At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’
The Jews took up stones again to stone him. (NRSV).
The festival referred to in our passage is also known as Hanukkah.
This ‘festival of Dedication’ celebrates the cleansing of the temple after the king of Syria, Antiochus, overtook Jerusalem and sacrificed a sow to Jupiter on the temple altar. It was a calculated insult.
A few years later, Judas Maccabeus, famously led a successful Jewish revolt that ousted the Syrian armies. His zeal for God and nation peaked with the cleansing and re-dedication of the temple in Jerusalem.
It was December 25, 165 B.C.
By the time of the events recorded in our passage, the Maccabean Revolt had been celebrated for close to 200 years. It was part of Jewish folklore – annually heightening the passions and hopes of a nation.
But now Israel is occupied again. Even as they remember Judas’ victory Roman soldiers march the streets of the sacred city.
Jesus, it would seem, spent the festival teaching on Solomon’s porch – by now utilised as a a place for casual teaching and preaching. But he is not just another voice. Jesus has people, once again, talking in Messianic terms.
So, perhaps charged and emboldened by the celebration, these Jews encircle Jesus – pushing for a categorical statement: ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’
There is no indication that this is a trap. They will soon prove all too willing to pick up stones – but for now they seem charged with the hope of an overthrow. They believe the Messiah will once again bring freedom.
But Jesus is not buying their agenda. He has already said enough: he sees himself as the ‘gate’ and the ‘good shepherd’. They are words of invitation.
Even now Jesus continues the metaphor – albeit with a tonal change. Here they do not so much invite as express Jesus’ dismay at the unbelief of these people of God. Indeed, Jesus goes further: his questioners do not ‘belong’ in his flock.
It is confronting. These were Jews, in their temple, celebrating their victory. But they have now taken all this a step too far: they are expecting the Messiah to fulfill their agenda.
They have not ‘heard’, ‘known’, or ‘followed’.
And then there is the plain answer they originally sought: ‘The Father and I are one.’
But by now they know this is not the one who will bring their plans to fruition. Clearly, Jesus will not participate in the overthrow of Rome – and it has changed their ear: What they initially longed to hear now sounds like blasphemy.
Sadly, they would sooner throw their deadly stones than align their plans with God’s.