God became man. The holy prophet St. John the Baptist testified to this fact. Then the Christ worked miracles, including: healing the sick, deaf, blind, and paralyzed; liberating the possessed; raising the dead, and—perhaps most exquisitely of all—providing excellent wine for the guests at a wedding.
A charming, hopeful, wonderfully ‘positive’ three-year ministry. Tons of good feelings about it, all over Galilee and Judea. If facebook had been around, lots of Likes. Everyone’s ready for more good stuff.
Then the God-man proceeds to say:
I know that you do not have the love of God in you… How can you believe, when you accept praise from one another and do not seek the praise that comes from the only God?
Wow. A spiritual punch in the face, by the charming miracle-worker who had so many Likes.
Is this fair? After all, don’t we human beings naturally seek each other’s praise? It takes a very rare individual, indeed, to live with absolute indifference to the opinions of others. Yes, hopefully we grow up enough to get past the popularity anxieties of high-school. But even mature adults desperately desire the praise of their co-workers and family members; we want above all the praise of the people we most respect. No one can endure the disapproval of your fellow man without some anxiety and unhappiness.
But: God is not unfair. I think the operative word in the sentence in John 5:44—“How can you believe when you accept praise from one another, and do not seek the praise that comes from God?”—the operative word is believe.
God did not become man in order to be admired. He did not become man in order to get honor and respect. He became man in order to win our faith.
What’s the difference? My respect and admiration for others proceeds according to standards that I have, and that I apply. I praise because someone or something measures up to my bar. By praising or blaming, I claim to understand enough to judge.
But can we fruitfully meditate on Christ’s Passion from this point-of-view? Can I consider myself competent to praise or blame anyone’s actions in the unfolding of the death of the Christ? I have no standards that I can apply here. All I can do is to believe that this is God, revealing His judgment.
The world, the human race, I myself—all evil enough to crucify God. Worthy of blame and condemnation for killing the sinless Lamb—Who stayed in the bosom of the Father’s will, even when all the human praise that came His way turned into contempt.
The crucifixion of Christ judges me. But it also reveals: God does not condemn me according to this just judgment. Rather, He’s prepared to let me start over–with my faith in him, in Jesus Christ, as the most-basic criterion of judgment that my mind will use.