The Gospel for Mass this past Saturday contains one line that deserves some attention from us, especially in a time like this. On one level it seems like a mere scene-ender, a line that ends the section and has the dramatis personae (cast of characters) walk off the stage. But as most who are familiar with Scripture know, there is rarely a wasted syllable, particularly in John’s Gospel. There is not one word or syllable that should be dismissed as “filler” when the Holy Spirit is at work inspiring the sacred authors.
The line in question appears in the 7th Chapter of John’s Gospel, at the end of a debate among the temple leaders as to the identity of Jesus. They wrestle with the question of who Jesus is: is the coming Messiah, and whether He or not He is the eternal Son of the Father as He claims.
The majority of the interlocutors reject Jesus out of hand because He comes from Galilee and “no Prophet has ever come from Galilee!” One of their number, Nicodemus, encourages them to be more open to the possibilities and to have greater command of the facts before rendering judgment. The pericope (passage) ends in this way:
Then each went to his own house (John 7:53).
This sentence ought not to be overlooked because it invites great significance. We can distinguish three rather separate understandings of the line: an inward meaning, and outward meaning, and an eternal meaning.
1. Inward – Each one returning to his own house can be understood as describing how we must ultimately enter into the “house” of our soul. We must all go into the inner room of our heart and mind; that place where we are alone with God; where we ponder, reflect, deliberate, and discern. Many of us have more time to do this just now and it is surely more important than ever to do so.
It is in this place that we must answer for ourselves the deepest questions of life: Who am I? Who is God? What is the meaning of my life? What am I doing and why? Who is the man/woman God made me to be? Yes, this is the inner sanctum, the holy place where we are alone with God.
When we are with others we tend to posture. We seek to conform in response to peer pressure or other social influences. There is often undue influence from persuasion, excessive human respect, group pressure, and group dynamics.
But there comes a moment when we are summoned by the Lord to separate from others, to go into our own house, to enter into that quiet place inside us and listen carefully to voice of God that echoes in our heart (cf Catechism # 1776).
At the point in the Gospel cited above, the temple leaders have had their debate. They have sought to influence one another. Some have experienced pressure and persuasive argumentation. Many of them probably exhibited the human tendency we all have: to try to ingratiate ourselves to others by speaking so that others will think highly of us.
Now that all the posturing is over, it is time for each man to go to his own house and there privately ponder and decide what he really thinks. Yes, it is decision time. The Lord is asking a question: Who do you say that I am? It is time for each man to go to his own house and be face-to-face with God.
Sadly, many today reject this requirement to go to our own “house” and reflect deeply. Most take little time to enter the room of their own soul. In our modern world, with its myriad distractions, most prefer to flip on the television instead.
Ultimately we cannot evade this call from God to decide, in that inner room of our own “house,” who God is and how we will respond to Him. And for those who go on for too long refusing to go to their own house, God has ways of forcing the issue. Maybe it’s one of those sleepless at 3:00 AM. Maybe it’s a time of crisis that provokes soul-searching. But ultimately, at some point, each of us must go to his own house and reflect quietly with God, away from social pressures, away from posturing. There, alone with God, each must face the deepest questions.
2. Outward – There is a different perspective from which one can read this text, and it provides an insight that is almost exactly opposite. For while it is of critical importance to go to that secret place, that house of our own soul and there reflect with God, it is also of vital to stay connected to the reality that is outside our house. Thus, this passage may also be viewed as a commentary on the human tendency to retreat into our own little world, to shrink from any evidence we don’t like, to avoid anything that challenges our worldview.
Jesus had earlier confronted these temple leaders with evidence of His divinity and His identity as Messiah and Lord. He spoke to them of His miracles, of His fulfillment of prophecy, of the testimony of John the Baptist, and of the Father’s voice echoing in their hearts (cf John 5:31-47).
But we all share the human tendency to retreat into our own world, our own house, despite the evidence. In effect, we retreat from reality into our own made-up little world.
There is an old saying, “Don’t believe everything you think.” We tend to believe that something is so just because we think it.
There is another saying, “Who is an adviser to himself has a fool for a counselor.” Yet too easily we take only our own counsel. Or, we surround ourselves only with teachers who “tickle our ears.”
Thus, though these temple leaders have been confronted with many facts pointing to the veracity of Jesus’ identity as Lord and Messiah, they choose instead to brush off the evidence and retreat into their own houses, their own little worlds.
Further, they err with the facts: they argue that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem whereas Jesus came from Galilee. But of course Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
But never mind all that; each just goes off to his own house, to his own little world. And too often many do exactly this.
The challenge for us all is to live in reality, not merely in the confines of our own house, our own little world, our own (sometimes flawed or incomplete) thoughts.
3. Eternal – The third interpretation of the “house” referred to in this line is our ultimate home, the destination to which we all journey. Thus, when the text says they all went each to his own house, it may also refer to that place where they will dwell for all eternity. Where that house is, in Heaven or Hell, depends on each man’s stance regarding Jesus.
Having scoffed at Jesus, each of the temple leaders now heads off to his own home. But no one comes to the Father except through Jesus, and thus their home is somewhere other than the heart of the Father.
There is an old saying, “You made your bed, now lie in it.” You and I must choose where to make our home. Where that home is will depend upon our acceptance or rejection of Jesus.
There will come a day when each of us will have said of us, Then [he] went to his own house. Where will your house be?