There are certain passages of Scripture that captivate the imaginations of readers. One of those is a line from this Sunday’s Gospel reading. Jesus was speaking to his disciples, and said, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” (John 14:2) This text from John’s Gospel has inspired a wide range of interpretations, from the crassly materialistic to the completely crazy.
One popular interpretation of this text is based on a translation that has fallen out of use; it read “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” Those who look for heavenly mansions understand these words in a strictly materialistic fashion that looks forward to some kind of upward mobility in the afterlife. The idea of moving out of this existence into a more comfortable and stylish one in a heavenly mansion is very appealing, but nonsensical.
Another popular understanding is an abstraction based on a fantasy. It sees these words as describing many different levels of afterlife existence by which one can be rewarded for being “other-worldly” in this life. The “many dwellings” are multiple possible levels of reward based on one’s performance in this life, an idea that would have gained the approval of the Jerusalem Pharisees.
One of the more entertaining interpretations that I came across (not written by a Christian exegete), is that the many dwellings refer to the twelve signs of the zodiak. Jesus, the Son of God, is a sun-god, who has a commanding view of the universe from his orbit around the earth; as he passes through various astrological phases, he reveals various truths to the universe. I’m guessing that, in order to post this one to the internet, the author had to take off the aluminum foil helmet that protects him from cosmic rays.
None of these explanations, nor any of their variants, is very satisfying. They depend on our personal wants, wishes and pipe dreams. Interpreting the Scriptures in terms of our own desires or fantasies is guaranteed only to explain our own psyches to us rather than the mind of God. Here’s a spoiler alert: what Jesus meant by this phrase was explained earlier in the Gospel. Two keywords show us the intent of the Gospel’s author: “my Father’s house,” and “dwelling.”
The Gospel of John begins with a Prologue that describes the eternal relationship between Jesus and the Father. The first two lines of the Gospel Prologue say, “At the beginning of all things the Word existed because the Word is Divine. The Word looks upon the face of God, and dwells with God eternally.” (John 1:1-2) The idea of the Word dwelling with God is repeated throughout the Gospel. In the Incarnation, the Word made his dwelling with human society. As a consequence, the Word’s state of dwelling eternally with God was offered to those who chose to dwell with the Word. The repeated use of “dwelling” (as in “dwelling place – Jn 14:2), is a reference to knowing God, loving God and doing God’s will.
In the second Chapter of the Gospel Jesus went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. He found crowds of people using the Temple as a marketplace. The Gospel says, “He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, ‘Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace’.” (John 2:15-16) Jesus referred to the Temple in Jerusalem as “my Father’s house.” The Temple was considered to be only place on earth where one could offer appropriate and efficacious worship to God. For Jesus, the “Father’s house,” the Temple in Jerusalem, was the physical and spiritual center of a life of faith; it was the place where one honored the Covenant given by God.
The meaning of Jesus’ statement, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2), is explained clearly in the first two chapters of the Gospel. It means that many are welcome to enter the Temple (the Covenant), and to abide (be in Covenant relationship), with God.
Throughout the Gospel Jesus criticized the Pharisees of Jerusalem. His criticism was based on the fact that the Jerusalem Pharisees made such a great effort to exclude people from Temple worship and from being in a right relationship with God. Last week’s Gospel reading is an example of his criticisms. He referred to the Jerusalem Pharisees as “thieves and robbers” who came “to steal and slaughter and destroy” God’s flock. (John 10: 8,10)
Jesus’ preaching was aimed at counteracting that of the Jerusalem Pharisees. He described his ministry as leading God’s flock to a safe pasture, in other words, leading people into a life of faith in God. This is the meaning behind the metaphors “my Father’s house” and “many dwellings.” There is also, I think, a meaning behind the various interpretations that people give to these words. Those various interpretations represent various images of God; the images range from the self-centered to the unhinged. This ought to give us pause to examine our own image of God.
If you dare, you might ask yourself what came to mind when you heard these words proclaimed in the Gospel reading: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2) Did you tend toward the materialistic or the fantasy based? When Jesus spoke these words to the disciples they were still struggling with their own lack of faith and lack of understanding. They failed to understand him at all. If you struggle to understand Jesus’ words, there is no cause for despair.
Jesus understood himself as one sent by God to seek and save the lost. If your faith is lost, or even a little disoriented, there is hope in Jesus the Good Shepherd. He leads us along the path of truth, and he promised that “whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these.” (John 14:12) What work could we do that is greater than what Jesus did? Perhaps, it is to believe at a time, and in a society, that is too unstable to support faith.
The disciples were dull witted and slow to believe. Jesus’ words, however, eventually had their intended effect. The ones who questioned Jesus about the way to the Father became ardent preachers of the Way. If they can experience a change of heart, it is possible for anyone. Do you want some reasonable degree of certainty about the claims made by the Catholic Faith? Do you want to enter the Father’s house, the Covenant of Baptism, and find a dwelling place there? If so, you have only to listen to Jesus, the Word of God.