The Gospel of John is a narrative, theological proof that Jesus was the Messiah, the One Anointed – consecrated, selected – by God to establish God’s rule – God’s Kingdom – on earth. The Pharisee Nicodemus illustrates the process by which even leaders in the Jewish communities who rejected the whole notion of Jesus as the Messiah might still come to believe. He visits Jesus during the metaphorical night of conventional thought in chapter 3. He reappears in chapter 7 among the temple authorities who threaten to arrest Jesus (John 7:37-8:20). In that scene, Nicodemus challenges his colleagues to abide by the Law and not pass judgment on someone without first allowing him to speak for himself and establish the facts. The chief priests and pharisees are not happy with Nicodemus, but they allow Jesus to make his argument. He says, “I am the light of the world,” which further enfuriates the pharisees, but they do not arrest him because “his time had not yet come.” Nicodemus’ final appearance is with Joseph of Arimathea, who takes Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:38-42). John writes that Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of Jesus because he was afraid of the other members of the community. Nicodemus, “the one who had first gone to him at night,” brings an inordinate amount of “myrrh and aloes weighing about seventy-five pounds” with which to wrap the body.
An uncritical Christian reading might imply that Nicodemus may still have been holding some doubt about who Jesus was. While he did speak up for him on behalf of the Law, the contribution of all those burial spices may have signalled a sense of guilt for not “believing” Jesus was the Messiah. Perhaps Nicodemus did it because he had a literal understanding of Jesus’ resurrection. If Jesus is going to literally come back from the dead (like Lazarus), it might be wise to do all he can to preserve the body! Twentieth century Scholar Raymond E. Brown argues that the “brave action of the hitherto timid Joseph and Nicodemus seems to indicate that Jesus, raised up, has begun drawing people unto himself” (The Gospel and Epistles of John, Liturgical Press, 1988).
But suppose Nicodemus’ gesture is part of John’s continuing proof. Jesus was seriously dead. He was truly executed by the Romans as a terrorist, buried, and as orthodox creed puts it, “descended into Hell.” Then in an act that defied all religious logic and secular expectation, God raised a crucified enemy of the state from the dead into God’s realm. Even more subversive, and missed by most commentaries, the action the two pharisees took with Jesus’ body was an outrageous demonstration that Jesus was indeed the Anointed One. They treated the body of an executed criminal with extravagently greater respect and care than normally due a righteous follower of the Law.
The Gospel of John is fraught with 2,000 years of Christian interpretation that insists “belief” in Jesus’ story means a free ticket to heaven after death, and “non-belief” means an instantaneous condemnation to hell. It has been the raison d’être for the worst excesses of anti-Semitism, and the destruction of aboriginal and non-Christian societies world-wide. It has had a greater influence on Western thought than possibly any other biblical narrative. Reinterpreting the Gospel from the point of view of late 20th and early 21st century Biblcal scholarship requires a willingness to ignore traditional meaning – and of course begs the question: Why bother?
In a recent op-ed published by the Martinsburg (West Virginia) Journal, Sean O’Leary writes about NBA all-American Jerry West. West came from an abusive, dysfunctional family. He used basketball as a way to dissociate himself from the terror at home, and became “the ninth greatest professional player of all time.” O’Leary says that while West was one of the lucky ones, most people caught in abusive situations are unable to get out. Instead they retreat into booze, gambling, junk food, cigarettes, pain killers, and assorted drugs; and it happens more often in West Virginia than anywhere else. “The National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease control rank West Virginia among the leading states for the prevalence of depression, anxiety-related disorders, and . . . suicide. We’re nearly five tmes more likely to kill ourselves than we are to be killed by someone else. And suicide combined with accidental drug overdoses (usually prescription pain killers) kills more of us than even traffic accidents.”
O’Leary calls this crisis “West Virginia’s disease of othe soul.” It is a disease of the soul because the underlying cause of these problems is never addressed: that is, mental illness, depression, and addiction are seen as character flaws: a lack of self-discipline, a failure of resolve, or even a dearth of religious faith, “traits for which they believe people should be admonished or punished rather than treated.” That “dearth of religious faith” goes right back to the misinterpretation of John 3:16-21. Traditional, conservative, and fundamentalist Christians quote John 3:16 as the defining Christian statement of faith:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds shouldbe reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. John 3:16-21 (KJV).
The standard interpretation is if you don’t believe Jesus came back from the dead, you can’t be saved. Even with the latest translation, the same meaning seems inevitable. Jesus explains to Nicodemus how it came about that God designated Jesus as his Anointed One: “In the desert, Moses elevated the snake; in the same way, the Human One is destined to be elevated, so everyone who believes in him can have unending life . . . All those who do evil things hate the light and don’t come into the light – otherwise their deeds would be exposed. But those who do what is true come into the light so the nature of their deeds will become evident: their deeds belong to God” (The Complete Gospels p. 214).
In order to reclaim this metaphor of the religious leader who came out of the darkness, in secret, to meet Jesus and ask him what he was all about, a few points about the nature of God, and what belongs to God must be understood. Jesus tries to remind this learned pharisee of what he is supposed to know: that what comes from the spiritual realms is spirit, and what comes from human realms is human. In order to be part of God’s realm, everyone must be reborn by God’s spirit. Nicodemus takes this literally, and so has just about everyone else for the past 2,000 years.
In order to be “reborn from above,” God’s spirit must be understood as distributive justice-compassion. Throughout the Bible, God acts to establish, restore, and keep God’s law: for the widow, the orphan, the slave, and even the animals that reside with God’s people. Everyone participates in God’s demand for justice. Whenever the people stray from justice – whether it’s refusing to annilhate the Amalekites, or tricking Uriah so the king can take his wife, or worshiping the idols of the conquerors, God withdraws his support and the people suffer famine, war, and exile. Whenever anyone follows God’s rule of distributive justice-compassion – whether or not they belong to the original 12 tribes of Israel – God works for them: they win the battles, reap the harvests, abide in their own profitable, peaceful land. It’s never about belief. It is always about action: radical, outside-the-box, unconventional, anti-imperial action.
Catholic scholar Sandra Schneiders writes:
[T]he textual Nicodemus is actually a type of the true Israelite, who progresses in faith from seeing the signs to doing the truth according to the scriptures, to finally confessing Jesus openly as the one in whom the Old Testament finds its fulfillment. . . . Nicodemus is the very type of the truly religious person, who is, on the one hand, utterly sincere and, on the other, complacent about his or her knowledge of God and God’s will. Such people are basically closed to divine revelation . . . it is only after they have been reduced to the futility of their own ignorance that they can begin the process of coming to the Light not by argument or reasoning but by doing the truth, a process that gradually opens them to the true meaning of the scriptures. Written That You May Believe p. 119.
So when the people of West Virginia or any state, and their governors and officials and social service agencies, refuse to deal with the underlying disease of the soul, and instead throw desperate people into jail for breaches of law, in John’s language, they are “those who refuse the son [and] will not see life; no, they remain the object of God’s wrath”: God’s justified displeasure with and active judgment against those who do not obey God’s law. The strength of sin, writes the apostle Paul is the law (1 Corinthians 15:56) – that is, the conventional law of social organization. That law does not protect and support the widow, the orphan, or the stranger needing hospitality. It supports the rich, the bully, and the political patron.
Nicodemus is the model for moving from uncritical belief to doing what God requires and ultimately arriving at the truth. But as Jesus points out, and as Sean O’Leary laments, that spirit of truth “blows every which way like the wind; you hear the sound it makes but you can’t tell where it’s coming from or where it’s headed.” Transformation can’t be spoon-fed; it has to come “from above.” Until it does, O’Leary writes, “the statue of [Jerry] West that stands outside the WVU Coliseum will be as much a monument to West’s and West Virginia’s disease of the soul as it is to the athletic achievements it’s meant to celebrate.”
The Gospel of John is far more relevant to sustainable 21st century life than the 19th century anachronisms of Ayn Rand, or the demonstrably failed economic theories offered by neo-conservative presidential politicians, or fundamentalist literalist theologies – Christian or non-Christian. “God’s rule” does not mean salvation from hell in the next life, but radical fairness on earth in this life. Radical fairness means distributive justice-compassion in ecological, economic, environmental and social policy; it requires a radical abandonment of self-interest, even to the seemingly impossible point of loving one’s enemies. Living under God’s rule means subverting the laws governing all aspects of society, and embracing God’s imperial rule, not Cesar’s. Jesus’ teaching about God’s rule means not only the overthrow of the occupying Roman government of the first century, but the fulfillment or actualization of the law of Moses, and the transformation of what John Dominic Crossan calls “the normalcy of civilization” itself.
Nicodemus came out of the shadows, out of the darkness of conventional religious and political social expecation. He later uses the law against those who wanted to discredit Jesus and arrest him. He finally throws the law in its conventional face by treating the violated body of an executed criminal like a king. Tweet