The gospel reading for today has a rather odd phrase: Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, I said, ‘You are gods’”? I think there is a tendency to be mystified and at the same simply think, “OK, Jesus said it…. That’s enough for me.” And then move on. But there is a lot going on in John 10, of which this gospel selection is just a portion.
The context for this chapter of the fourth gospel is the feast of Hanukkah (sometimes known as the feast of Dedication), a commemoration of the recovery of Jerusalem and subsequent rededication of the Second Temple at the beginning of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire in the 2nd century BCE. This feast celebrated the reconsecration of the temple by Judas the Maccabean (164 B.C.) after its profanation three years earlier by the Syrian Antiochus IV Epiphanes (1 Macc 4:36–59; 2 Macc 10:1–8; who had sacrificed a sow to Jupiter on the altar of the Temple). This yearly celebration lasted nine days, was a “lights” ceremony like the feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2), and was celebrated in mid-December
The whole of John 10 offers several questions, one being whether Jesus is the “good shepherd” promised in Ezekiel 34, but the one that concerns our reading today is whether Jesus is the unique Son of God, whether God is in a very unique way his Father. The word “Father” appear nine times and God’s Son is Jesus’ claim in John 10:36
31 The Jews again picked up rocks to stone him.32 Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from my Father. For which of these are you trying to stone me?”33 The Jews answered him, “We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy. You, a man, are making yourself God.”34 Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’?35 If it calls them gods to whom the word of God came, and scripture cannot be set aside,36 can you say that the one whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world blasphemes because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?37 If I do not perform my Father’s works, do not believe me;38 but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may realize (and understand) that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”39 (Then) they tried again to arrest him; but he escaped from their power.40 He went back across the Jordan to the place where John first baptized, and there he remained.41 Many came to him and said, “John performed no sign, but everything John said about this man was true.”42 And many there began to believe in him.
For the last several days, the gospel at Mass has raised the question of the authority and source of Jesus’ works. What more can he offer as proof than his works done through the Father, works that are themselves the Father’s revealing words? But Jesus’ adversaries will not believe, as Jesus’ divine works indicate, “The Father and I are one” (v. 30) – Jews’ reaction to this great assertion is the extreme one of trying to stone him. They regard Jesus’ words as blasphemy, and they proceeded to take the judgment (Lv 24;16) into their own hands
And the comes our strange verse: “Is it not written in your law, I said, ‘You are gods’ (v.34) Jesus is directing their attention to Scripture. Psalm 82:6 is the immediate reference: “Gods though you be, offspring of the Most High all of you…” The psalm is referring to the Judges of Israel (written about in the Book of Judges) and the expression “gods” is applied to them in the exercise of their high and God-given office. If Scripture itself refers to humans as “gods” why should they object to the reference “Son of God?” Leon Morris writes:
In the light of this word of Scripture Jesus asks whether they can say that he blasphemes when he calls himself the Son of God. It is sometimes said that this verse classes Jesus as a man among men and shows that his claims to divinity are not to be taken seriously. But we should notice that his argument is not “Psalm 82 speaks of men as gods; therefore, I in common with other men may use the term of myself,” but rather, “If in any sense the Psalm may apply this term to men, then much more may it be applied to him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world.” Jesus is not classing himself among men. He calls himself “the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world.” He separates and distinguishes himself from men. His argument is of the “How much more—” variety…He has spoken of himself as “the Son,” and referred to God as his Father in such a way as to leave no doubt that he claims a special relationship. It is his way of accepting the charge made against him in verse 33. He does not deny the charge, but he denies that the Jews are right in their understanding of the situation. They thought he was making himself God. He held that he was not making himself anything. He was what he was: “one whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world.”
John may well have intended a linkage between Jesus as the one “whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world” (10:36) and the feast of Hanukkah and the Dedication (v. 22). If so, this is another in a line of attempts by John to show how Jesus had replaced the Jewish institutions. We have seen
- how Jesus replaced the temple (2:13–22);
- how he is a veritable Lord of the sabbath, working as does his Father (5:16–18);
- how at Passover (ch. 6) he gives and becomes the manna bread and saves from the water;
- how in chapters 7–8 at Tabernacles he is the living water and the light of the world. And now
- Jesus replaces Hanukkah.
He is the consecrated one. When John writes his gospel, the temple has disappeared, destroyed by Rome, and Jewish Christians have been expelled from the synagogues. John’s point is that Jesus himself is sufficient (more than enough!) to replace all these lost and precious treasures.