John 7:1-52; 8:12-59
With chapter 7 the anti-Semitism that has haunted Christianity for centuries seems to become unavoidable. Perhaps that is why only two verses are ever read by followers of The Revised Common Lectionary, and even those are considered alternative choices for Pentecost in Year A (when the emphasis is on Matthew’s Gospel): “On the last and most important day of the festival, Jesus stood up and shouted out, ‘Anyone who’s thirsty must come to me and drink. The one who believes in me – as scripture puts it – will be the source of rivers of life-giving water.’ (He was talking about the spirit that those who believed in him were about to receive. You realize, of course, that there was no spirit as yet, since Jesus hadn’t been glorified.)” John 7:37-39; the parenthesis is in the text. When these verses are plucked out of the context of John’s impassioned proof that Jesus was the Messiah, preachers can do whatever they want with them. For example, pair those verses with Isaiah 55, and you have the ingredients for a beautiful liturgy: The fires of transforming spirit and the waters of baptismal grace.
When the Revised Common Lectionary is used to determine the weekly scripture readings in many (if not most) churches, not only is the drama that occurs in chapter 7 ignored. The iconic scene with the woman caught in adultery is also left out of all suggested RCL readings for the entire three-year cycle. Seminarians already know (or should know) that the incident known as “the woman caught in adultery” (KJV: the “adulterous woman”) at the beginning of Chapter 8 is not considered to have been part of John’s original. (For a classic commentary on John, see The Gospel and Epistles of John by Ramond E. Brown.) While most modern translations put it there, some put it after John 21:25, and others place it after Luke 21:38. The Westar Scholars put it in a section of The Complete Gospels titled “Orphan Sayings and Stories.” According to the Scholars,
The sayings and anecdotes . . . are all fragments, which, over the course of the transmission and production of early gospel manuscripts, were introduced by various scribes into particular known copies of the canonical gospels. Their poor attestation . . . indicates that they do not belong to the original text of the gospels in which they are found in the odd manuscript . . . For this reason, most scholars disregard them in the study of the canonical gospels . . . . The exceptions would be the story of the woman caught in adultery . . . and the traditional Longer Ending of Mark (16:9-20), which, for traditional or sentimental reasons, are often retained (p. 457).
Regarding “the adulteress episode – 7:53-8:11,” Raymond Brown writes,
This story is missing from the best Greek manuscripts. While for Catholics it is canonical and inspired, almost certainly it is out of context [at the end of chapter 7]. . . . The Greek style is closer to Luke than to John. We may have here an old story about Jesus preserved by a hand other than that which gave us the rest of the Gospel. The Gospel and Epistles of John, p. 51.
When the incident is left out, the dramatic tension in John’s narrative proof of who Jesus was comes into its own.
After the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and Jesus’ discourse on being the bread of life, John reminds his listeners (or readers) that Jesus moved around Galilee, and did not go into Judea “because the Judeans were looking for a chance to kill him.” John has written this assertion and others about the “fear of the Judeans” back into the story of Jesus from the time when John was in a fight for his spiritual life with the local synagoguge; it would have been common ideology among the members of John’s community who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Perhaps part of the reason for skipping chapter 7 may be the blatant anti-Semitism that has come from misunderstanding and mistranslating what John wrote.
John sets this episode in the fall season of Sukkoth. Everyone who’s been to Sunday School knows about the festival of “booths” (Tabernacles). What we never learn is what the festival was all about. Raymond Brown sets the scene:
The discourse at Tabernacles takes on added overtones if we are familiar with the ceremonies of this week-long feast . . . celebrated in September/October at the fall harvest in order to pray for early rain in the winter season. . . . (a) the people lived in huts or bowers to recall their ancestors’ sojourn in the desert; (b) to symbolize the need for rain, there was a daily procession from the pool of Siloam bringing water as a libation to the Temple; (c) the court of the women in the Temple was lighted by immense torches (Gospel and Epistles pp. 48-49).
True to the cynical assertion that no prophet is respected in his home country (Mark 6:3-4), Jesus’ brothers apparently don’t believe he really can work miracles. They want him to go to Judea to really put Jesus to the test. Jesus says he’s not going to the festival because “my time has not yet arrived.” Then he goes in secret. So Jesus is now back in Judea, where he healed the lame man on the Sabbath. So far there have been four signs in Galilee vs. one in Judea (Jerusalem). John keeps implying that Jesus’ home was Judea (Bethlehem), but “everybody knew” Jesus was from Galilee (Nazareth). Jesus’ secrecy plays into the idea that no one will know who the Anointed One is, or where he comes from. The “crowds” at the festival also are conflicted about who Jesus is because they know who his family is.
John quickly gets down to business, as Jesus confronts the representatives of Jewish law: “Anyone who sets out to do what God wants knows well enough whether his teaching originates with God . . . All who speak on their own are out for their own glory . . . for the one who speaks for God, ‘there is nothing dishonest about him.’” In John’s opinion, the Judeans not only don’t believe the law, they are determined to break it by killing Jesus. Then on the last and most important day of the festival, presumably when the procession from the pool of Siloam brought water into the Temple, John’s Jesus (perhaps with some audacity) says that the one who believes in him will be the source of rivers of life-giving water. John suggests parenthetically that Jesus is talking about the spirit that would be received after Jesus’ death. Jesus seems to be foretelling his own death and the gift of the spirit, which will destroy the legitimacy of festival rituals for rain.
This is in-your-face polemic on the part of John. But it gets worse.
Debate continues among the people about whether or not Jesus is the One. Is he from Galilee or Judea? Which is more important, the miracles (signs) or the teachings? The temple police are called to arrest Jesus, but they don’t because “no one ever talked like that before!” The Pharisees are disgusted with this, but then Nicodemus appears and argues that if they kill Jesus without allowing him to speak for himself, they will be breaking their own law. This allows Jesus to testify on his own behalf, and he once again disses the festival – this time inferring that the torches may be lighting the women’s court, but “I am the light of the world!” The Pharisees declare his evidence is invalid, and the sparring continues.
In John 3:20-21, the narrator (or Jesus) says everyone who does evil things hates the light; “whoever lives the truth comes to the light so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” Here, Jesus claims that God himself will offer evidence on his behalf. That evidence, John’s community knew, was Jesus’ resurrection. The Pharisees attempt to trap him in language about human versus heavenly “fathers”; they take him literally when he talks about the Pharisees being “at home in this world [while] I’m not at home in this world”; and how “If you don’t believe that I am (what I say I am) you will die in your sins.” This is an infuriating, outrageous, and dangerous claim. Jesus has invoked the name of God (“I Am”) in reference to himself.
Finally, as the heated dialogue with the religious leaders escalates, the claim that they are children of Abraham is invoked, and John’s Jesus goes over the top. When taken out of context, even in this latest translation, these verses are among the most insidious in terms of what became Christian libel against Jews. John’s Jesus says,
“Why don’t you understand what I’m saying? It’s because you can’t hear my message. You are your father’s children, all right – children of the devil. And you are bent on satisfying your father’s cravings. He was a murderer from the start; he is far from truth. In fact, there’s no truth in him at all. When he tells his lies, he is expressing his nature, because he is a liar and breeds lying. But since I tell the truth, you don’t (want to) believe me. Who can charge me with sin? If I speak truthfully, why don’t you believe me? Everyone who belongs to God can hear God’s words. That’s why you don’t listen; you don’t belong to God.”
The Judeans are speechless. All they can do is accuse Jesus of either being an enemy Samaritan, or demon-possessed. Jesus says not only is he not demon-possessed, but “Abraham [himself] would have been overjoyed to see my day; in fact he did see it and it made him happy.” The Judeans scoff at this, but Jesus finishes with an astounding blasphemy: “Before there was an Abraham, I Am.” They pick up stones to throw at him, “but Jesus disappeared from the temple area.”
With this powerful sequence, John’s case against “the Judeans” for Jesus’ death begins to gather strength. Perhaps this section of John’s Gospel (without the orphan story in 8:1-12) is left out of the lectionary readings for this reason. But if John’s Gospel can be reclaimed for the 21st century, the solution is not to cherry-pick metaphors that translate easily into 21st century cosmology, or phrases that support Christian belief. Nor is the solution to throw out the entire Gospel. Instead, it should first be read and understood on its own terms.
John 6 is the foundation for the orthodox meaning of Christian Eucharist. The chapter opens with John’s version of the “feeding of the 5,000,” or “miracle of the loaves and fishes,” followed by the first of the “I Am” statements attributed to Jesus by John; John then presents an extensive argument about what exactly the “bread of life” means. This is too much for some of Jesus’ followers, many of whom “dropped out and would no longer travel with him.” Jesus is left with “the Twelve,” which includes “Judas, son of Simon Iscariot . . . who was going to turn him in.”
A thorough discussion of Mark’s version of this story can be found in the series titled “Ordinary Time,” contained in commentary on Propers 9 through 16 of the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B. The following excerpt sets the scene:
John’s version of the loaves and fishes miracle differs in significant ways from the original parable as told by Mark. The context for John’s version of Mark’s stories is “about the time for the Jewish celebration of Passover.” This sets up a ready reference to unleavened bread, and to the legend of manna, which magically appeared every morning to supply the exiles returning from Egypt with food for the journey. Anachronistically, it evokes Christian Eucharist. Further, it establishes the context for the first of the declarations that define Jesus’s mythic identity: I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world; I am the good shepherd, etc.
Instead of the disciples noticing there is need for bread, (Mark 6:35-36) John’s Jesus asks, “Where are we going to get enough bread to feed this mob?” Five Gospels translation. The disciples discuss how much money it would cost; then Andrew says, “There’s a lad here with five loaves of barley bread and two fish.” So “Jesus took the loaves” from the kid and magically multiplied the amount. This is a major change from Mark’s Jesus: “Give them something to eat yourselves.” The followers object on economic grounds (as do the ones in John’s story), but they come up with five loaves and two fish among their own provisions. Only after his followers have come up with food to share does Mark’s Jesus bless the bread, break it, and give it to them to distribute among the crowd.
Then Jesus orders the disciples to “gather up the leftovers so that nothing goes to waste.” The followers collect 12 baskets of scraps from the 5 barley loaves. Nothing is said in either story about what was done with the over-abundance of food. The point of both the original story and John’s version seems to be that there was not only enough, there was more than enough. But in Mark’s story, the abundance comes from the willingness of people to share. In John’s story, the abundance happens by the direct intervention of divine miracle. That intervention, it should be noted, confiscated what was needed from a child in the crowd. John’s Jesus did not ask the boy if he was willing to give up what he had. Perhaps the writer assumes a kind of natural altruism in the innocence of a child. Perhaps he was familiar with the idea that children are the ones who naturally inhabit God’s kingdom (Mark 10:14). Whatever it might mean, that detail carries moral and theological implications about the nature of the realm of God as well as the “body of Christ.”
The next major difference is that in Mark’s original, Jesus sends his disciples ahead in the boat while he disperses the crowd. After that, Jesus goes off alone to the mountain to pray. But in John’s gospel, once the people had seen the miracle, “Jesus perceived that they were about to come and make him king by force, so he retreated once again to the mountain by himself.” After he has gone, the disciples decide to row across the lake to Capernaum. Darkness has fallen, and a strong wind has come up. Jesus is seen walking toward the boat over the water. The disciples are terrified. But just as they decide to take him into the boat, they are magically transported to the shore, boat and all. Mark has no such magical transportation. Instead, by the time Jesus has climbed into the boat, the winds have died down. Mark says the disciples were dumbfounded. Then he adds parenthetically, “You see, they hadn’t understood about the loaves; they were being obstinate.” They did not want to realize their own role in the transformation of normal life in the Empire to God’s rule.
The writer of John’s Gospel was given a major clue about the meaning of Mark’s parable, but – like the disciples that Mark constantly complaints about – John didn’t get it. As a result, Christians have a choice about what the stories might mean. [The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary] are clear that interventionist miracle and magic is what it takes to bring about God’s Kingdom, God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion. There is no work involved, only “belief” or – for postmodern minds – the suspension of disbelief.
John’s Jesus tells the people that they were so distracted by having bread to eat that they missed the obvious miracle (John 6:26). Then – in an echo of what he said to his confused disciples in 4:32-34 – he tells them “Don’t work for food that spoils, but for food that lasts – food for unending life – which the Human One will give you.” After his encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, Jesus’ disciples plead with him to eat something; he says “I have food to eat you know nothing about . . . Doing the will of the one who sent me and completing his work – that’s my food.” But neither his disciples, nor the “crowd” who later follow him across the sea to Capernaum understand what he means.
John’s argument seems circular to post-modern minds. When the people ask “what do we have to do to accomplish the work God wants done?” Jesus tells them that the work is “to believe in the one whom God has sent.” When they demand a sign (apparently not satisfied with the multiplication of loaves and fishes), he says that he himself is the sign:
Let me tell you this: it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven; rather it is my Father who gives you real bread from heaven . . . I am the bread of life. Anyone who comes to me will never be hungry again, and anyone who believes in me will never again be thirsty.
Throughout Chapter 6, the people (“crowd”), the Judeans (Jesus’ hometown neighbors, the opposition in John’s local synagogue), and Jesus’ disciples all take what Jesus says literally. Jesus says he is “the bread that came down from heaven” and the Judeans ask, “Isn’t this Jesus son of Joseph? Don’t we know both his father and his mother? How can he now say, ‘I’ve come down from heaven’?” Jesus says, “For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. Those who feed on my flesh and drink my blood remain in me, and I in them.” The disciples respond: “This sort of talk is hard to take. Who can take it seriously?”
Indeed, those very words have been used as proof that Jesus was establishing cannibalism as the defining Christian ritual. Because a literal interpretation of John’s Gospel soon became established church dogma, finding a place outside of that interpretation is challenging. As the series from Year B makes clear, any interpretation other than the literalist tradition is precluded by the combinations of readings that comprise the Revised Common Lectionary.
One scholar who has created a theology outside the box of conventional Catholic dogma is Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox. In The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, Fox created a Christology for the third millennium that grounds Christian mysticism in modern cosmology. Fox says that the Cosmic Christ reveals the “divine ‘I Am’ in every creature. This is the doctrine of incarnation that leads to the return to the secular that Lloyd Geering suggests in Coming Back to Earth. Fox asks,
How are we the bread of life or living bread to each other? . . . The Statements that “I am bread” and “I am wine” ground our reverence for food and drink, wheat and wine, soil and vineyard, the processes of photosynthesis and all that makes things grow in an ultimate reverence. . . . In this revelation of the divinity of the bread and wine lies that part of compassion that is celebration . . . To celebrate our “I am” is to put our being before our doing or having or proving. . . . An “I am consciousness also affects our attitude toward time. The past and future are not what exist; it is the now moment that exists most richly. It is the divine “now” that is ours for the drinking (pp 154-155).
John’s Jesus says, “I am the life-giving bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the world’s life is my flesh.” This late first-century writer may have been talking about the popular dream that God would act to restore God’s justice to a world crushed by the Roman empire. In that apocalyptic legend, the savior of the world would be taken up to reside in heaven with God until the end of time. Then the savior – Messiah – Son of Adam – Human One – would return to a world transformed into God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion that would last forever. John’s Jesus speaks through the gospel from the point of view of the crucifixion. The catalyst for the ultimate transformation from earthly injustice to eternal justice, John says, was Jesus’ own flesh and blood.
For 21st century activists, from Occupy Wall Street regulars to poets such as Drew Dellinger, theologians such as Spong, Crossan, Borg, and Fox, the way to distributive justice-compassion for all beings on the Planet is our own flesh and blood.
Before getting too much deeper into the Gospel of John, some definition is in order. The translation that is used for these commentaries is The Complete Gospels, The Scholars Version, Fourth Edition (Polebridge Press, Salem Oregon, 2010). In a cameo essay (pp. 203-204), the scholars clarify the meaning of the Greek word Ioudaios, traditionally translated as “Jew.” That traditional meaning has led to centuries of abuse of Jews by Christians world-wide, because the Gospel of John seems to blame “the Jews” for the persecution and death of Jesus. The scholars spell out three uses for the Greek word in the current translation:
(1) A neutral sense, as when the customs, rites, and particularities of the people of Judea are described or referred to. Here “Judean(s)” is used.
(2) A sense that implies some ethnic interaction and competition. In some instances in which Ioudaios has this sense, the word carries hints of what later became the Jewish/Christian separation. Here SV uses the term “Jews” and “Jewish.”
(3) Ioudaios could be used to slur an opponent because rather than the primary indicator of social identity (such as “Israelite,” “descendant of Abraham,” “of the tribe of …”) it was a term that foreigners commonly applied to Israelites. In these cases Ioudaios is better translated as “Judean” to convey or suggest a demeaning intent. One could put down fellow Israelites using a term that does not convey the richness of identity and social pedigree. One’s opponent is thus diminished by being given a foreigner’s label.
After Jesus returned to Cana, Galilee, following his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, a “government official” from Capernaum “approached Jesus and pleaded with him to come down and cure his son, who was about to die.” The encounter is simple. The official asks Jesus to heal his son. Jesus seems exasperated. He says, “You people refuse to believe unless you see signs and omens.” The official insists that Jesus come before the child dies. Jesus says, “Go home, your son will live.” The official believes him, and on his way home learns that at the exact moment when Jesus said “Your son will live,” the fever broke and the child’s life was saved. John is careful to point out that this was the second sign Jesus performed “after he had returned from Judea to Galilee.” Remember, those people who lived in Judea, where Jesus was born, had no respect for him (confirmed in Mark 6:4, Matthew 13:57, Luke 4:24, and Thomas 31).
Next, “on the occasion of a Jewish festival, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” Now comes the well-known miracle of the disabled man who was never able to get into the Bethesda pool in time to be healed. This is a favorite of Christian worship leaders and Sunday School teachers. Most often, we learn that Jesus first asks the man if he wants to get well. We assume the man says “yes,” because after the man explains that “while I’m trying to get in someone else beats me to it,” Jesus tells him to pick up his mat and walk. There is some interplay between the Judeans and the man – who has no clue who Jesus was. Once he figures it out, he tells the Judeans. Good little boys and girls used to learn fairly quickly that “therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day” (KJV).
John follows this miracle with an extensive defense of Jesus by Jesus, which contains what became the “dogma” that Jesus is God: “Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:21-23, NRSV); “How can you believe when you accept the glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?” (John 5:44, NRSV).
Before any of this can speak to 21st century post-modern, post-enlightenment, post-Christian minds (if it can), first remember that John’s Gospel is an extended proof – an argument. It is possibly a last-ditch effort to avoid a schism in John’s synagogue. So it is no mistake that the first miracle in this section of the gospel happened to a foreigner – or possibly a collaborator. This foreigner/collaborator “government official” came to Jesus asking for healing. The second miracle concerned a man “crippled for thirty-eight years.” But in this case Jesus came to him and asked him if he wanted to get well. The man never says yes. He just complains that he has no one to put him into the pool, and when he does try to get in on his own, somebody else gets in first.
Enter “the Judeans.” Here, John uses the term as a put-down – equating local Jewish religious leaders with foreigners. Remember that we just encountered a “foreigner” (or a collaborator with foreigners) who believed in and accepted Jesus because of the miracle. But these religious “foreigners” object to the formerly disabled man carrying his mat around on the Sabbath. The man has no clue who cured him, but he is quick to claim that the one who cured him told him to break the law. Then the man points out Jesus to the Judeans. Jesus then claims that “My Father never stops working, and I work as well.” This adds insult (claiming to be equal with God) to injury (healing on the Sabbath, or causing people to carry their mats on the Sabbath, thereby “working” on the Sabbath). Jesus then launches into his defense. The defense ends with the charge that the Judeans don’t believe their own tradition. By now it’s strike two against the religious leaders: Nicodemus’ spiritual ignorance was strike one.
In an interesting detail, before the formerly disabled man identifies him, Jesus finds the man in the temple area, and warns him: “Don’t sin anymore, or something worse could happen to you.” A non-sequitur, which either points to Jesus as Judge in the following defense, or indicates that Jesus knew it was a sin that disabled the man in the first place (as he knew the Samaritan woman had six husbands), or that the sin was that the man was quite comfortable in his role as victim. He never says “yes,” when asked if he wants to get well. He blames others for his plight. Then when Jesus the “do-gooder” offers healing, the man gets into trouble with the law. The man can’t get a break. Jesus then delivers his warning about sin, and the man decides, “Screw this!” and denounces Jesus to the religious authorities.
Certainly plenty of fodder for sermons can be found in the contrast between the government official (collaborator, foreigner) who trusts Jesus (and by metaphorical inference “life”) and the complacent victim who seems comfortable blaming others for his condition. But the underlying twist in the plot is that the government official, the possible collaborator with Roman occupiers, the outsider, would not be expected to trust Jesus’ power, yet he did. The disabled victim at the water’s edge, presumably an insider, a member of the Jewish community, betrayed the one who offered healing and wholeness.
John’s first lengthy defense of Jesus contains little that makes sense for progressive Christians, let alone contemporary religious skeptics. Perhaps the only relevant verses for the 21st century are 5:39-40. John’s Jesus says, “You pore over the scriptures because you imagine that in them there’s unending life to be had. They do indeed give evidence on my behalf, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
Presbyterians and other “insiders” continue to quarrel about inerrantcy of scripture, while denying human and civil rights to GLBT members of our communities. Entities associated with the Southern Baptist Convention even pulled Bibles off the shelves at Walmart when they discovered the proceeds went to Planned Parenthood. Better total scriptural ignorance of the so-called “savior of the world” than allow women access to life-saving medical care. Catholic institutions have been put to a true test of morality because the Affordable Care Act requires coverage for birth control for non-Catholic employees, whether they are believing insiders or not.
John’s Jesus says, “Don’t suppose that I’ll be your accuser before the Father. You have an accuser, and it’s Moses – the one you were relying on.” Moses brought God’s law to the people: “Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This, Jesus reminded the people, is the first and most important of God’s laws. The second is,“You are to love your neighbor as yourself” (see Mark 12:28-31). John’s Jesus confronts establishment hypocrisy head-on: “since you don’t really believe what [Moses] wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”