Thursday of the Fifth Week of Lent – Jn 8:51-59
Today’s Gospel continues the series of complex passages from John. In particular, there are three things that call our attention: first, the fact that the Jews misquote Jesus, second, Jesus’ beautiful phrase “Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad,” and, thirdly, Jesus’ powerful closing declaration and the Jewish response. So, we have the misquoting, the phrase about Abraham, and the phrase “before Abraham came to be, I AM.”
Regarding the first, if we pay close attention, we notice that Jesus tells His listeners, “Whoever keeps my word will never see death,” but the Jews respond “You say, ‘Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.’” Origen notes that to see death means to suffer the eternal death, to die at enmity with God, just as to see God means to live forever, as we hear in Ps 27 “I believe I shall see the LORD’s goodness in the land of the living” (7). Jesus doesn’t promise that His followers won’t die in the physical sense; in fact, Christ Himself will taste death. However, those who keep His word won’t see death.
Regarding the second, “Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” The same Greek word for rejoiced is used in Mary’s Magnificat, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Saint Ephrem comments that Abraham rejoiced when he saw the lamb caught in the bush, because he saw in it the future Lamb of God, who was to take away the sins of the world.
Lastly, at the end of the Gospel, Jesus powerfully proclaims that “before Abraham came to be, I AM.” “The Greek word used for ‘came to be’ is the one used of all creation in the prologue, while the word used for ‘am’ is the one reserved for the Logos” (NABRE commentary). At this proclamation of His divinity, the Jews wanted to stone Him, but Jesus “hid and left the area.” The irony is that Jesus, or at least the reality of who He was, was always hidden from the Jews. Now, at the end, even His physical presence is hidden as well.
What does this mean for us and our lives? From the very beginning, we can see that, even though Jesus and the Jews are speaking to each other, they’re really just speaking at each other, or past each other. The Jews interpret His words and actions wrongly, or, better yet, they change His words to suit their interpretation. Rather than rejoice with Abraham, they complain like their forefathers. Finally, at the revelation of the truth that should make them rejoice more than anything else, they turn and try to kill Jesus, precisely because of the way they’ve interpreted everything Jesus has done.
As Christians, but particularly as religious, we’re blessed to live a life entirely dedicated to Christ and to His service. Yet, we can get accustomed to thinking we know the way that Jesus should work; if we forget that providential vision of life, that everything happens either because God makes it happen or permits it to happen, we can turn what should be a cause for rejoicing into a motive for complaining, being sad, and getting upset and angry. No matter how bad things appear, we know that all things work for the good of those who love God. Lest we forget, the evening of Abraham’s rejoicing probably started out as the worst morning of his life, as he led Isaac out into the middle of nowhere to kill him. As C. S. Lewis wrote so beautifully, “[God] is the great Iconoclast,” because He constantly destroys the images we make of Him, the ways we think He should work.
Today we can ask ourselves about how we’ve been viewing God’s actions in our lives. Do we give in to complaining, to sadness, and to anger? Saint Francis de Sales said that “Every moment comes to us pregnant with a command from God, only to pass on and plunge into eternity, there to remain forever what we have made of it.” Are the things we do made for eternity, for seeing God forever?
Today, let us ask, through the intercession of Mary, Refuge of Sinners, for the grace to, in the words of Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “take whatever God gives, to give whatever He takes, with a smile.”