John 8: 31-42
Jesus tells the Jewish authorities that being a true descendant of Abraham comes not from physical ancestry but from doing the will of God.
Justin Martyr wrote that some Jews who lived during the time of Jesus believed that because they were “descendants of Abraham according to the flesh [they would] certainly share in the eternal kingdom, even though they be faithless sinners and disobedient to God’ (363). This may have been the reason, or one of the reasons why, when Jesus said that if they were slaves to sin then they had no “permanent place in the family,” the people in today’s gospel vehemently assert their descent from Abraham. It is worth noting that it was not his adversaries who lashed out at Jesus; rather, “those Jews who believed in him” did. Here we encounter a common dynamic of daily life, namely, how when we feel threatened our behavior toward others, even those who are close to us, can change in a moment.
Furthermore, today’s gospel sets before us the vindictive venom that we can spew on others when we are either threatened or angry. When Jesus says to his audience that they are not Abraham’s children, they fire back, “We are not illegitimate children!” This retort is retaliatory, for the original Greek contains the implication that “we are not illegitimate but you are.”
Because Mary had conceived out of wed-lock, Jesus was considered illegitimate. In Saint Mark’s gospel, for example, the people of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth express their contempt of him by saying in derision, “Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” In the ancient world, a man was called by his mother’s name only if he were illegitimate. One rumor said at a Roman soldier named Panthera was the father of Jesus. The statement, “We are no illegitimate breed!” implies that the rumor of Jesus’ illegitimacy was public knowledge and followed him wherever he went.
Like those in today’s gospel, all of us are privy to the skeletons in other people’s closets. We are keenly aware of the vulnerabilities of others and know where they are susceptible to shame and how to make them feel inferior. When threatened or angry, we can be tempted to attack where others are easily hurt. How often, in a moment of anger, have we dredged up a person’s past and thrown it in his or her face? How often have we gone for the jugular because we felt defenseless? How often have we shamed someone to protect ourselves from being shamed?
~ A Meditation by Marc Foley, O.C.D.