In the beginning

Column: Gospels evolve as young church emerges

by Father Mike Stubbs

Fourth Sunday of Lent Jn 9: 1-41

The moment we open our mouths we give ourselves away. When someone from the Deep South speaks, his accent reveals his origins. Similarly, we can easily identify someone from Boston the same way.

That is how the apostle Peter was singled out as Jesus’ follower, despite all Peter’s denials, after Jesus’ arrest on the first Holy Thursday: “A little later the bystanders came over and said to Peter, ‘Surely you too are one of them; even your speech gives you away’” (Mt 26:73).

Peter’s accent identifies him as a Galilean. Jesus and his disciples were all from Galilee. They were visiting Jerusalem, in the region of Judea. Their speech made them stand out from the natives.

Linguistic differences were not the only thing that separated the Judeans from the Galileans. The Judeans looked down on the Galileans. They doubted the Galileans’ religious orthodoxy, since the Galileans lived in a region heavily populated by pagans.

Conversely, the Galileans characterized Judeans as arrogant and power-hungry. They associated the Judeans with the authorities based in Jerusalem, the capital city located in Judea.

This antagonism between Galileans and Judeans played into the rift between Jesus and the religious authorities in Jerusalem. It aggravated their theological differences.

Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 9:1-41, preserves a memory of this antagonism between Jesus the Galilean and his Judean opponents. Jesus dares to heal a blind man on the Sabbath, thus incurring the wrath of a group first identified as “the Pharisees,” then as “the Jews.”

At least, the Lectionary translates the word as “the Jews.” The word in question, “ioudaioi,” can also mean “Judeans.” Since Jesus and the blind man are also Jews, but not Judeans, it might make more sense to choose this second meaning to designate their opponents. That would cast the scene as a controversy between Galileans and the Judean religious authorities.

On the other hand, this story about Jesus healing the blind man acquired new meaning as it passed down through the oral tradition. Instead of antagonism between Galileans and Judeans, the story reflected antagonism between Jews and Christians. Christianity began as a movement within Judaism. Eventually it was side-lined as a heresy of Judaism. Finally, differences grew to such a point that Christianity became a separate religion.

Sunday’s Gospel story reflects the last stages in this process of separation. It reports that “the Jews had already agreed that if anyone acknowledged him (Jesus) as the Christ, he would be expelled from the synagogue.” This expulsion takes place in the case of the blind man: “Then they threw him out.”

Sunday’s Gospel reading provides us with a powerful example of a person whose faith undergoes a severe test. The blind man holds fast to his faith, even when he is expelled from the synagogue. We can all learn from that example.

On the other hand, the story about the blind man also retains an attitude toward the Jewish people that is not acceptable. It looks upon them as the enemy. Instead, the church now encourages us to look upon them as our elders in faith.

What began as a separation between Galileans and Judeans, and later was interpreted as a separation between Jews and Christians, can take a new shape. We can view it as a separation between those who believe and those who do not believe — a distinction which transcends ethnic and cultural differences. Jesus points us in that direction in the Gospel reading, in his words about spiritual blindness: “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.”

About the author

Fr. Mike Stubbs

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