Gospel of John: Circumcision


In the last post I mentioned there are two types of covenants, then went on to describe the first kind: Conditional. The second kind is, of course, Unconditional, meaning the conquering king will treat the people a certain way regardless of their behavior.

God’s covenant with Abraham is an example of unconditional terms. The Lord said God would make Abraham into a great nation and bless all people through his offspring, the Messiah. There were no strings attached.

At first pass, it would seem an unconditional covenant is the one based on grace, right?

Yet, even conditional covenants are based on God’s grace. There is nothing to obligate God to enter into a pact with humankind. The Lord chooses out of God’s goodness to covenant with people. These covenants are solely for the benefit of humankind and continue to be active until they have been fulfilled, until God’s purpose for them has been accomplished.

So, once again, Jesus and the religious scholars and authorities were embroiled in a heated debate. Why did God establish the Sabbath? How did God intend the Sabbath to be kept? What was the Sabbath for, and for whom? Why was the command to keep the Sabbath so important to God that Judah had been sent into exile for transgressing it?

In the middle of this turbulent imbroglio, Jesus dropped a stun bomb. “Did not Moses teach the law to you? Yet not even one of you carries out the law, nor does the law.”

That, right there, would have been enough to mottle the faces of the religious rulers, and cause them to swallow their teeth. But Jesus followed this inflammatory accusation with something far more explosive.

“Why are you plotting to kill me?”

Well, that just blew the lid right off the now boiling pot. Imagine their eyes popping out, thinking they had kept that conspiracy “eyes-only” secret. Imagine hot-tempered Mediterranean men shouting at the top of their lungs, hands and arms being waved wildly, people from all over running from their doorways and donkey carts towards the melee. Imagine Jesus in the middle, calm and sober, the righteous judge prepared even yet to show mercy.

Angry and perplexed, it was someone from the crowd, most likely an out-of-town pilgrim, who answered back. The Pharisees, teachers of the law, and religious rulers were, to a man, stolidly silent.

“You have a demon!!!” that person shot back. You are absolutely out of your mind, you have gone right over the edge into some dark, terrible place.

“Who is trying to kill you?!” Imagine that anonymous speaker throwing his head back and forth dramatically with his arms and hands spread wide. See anybody with a knife? See any villains here?

What Jesus said next seems to be a total non sequitur. Was he just stirring up even more trouble with a bit of hyperbole to get a bigger audience? Or was there some connection?


Circumcision

Jesus went on to explain that even the incredibly fastidious-as-to-the-law Pharisees circumcised eight-day old male infants on the Sabbath Day, in order to bring the baby into the covenant, according to God’s word. Eighth-day circumcision was an even older commandment than the Mosaic laws concerning the Sabbath, for God had given circumcision to Abraham as the mark of faith and inclusion in the covenant.

Without keeping this command, all the other commands were moot, for that male person would essentially be considered cast out.


Circumcision knife, Europe, 1775-1785 Credit: Science Museum, London. Europe made: 1775-1785 Published | Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised . . .

Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old . . .

Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

GOD, Genesis 17:9-14 (NRSV)

There is an interesting interplay of concepts, here. To cut off the foreskin was to be included. To leave the foreskin was to be excluded. There was going to be a cutting away of one kind or another, there was no middle ground. Either cut off a part of the body or be cut off from the people.

Both included vulnerability.

  1. For the circumcision exposed the most sensitive part of a male, and symbolized the cutting away of self-protection between a man and God. God explained, through Moses, the real intent was to circumcise the heart, sayingCircumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.”
  • Yet, to be cut off from the people, especially in ancient times, meant hardship and suffering so acute it could lead even to physical death.

Here, Jesus showed his depth of understanding of both the spirit and the letter of God’s law. Circumcision was both for the male infant’s physical well-being as well as for his spiritual well-being, marking him with the sign of God’s covenant, an heir to all God’s promises. This was keeping the Sabbath profoundly holy.

How much more so then, was Jesus’ act of compassion a holy worship at the heart of the Sabbath, making an entire man physically and spiritually whole?


“Do not judge by appearance, but rather let you all judge by righteous judgement.”

Jesus, John 7:24

Remember there were all kinds of people in Jerusalem that day, because it was the Feast of Booths, the people’s favorite holiday. Pilgrims and locals were mixed among each other, extended families came back together for their annual reunions.

Makeshift lean-tos and vendors’ kiosks thickly encrusted every possible open space, including the streets. Street preachers, entertainers, and peddlers hawking their wares competed for the people’s attention.

And then there was the gossip mixed in with real news—temple news, political news, the latest on the royal Herods, the crime blotter.

Several locals, those living in Jerusalem, had actually caught wind of the plot to kill Jesus. Now, they mused out loud, “Is not this the one they are seeking to kill?” I picture them addressing each other, but in such a way that everyone around them can hear them.

“And yet behold! He is speaking openly!”

Several nod their heads vigorously and look back at Jesus with exaggerated amazement and admiration.

“And also not one of them is speaking to him!” They all smile and chuckle to see the usually imperious and didactic religious authorities stumped for something to say. It has not escaped their notice that many of the Pharisees and scribes look as grim as death itself.

“Surely not,” said one of them, in his louder voice, a voice that could carry over the heads of those around them, “The authorities recognize he is the Messiah?!”

Heads swivel, looks of growing understanding pass through the gathered crowd, more heads turn to Jesus and his standoff with the religious rulers. Surely not . . . ? An unexpected sweet and fresh breeze wafts over them, lifting their hair and cooling their faces. Some look up in wonder, for rarely is there ever such a light wind in midday.

The moment hangs in the air.

Then, with impeccable timing, another flaps his hand, and looks away with a shake of his head and a sound of dismissal. “But we know where this one is from,” he says. And the moment is lost.

Many now ruefully shake their heads as well. What good can come from Nazareth, of all places? Anyway, that was not even the point. Another of them agreed, yes. “But when the Messiah comes, not even one will know where he is from.”


[Circumcision of Jesus | Rembrandt / Public domain]

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