Persuasive Words

“They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” John 7:52 (NRSV)

Prior to the famous reading of “the woman taken in adultery,” there is an exchange in John’s gospel between Nicodemus and his Pharisaic brothers. Nicodemus is secretly a disciple of Jesus. He makes an argument that no person should be condemned as a violator of the Torah without being given a hearing. His friends on the court are outraged by such common sense that they utter the above quoted text. All that needs to be done here is for the reader to imagine the pitch and volume of the voice of the person saying it. When said forcefully, many people get the impression that it is said with conviction. Many things said with conviction are not true. This statement is one of them.

There is an old story about a church custodian who finds the minister’s Sunday sermon notes on the podium in the sanctuary the following Monday morning. She notices that the minister has jotted a note in the margin of the otherwise carefully written sermon. The note reads, “Weak point! Yell like mad!” It is a humorous anecdote only because there is a ring of truth in it.

The Pharisee who uttered the nonsense to Nicodemus overlooks some simple facts from the scriptures. Prophets did come from the area of Galilee. Jonah was from Gath-hepher (2 Kings 14:25). St. Peter’s hometown of Capernaum derives its name from the phrase “city of Nahum.” And it is likely that the Pharisee detractor knows this without needing to be reminded. Ironically, both of those prophets talk about the influence of bad thinking and acting leading to the downfall of the city of Nineveh, the capitol of Assyria. John knows this, of course, because later in his book he makes it clear that this fear of destruction motivates the murder of Jesus (11:49).

I was reminded of this story during the constant yelling staged by the “leaders” that sit on the House Judiciary Committee. The story is definitely not a parallel narrative to our own present situation. The tactic is still the same, confuse the situation by yelling like mad hoping to move someone to an “Amen” of agreement. St. Paul claims he did not use “elegant wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:17) to manipulate his listeners. Rhetorical tactics do not make statements true. The Christians of Antiquity were rather suspicious of such manipulations. It did not keep St. Paul and others from using them. One need only read the work of St. Augustine against Pelagius to see how the former teacher of rhetoric employed the ad hominem (attack the man) ploy.

The Pharisees talking to Nicodemus intend to shame him by asking if he too is a Galilean. They are not accusing him of anything short of impurity. Why? Because impurity is the greatest sin in the mind of both a Pharisee and a Sadducee. John is very aware of this mindset. He quotes John the Forerunner (or the Baptist) who claims Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). The paschal lamb was to be very pure “without spot or blemish” for the meal marking the liberation from slavery in Egypt. Purity was of the utmost importance because that which was “unclean” could not be made “holy.” Pharisees wanted holiness in the person. Sadducees wanted holiness in the Temple practices. Both groups demanded “purity” as a means to their goals.

The desire to be without fault can be a consuming wish. It destroys all relationships eventually. Human beings cannot love purely, have faith purely, or keep hope purely. It is easier and deadlier to insist on purity in other ways. The manifestation of this kind of sickness is seen in how evil we will act to maintain the right to demand purity of other people.

We see this sickness in the text. The Pharisees and the chief priests will ensure the continuation of the program of making the nation pure by murdering Jesus and even Lazarus (12:10). Logic indicates more people would have to die in order to maintain this power. False accusations are offered for the greater good. False assertions are given in the name of the best for the nation. And one or two of the Ten Commandments must be sacrificed to save the list itself.

The question that remains is, “Do we want to continue being sick?” Will we decide to take a less easy path so that the dross can be burned out of us? I do not believe we want to ever take our medicine. But, as Kierkegaard observed, only a half dosage allows disease to kill even if it is only hampered a bit. History demonstrates the Temple and the Holy City were lost only forty years after the events described by John.

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