While accusations of disinformation and fake news have multiplied over the last four years in American politics, it is possible to see such problems have been part of human existence for millennia. As I was reading John 7, the current political mess came to my mind. The similarities between then and now seemed clear to me. While the Internet and social media exacerbate the problem, they didn’t cause humans to be subject to rumor, gossip and itching ears, though they do feed that monster in us. “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Surely, in 21st Century America that time has come.
After this Jesus went about in Galilee; he would not go about in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill him. . . . [Jesus tells His disciples:] “Go to the feast yourselves; I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.” So saying, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private. The Jews were looking for him at the feast, and saying, “Where is he?” And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, “He is a good man,” others said, “No, he is leading the people astray.” Yet for fear of the Jews no one spoke openly of him. (John 7:1, 8-13)
The chapter begins with Jesus telling His disciples that they should go to Jerusalem, but that He was not coming with them. However, after the disciples leave, Jesus surreptitiously also goes to Jerusalem, wishing to avoid notice and knowing anonymity would not be possible if He was traveling with His 12 disciples – 13 burly men moving together through a crowd draws attention. In Jerusalem, we see the confusion and disinformation circulating among the people because of rumors. Is Jesus a good man or is He leading the people astray? Both opinions are equally in vogue which causes further doubt and confusion about how people evaluate Jesus. (Which may be also why Jesus enters the city surreptitiously, knowing the opinions about him are not only contentious and divided but also dangerous and threatening).
Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why do you seek to kill me?” The people answered, “You have a demon! Who is seeking to kill you?” . . . Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” Some of the people of Jerusalem therefore said, “Is not this the man whom they seek to kill? And here he is, speaking openly, and they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Christ? Yet we know where this man comes from; and when the Christ appears, no one will know where he comes from.” (John 7:19-20, 7:24-27)
Again we see disinformation and fake news: are some trying to kill Jesus or not? He believes they are, even if some people are unaware of this. We can read in the text the confusion which exists among the people in Jerusalem regarding Jesus. People are confused and don’t know what to believe and don’t know whom to believe. It is a situation which causes people to look for things to reinforce their own beliefs – even if they are wrong, at least they feel justified in holding to them. This same thing unfolds today, but now at the speed of the internet.
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This is really the prophet.” Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the scripture said that the Christ is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” So there was a division among the people over him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.
The officers then went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” The officers answered, “No man ever spoke like this man!” The Pharisees answered them, “Are you led astray, you also? Have any of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, who do not know the law, are accursed.” Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee.” They went each to his own house… (John 7:37-53)
The cacophony of voices and opinions is obvious in the text. The end result is polarized division. There is uncertainty about how to evaluate Jesus and disagreement regarding what to do with Him. People aren’t communicating with each other, they are trying to manipulate each other. They are not listening to other points of view, but take into account only those ideas with which they already agree. So they can’t learn, grow or think. Emotions are running the day – and roiling emotions cause people to do foolish things. We know the end result will be bad for Jesus. Today, a country which claims to be a Christian nation should pay attention to what can be seen in the Gospel. For the divisiveness is going to lead to murder – of Jesus! People, who perhaps even saw the good works of Christ with their own eyes, will turn against Jesus because they are listening to the talking heads who aren’t interested in truth but only want people to follow their opinions. Much like today, except today the internet allows these sowers of disinformation to broad cast their tares over a much wider field.
John 7 is not the only pericope in which we see this happen. Another example comes at Palm Sunday, the entry of the Lord into Jerusalem. The Evangelist Matthew begins this narrative by telling us that most of the crowd in Jerusalem is welcoming Jesus as Messiah (John 12:12-13 gives us a similar picture). But then pay attention to the end of the passage where surprisingly “all the city” is actually asking, “Who is this?” They don’t know. Confusion reigns but obviously not everyone is welcoming Jesus as many don’t even know who He is.
Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.” (Matthew 21:8-11)
What is the truth of the situation? We can’t know, but we see disinformation and fake news present. People don’t know how to evaluate Jesus, and many don’t even know who He is or why He is significant. But then we see even further exaggeration as “The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!‘” (John 12:19; emphasis added) Hardly has the entire world become Christ’s disciples at this moment. Not even all Jews embrace Jesus, nor do all the people in Jerusalem. And the Jewish leaders are soon going to turn the crowd, ‘the whole world’, against Jesus as they demand His crucifixion when He is put on trial by Pontius Pilate.
Fake news and disinformation have been part of the human experience for at least the last 2000 years. We shouldn’t be caught by surprise that it is still happening now or that political leaders engage in it. What can we do? One thing we might consider are President Reagan’s words, “Trust but verify.”
Take what your favorite media or political opinionators say with a grain of salt. And I am not talking about what the people you disagree with say. Be very cautious about trusting any of the mass media opinionated editorializers who express sentiments and viewpoints with which you agree. Don’t assume they are being truthful. They are trying to manipulate your emotions and your thinking. They don’t claim to be news reporters – they are trying to bump up their own rating numbers and know they can do that by saying increasingly outrageous things. They are ‘entertainers’ in the guise of news people, and Americans have itching ears and can’t get enough of their of their endless nattering. And sadly, even many Christians take their blathering and prattling as Gospel. These media talking-heads get paid to arouse your passions not to inform your mind. They are trying to appeal to your most base instincts. You have to rise above them.
Just remember what happened to Jesus Christ because people listened to such opinion manipulators. Especially when these jabbering yackers say things that resonate with you. The caution is, don’t believe everything you think. Remember the adage: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.” That is what our media commentators do quite well. Christ is put to death exactly because people did that. They listened to people who said things they wanted to believe and as a result, Truth was nailed to the cross to die.
“… they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt. For land which has drunk the rain that often falls upon it, and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed; its end is to be burned.” (Hebrews 6:6-8)