Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
Jesus Goes to the Festival of Tabernacles
After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life. 2 But when the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was near, 3 Jesus’ brothers said to him, “You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. 4 No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 For even his own brothers did not believe in him.
6 Therefore Jesus told them, “My time is not yet here; for you any time is right.7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil. 8 You go to the Feast. I am not yet going up to this Feast, because for me the right time has not yet come.” 9 Having said this, he stayed in Galilee.
10 However, after his brothers had left for the Feast, he went also, not publicly, but in secret. 11 Now at the Feast the Jewish leaders were watching for Jesus and asking, “Where is that man?”
12 Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, “He is a good man.”
Others replied, “No, he deceives the people.” 13 But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the Jews.
This passage seems to me more relevant to us in the 21st century than it has been at just about any point in Christian history. (When’s the last time anyone suggested to you that a passage from scripture is getting more relevant – rather than less – to those of us in the digital age?)
We’ve said at a couple of points since we started reading in the Gospel of John that there a number of stories that show us what a confusing figure Jesus was for the people around him. Sometimes it was people Jesus had just met – like Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman at the well. But in our story for today, it’s his own brothers who didn’t really understand where he was coming from.
I take some comfort from that, by the way, because it seems clear that lots of people today – even some people who call themselves ‘Christians’ – don’t really seem to understand where Jesus was coming from, either. (In fact, some sound more like the chief priests and the Pharisees than they do like Jesus. But we’ll leave that for another day.)
Our reading for today takes place at the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles, a harvest festival similar to our Thanksgiving holiday. But by Jesus’ day, the Feast of Tabernacles also had the additional theme of remembering the Exodus, when God led the people from Egypt to the promised land.
John tells us that before the festival, Jesus’ brothers encouraged him to make an appearance. You might remember that what they said was, “No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret.” It seems a little startling that people who knew Jesus well might think that he ‘wanted to become a public figure.’ These are Jesus’ brothers, presumably including James, who’s understood to have been Jesus’ biological brother, author of the Letter of James and one of the most important leaders of the early church. So it seems strange to think that people who knew Jesus as well as they did would actually think that “becoming a public figure” was what he had in mind.
But Jesus sends his brothers on ahead, and then does something more ‘under the radar’ – he steals quietly into the city of Jerusalem in the crowd of worshippers. And that seems like a prudent move; John says the Jewish leadership was watching for Jesus. Maybe they also thought Jesus wanted to be a public figure, and that he’d show up with a big entourage. But Jesus was able to enter the city of Jerusalem without attracting undue attention.
But as it turns out, Jesus actually had become a public figure – or at least the subject of conversation at the feast. Some people said he was “a good man,” a person of great religious power and authority. But others accused him of ‘deceiving people,’ although the text doesn’t tell us exactly what they meant by that.
So many people in the story don’t really ‘get’ where Jesus is coming from, this story should probably serve as a caution. Being a thoughtful disciple probably includes recognizing that we will never really have Jesus all figured out. For one thing, it’s easy to start thinking of Jesus as an advocate for our own agendas. Liberals see him as the ultimate inclusive social reformer, conservatives as the ultimate judge and enforcer of morality, etc.
Being a true disciple means being genuinely committed to studying Jesus’ life and teachings, and being willing to be surprised and corrected in our understanding as we do. As we study his life and teachings in various seasons of our lives, we find that they have different meanings for us than they did when we were younger. And try as we might, we can never really confine Jesus to our own social or political agendas.
The plain truth is that Jesus showed little interest in being a public figure as the world understands that phrase. Jesus was and is God in human form, a holy and mysterious God who has tended to work in surprising and unexpected ways, and who has often called his followers to discard old understandings in favor of new revelations. This reading reminds us to be humble in the face of those realities.
Let’s pray. Lord, protect us from thinking that we have Jesus all figured out, and that we know everything we need to know about his ministry and teachings. Open our minds and hearts, and give us a hunger to go deeper in our discipleship each day that we live in this world. Amen.
Have a great weekend,
and worship God joyfully on Sunday!
(The listed readings for today are Psalm 105 and 130; Jeremiah 5:1-9; Romans 2:25 – 3:18; and John 5:30-47. Our readings come from the NIV Bible, as posted on Biblica.com, the website of the International Bible Society.)