After the man from last week's passage was healed, the story goes on in John 5 to describe how the Jewish leaders persecuted Jesus. In a classic case of miscommunication, the Pharisees in the story hear and interpret Jesus' words in the most controversial way possible. The Jesus of this story tries to explain himself more clearly, but the concepts he is describing are difficult to understand and his audience doesn't really want to understand.
Even though some of the ideas the authors insert into this passage are intended as literal, we no longer find them credible. Today, some may still contend that the dead are going to rise from their graves and be judged by a mighty supernatural. While this might encourage a morality of fear in some, it is obvious that many people are not persuaded to behave differently because of this threat. Even some people who claim to believe in this sort of judgment leading to eternal punishment or reward seem quite willing to do things that most folks would consider to be evil. There is no evidence to suggest its veracity, yet people have believed it for centuries. In all that time, belief in an afterlife has not perfected humanity. So, whether or not we want to believe in the mythology presented here, it doesn't seem fruitful to consider its merits. We are very sneaky in our beliefs, and we will find a way to believe what we want, no matter what is actually written on a page or spoken by a religious authority. There is a bit of the Pharisees' mode of listening in all of us.
What can we gain, then, from this exposition? Jesus seems to be defining his connection to and relationship with God, and he seems to be doing so in a very specific context of an ancient Jewish culture. Since we are not ancient Jews, we have to reframe a few things in order to make it meaningful in our own context. Let's first take a look at exactly what is being said.
First, Jewish leaders were angry because it seemed to them that Jesus was doing something unlawful. Jesus' provocative response was that God was still at work, so there was no reason for people not to work if they chose to do so. The story suggests that the Jewish leaders took umbrage at the implication that Jesus was making himself equal to God. This is a little bit odd, since Jews referred to God as Father long before Jesus -- the Old Testament often compares God to a loving parent, nearly always in the masculine sense. So, this may say something about the authors of John.
Next, Jesus tries to explain himself more clearly, saying that people can only do what is modeled for them, and he considers God to be a worthwhile model. He promises great and astonishing works, and forecasts a future grave-emptying judgment of all people, based on their merits. That is, Jesus promises that people will be judged by their deeds. He doesn't seem to have any other criteria in mind by which people might attain life abundant.
Finally, Jesus says not to take him at his word, but to verify what he says with other reliable witnesses and by the evidence in his life and actions. He points out that people have a limited perspective, and that sometimes they maintain a limited perspective by choice, especially when they can see themselves as superior. Yet, they do not realize how their own perspective ultimately condemns them to a life that is less than what it could be. Specifically, the Jews were relying on their scriptures and their legalistic sense of morality and ethics, yet in so doing, they missed the point of their identity as human beings.
It's easy to look down on the Jewish leaders here, especially since the authors of John paint such a hostile picture of them. We can all see in ourselves a bit of the behavior we despise in others, though. We all choose not to listen to what someone is actually saying sometimes, especially when we hear something we can pounce on or be offended by. Sometimes, we all choose to judge others more harshly than we judge ourselves. We make sure the laws and rules we live by work in our favor, and we let some of our own behavior slide, even though it is "wrong" by our own standards. And we expect other people to behave the way we want them to behave, even when they haven't agreed to our set of rules. We want to be judged based on our best days, and we want our worst days to be forgiven and ignored. Yet we sometimes hold grudges against other people, and we are loathe to let others live down mistakes.
It doesn't have to be like that. We don't have to be like that. The problem in all of that messy behavior is that we let our fear count for more than our hope. We are afraid of all sorts of things, and we may not even realize it. Some people are afraid of being overlooked, or of being wrong, or of being caught making a mistake. Being unacceptable. Being judged. Being unimportant. Being taken advantage of. Being alone. Being mistreated. Being ridiculed. Failing. Succeeding. We're afraid of all sorts of things. If we don't manage our fears, we can't live fully. If we don't manage our fears, we can't begin to approach a best possible version of ourselves.
As much as we can see ourselves in the Pharisees' behavior, we can also see ourselves in a different light. We are first and foremost accountable to ourselves. As much as we fear about how other people see us, we can't control other people. We can be responsible for ourselves. One key way for us to manage our fears is for us to have a clear sense of who we are -- to be self-defined. When we allow other people to define us, we fail to take responsibility for ourselves. And often, we take our definition from what we think other people think of us, without ever even verifying if our suspicions are correct. Even when we know what other people think of us, though, our identity is up to us.
One way that we define ourselves is by being very clear about our values -- about the things that matter most to us. This requires a bit of thought, and many people simply don't take the time. When we know what we value most, we can set clearer boundaries for our own behavior and in our relationships with others. We will likely have to go back over our values a few times, especially if we are used to making decisions based on fear. Our first run at defining our values might be based on our fears without us realizing it, and we have to ask some challenging questions and dig a little deeper if we want to get at the principles that we most want to guide our lives.
You may think that you have a value of keeping someone in your life happy. This is misguided. You do not control another person's happiness. What are you afraid of if this person is unhappy? What belief about yourself is underneath that fear?
You may think that you have a value of making enough money to live comfortably. What is comfortable? Is your definition likely to change as you earn more? Is there a fear of scarcity underneath that value? Or a fear that you won't be acceptable to others if you don't have a certain lifestyle? Money is necessary, but money is just a way for us to do the things we value. Money accomplishes nothing on its own. What is the actual value that will direct what you do with the money you have?
This work is not quick, and it may take a lot of introspection before you arrive at a clear expression of the things that matter most to you. We might not be accustomed to doing this sort of work. It takes a bit of adjustment from our normal way of thinking. And once we've clarified some values, it takes some practice to live by them. Reminders every morning, thinking more intentionally about our decisions, and even talking through possibilities can help us adjust to living with integrity to the values we define.
Our values are part of what I think of as a deepest, most noble self -- a piece of us that is not based on fear, but on a sense of our capability, creativity, and beauty as human beings. Our deepest, most noble selves are always present, even though we often lose connection with what it means to be fully human. We second-guess our own sense of values -- our own identities -- because our fears get in the way. Our own sense of authentic personal authority comes from our deepest, most noble self, even though we sometimes look to other things to feel a sense of authority.
We have the potential for everything that we do to be sourced by our deepest, most noble selves -- for all of our actions and decisions to be based on our real values and guiding principles. If we work toward this level of integrity and intentionality, the results in our lives and in our relationships can be astonishing. We can experience life in a new way, with less of a sense that we are victims at the mercy of our circumstances or other people's whims -- a more vibrant life in which we have a clear sense of purpose and empowerment.
None of this happens by accident in our lives. We cannot continue on auto-pilot and expect anything to change in our lives. As we listen more deeply to ourselves and consider what a best possible version of ourselves might look like, we can live more intentionally into that vision of us. We are inclined to make up stories about ourselves, like "I'm working on that issue," or "One of these days, I'll figure out how to..." We often like affirming, positive words about ourselves. We'll know that what we claim about ourselves is true by what others see in our lives and by the actual evidence in how we behave. Other people won't necessarily approve of changes in our behavior, but when we change how we do things, the people around us will probably notice. If nothing looks different about how we live, chances are, nothing has really changed about how we are living.
The idea is not to have a different set of rules to live by. We have a habit of taking rules and twisting them so that we still think it's fine for us to do whatever it is we want to do. The idea is for us to claim responsibility for our own identities, for our own actions and decisions, so that our experience of life is more fulfilling. And if we are really paying attention to our values -- to our deepest, most noble selves -- our lives are more fulfilling when we are doing things that contribute to the well-being of others. We cannot define ourselves in isolation from everyone else. We are defined in part by the way we relate to others. So, our values and our guiding principles connect to how we are in relationship with other people.
If the Jewish leaders in the story of John 5 had their way, they wouldn't pay any attention to someone needing help on the Sabbath. Their rules were strict, and they were afraid of what would happen if the rules were not obeyed. When we set aside fear, we can more easily see people as human beings of inherent worth and dignity, and our values can direct our actions more clearly than a set of abstract rules for behavior. This is the point of understanding our values. If we have a clear sense of personal identity and a clear sense of what matters most to us in life, we can more easily make decisions about how we will connect to other people and to the world around us. It is a different way of living than simply going with our automatic reactions, and I would offer that it is a more satisfying and fulfilling way of engaging in life.
A Little Experiment: Know thyself. This is a repeat of a little experiment from a few weeks back, when I suggested that you write down your values -- the things that matter most to you in life. These are not the ways that you think you need to protect yourself from a hostile world. These are the things that you believe would make the world better for everyone. How do you most want to show up? What do you want to contribute to a better world? Write down your values, even if you aren't living by them very intentionally right now. Read over them a few times this week.
Another Little Experiment: Find the fear. Take one of your values and examine it carefully. Is there some fear about yourself or other people underneath that value? What would that value look like if you let go of that fear? Would it still be something you hold as important? Or is there something more important to you once the fear is out of the way?
One More Little Experiment: Intentional decisions. When you are faced with a decision this week, take a moment and consider your first impulse. Is it reflective of a best possible version of yourself? If so, celebrate that! If not, what option would be a better representation of who you most want to be? What is keeping you from making a decision that lines up clearly with your values?