstances any of us might fall from the light of our humanity into the darkness of madness, taking innocent people with us.
In the middle of the confrontation between Jesus and his accusers, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12). Jesus is a light to help us find our way. God sent Jesus because God is pleased to help us reconnect to our own souls, rediscover our moral bearings, and renew our mortal lives. God is a partner, not the problem. God sent Jesus to be a light out of the darkness, a lifeline out of the blizzard.
I hope that you are beginning to hear in Jesus’s words, not a password to an exclusive club, but a lifeline out of the storm that “swirls around us as economic injustice, ecological ruin, physical and spiritual violence, and their inevitable outcome, war [and] swirls within us as fear and frenzy, greed and deceit, and indifference to the suffering of others.” We didn’t create it, but we choose it. God is terribly angry about that. Both Jesus and the devil know it.
That’s right. Jesus and the devil share some common knowledge. They both realize that there are behaviors that God will not allow to continue forever. While Jesus wants to save you from them (and the pain and heartache that comes with them), the devil wants to seduce you into them (and take you down into further pain and heartache). Jesus wants to lead you out of the storm. The devil wants to take you further into it.
While we have been trying to distance ourselves from God’s punishing wrath throughout this book, it’s here that we have to look in that direction. Conversations about God’s wrath are uncomfortable and off-putting. Suffice it to say here, that God doesn’t like genocide or torture any more than we do (probably less) and desires a world free from them as much as we do (probably more). God’s “yes” to us also comes with a “no” to certain behaviors. In particular, God speaks a firm “no” to lies and murder, to deceit and death.
The pattern of Jesus’ confrontation, where he is threatened and “othered” repeats itself wherever there is suffering. The violent offenders of Rwanda referred to their victims as “cockroaches.” The guards of Abu Ghraib called the prisoners “dogs.” Like the devil, they lied (mostly to themselves) about the humanity of their victims. That made the next step much easier.
Cockroaches are easy to step on. They are to be exterminated. Dogs are fun to play with but can be put down if they don’t obey. They can be toys that we use for our own enjoyment and satisfaction. They can also be disposed of when they are no longer needed or we decide that they are out of control. Slaughter was justified by the dehumanizing lies. Torture was allowed because of dehumanizing lies. Killing was used because of dehumanizing lies. Like the devil, they murdered.
It seemed to come so easily to them, as if it was their nature. The problem is that it wasn’t. There was good in them too which means that we have the same potential for evil in us. Thankfully, I have been spared blizzards like those in Rwanda and Abu Ghraib, but I know how convenient it is to believe the lies about the “other.” The devil would love for me to wander off into the madness. Dehumanizing labels have led me, not to murder, but at times to hate and often to ignore people who are truly in need. Lies about people who are different than I am allow me to justify my greed and indifference and leisure. My ears are not as tuned to the suffering of the world as God’s have been. Innocent people die and I live quite comfortably with that. I’m not proud of it and until I met Jesus I saw no way out of it.
It’s certainly true that you don’t have to be a Christian to oppose economic injustice and ecological ruin. You don’t have to be a follower of Jesus to protest physical and spiritual violence. But all of this is to say, if you do stand against those things, then God is not a problem for you. In fact, God is with you. God’s protest is found in the sending of his Son to rescue the world from the devil’s madness. That includes the victim and the offender, the oppressed and the oppressor. It includes those who have lost their moral bearings and those in danger of losing their mortal lives.
Jesus, out of his kindness and compassion, came to tell us the truth that, while God is terribly angry at the choices we’ve made, but recognizes our slavery and wants to free us. Jesus reveals to us that God is not a friend of cruel spectacles. He exposes the devil who tries to conceal the grossest self-interest and cruelty behind lies. Jesus says the truth is that every person is made in the image of God. He says that if you know the truth, the truth will make you free. (John 8:32)
Just as God sent Moses to free his people from slavery in Egypt, so “the Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” (John 3:8) God has seen our misery, heard the cries of torment, and sent his Son to deliver us out of the darkness created by the devil’s storm. Simply put, God sent Jesus to help us find our way back home. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him would not die, but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world in order to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3:16–17