John 13:36-14:31; 16
John 14 is the core of traditional Christian theology. When the Revised Common Lectionary is followed, John 14 explains Jesus’ death and resurrection (5th and 6th Sundays of Easter, Years A and C), and the coming of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost, Year C) after his post-resurrection, apocalyptic, bodily ascension into the sky, as reported by the intrepid Dr. Luke (24:44-53). John 14 is most often read at the bedsides of the dying, at funerals, and to comfort grieving families. The phrase “s/he went to be with the Lord” – a clear reference to 14:3 – is common in 21st century obituaries. “Don’t worry,” John’s Jesus is supposedly saying, “There are plenty of places to stay in my Father’s house. . . . and where I am there you will be too.”
The only condition for this promise is to keep Jesus’ commandment to love one another (13:34-35). John’s Jesus says, “Those who accept my commandments and obey them – they love me. And those who love me will be loved by my Father; moreover, I will love them and reveal myself to them . . . Those who don’t love me won’t obey my words” and will not be part of that heavenly home. As a reward for accepting Jesus as the way to God, the truth about God and the life in God’s realm, Jesus says “At my request the Father [God] will provide you with yet another advocate [in addition to Jesus], the spirit of truth who will be with you forever.” The power of the Holy Spirit to do miracles even greater than Jesus himself comes to those who believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead and will come again. The magic words, “whatever you ask in my name, I will do for you” were so important to the gospel writer that he repeats the mantra using the magical power of three: first in 14:13; then in 16:23 (which recapitulates 14), and finally in 15:7. To underline the exclusivity of the promise of both a place in God’s heaven and the receipt of the holy spirit, Jesus says, “The world is unable to accept this spirit because it neither perceives nor recognizes him. You recognize him because he dwells with you and will be within you.”
The Gospel of John set the stage for exclusive theologies ranging from Catholicism to Calvinism to fundamentalisms that have resulted in pogroms, witch trials, accusations of heresy, mass murders by fire (autos-da-fey), the wholesale slaughter of indigenous populations of people world wide, and the continued insistence that the “church” holds the ultimate authority over the health and welfare of women. The mandate extends to threats of nuclear war in a cynical defense of Israel. In a total corruption of the eternal longing for justice that produced the original prophecies of Daniel (which framed the apocalypticism of all four gospels) and the later Revelation of John, fundamentalist Christians believe that Israel’s ultimate conversion to their theology will bring Jesus back to end the world and usher in the “Kingdom of God.”
What possible use can progressive, liberal Christians make of John 14? Certainly none of the gospels can be read literally, and most assuredly, not the gospel of John – as we have seen. As always, when attempting to reclaim ancient writings for contemporary minds, reading meaning back into it from our own point of view is not only a temptation, but is probably inevitable – even for scholars who know how to keep a wary eye on the work. The disastrous results that can come from such anachronism were spelled out above.
The first order of business is to realize and accept the fact that the Gospel of John reflects the cosmology of the 1st and 2nd centuries, c.e., not the cosmology of the 21st century. We have known since Copernicus that if there is a god out there somewhere, it shares the “heavens” with a lot of other stuff. Further, we know without a doubt that Jesus was seriously dead. All the gospels make that point emphatically – the resurrection stories are not ghost stories. John’s own parable of the raising of Lazarus graphically foreshadows Jesus’ death and resurrection. Nor are we talking about some kind of Zombie-like resuscitated corpse, still lurching along the highways and byways, terrorizing or shaming people into salvation.
Second, all of the gospels reflect the times they were written in and for. Specifically, the gospel of John was an extended, impassioned, possibly desperate argument whose purpose was likely twofold: first to convince the community that the longed-for One, prophesied to be sent by God to restore God’s kingdom of distributive justice-compassion was indeed Jesus, who had been executed by the Romans; and second to somehow keep the community who did believe it from exile.
The way to possibly reclaim Chapter 14 (in fact all three of these chapters at the heart of the gospel) is to revisit the Prologue.
In the beginning there was the divine word and wisdom. The divine word and wisdom was there with God, and it was what God was. . . . In it was life, and this life was the light of humanity. Light was shining in the darkness, and darkness did not master it. . . . Genuine light – the kind that enlightens everyone – was coming into the world . . . but its own people were not receptive to it. But to all who did embrace it, to those who believed in it, it gave the right to become children of God. . . . The Law was given through Moses; mercy and truth came through Jesus the Anointed One. No one has ever seen God; the only son, close to the Father’s heart – he has disclosed (it).
God is defined as “divine word and wisdom,” revealed to everyone in the life and teachings of Jesus. John says, echoing the apostle Paul, “the Law was given through Moses [but] mercy and truth [justice-compassion] came through the Anointed One.” So the very nature of God is seen to be not the easy justice of retribution and pay-back, but the far more difficult distributive justice that includes mercy, compassion, and a transformation of thought: water into wine; food that nourishes the spirit because it is the work of establishing or restoring God’s radical fairness. John 14 may be taken as an illustration of John Dominic Crossan’s definition of a kenotic God – whose presence is justice and life, and whose absence is injustice and death. Certainly that is the meaning that might be taken by 21st century non-theists, reluctant to condemn anyone for not “believing” literally the legend about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Living in the absence of justice has been and continues to be a living death. Just ask the parents of Trayvon Martin; the ancestors of Emmet Till; refugees in the borderlands of Somalia and Sudan; Karilyn Bales.
John’s Jesus possessed within himself the confidence in the nature of God as distributive justice-compassion that eliminated any anxiety about death, whether physical or metaphorical. The judgment that is expressed regarding those who do not believe that to encounter Jesus was to encounter God is simply the statement of a fact of life: those who do not love one another, who hate others, and do not live in distributive justice-compassion will suffer the consequences. They will not experience the peace that Jesus says he will leave behind. “What I give you is not a worldly gift,” he says. The world with its systems of injustice and greed is not interested in creating systems of justice and sharing. To create such a world requires a radical abandonment of self-interest that few are willing to attempt.
Chapter 16 is possibly a later edition to the gospel, which seems to elaborate on and explain the discourse in 14. Chapter 16 concentrates on the “advocate” – the Holy spirit – which can only come to Jesus’ followers when he leaves. John’s Jesus begins by saying, “I’ve told you these things to keep you from being misled. They are going to throw you out of the congregations . . . they are going to do these things because they never knew the Father [God] or me.” In a paragraph that the Westar scholars footnote “is notoriously difficult to understand,” Jesus says, “When the advocate [holy spirit/spirit of truth] comes, he will show the world how wrong it is about sin, righteousness, and judgment: about sin because they don’t believe in me; about righteousness because I am going to the Father and you won’t see me anymore; about judgment because the ruler of this world stands condemned” (The Complete Gospels, p. 243).
In The Authentic Letters of Paul, the scholars define “sin” (Greek: hamartia) as “the corrupting seduction of power,” or the “seductive power of corruption.” Paul is not talking about rotting corpses. He is talking about the kind of corruption that arises between people, and in government or economic empires that leads to systems of injustice. John 16:9 uses the same word – hamartia. Human beings are actually born with the “spirit of truth” that tells us immediately what is just and unjust. We lose our ability to discern what is truly just and fair when we succumb to the power of selling out for what looks like our own self-interest. So in that paragraph, in plain English, Jesus is saying that the spirit of truth (the advocate) shows us how wrong the world is about the seductive power of corruption, justice as retribution and pay-back, and the consequences for this error. It is not about “believing” the impossible, literal resurrection of Jesus, nor is it about “believing” that Jesus was the literal “son of God.” Instead, “the ruler of this world” – where injustice holds sway – stands condemned to reap the consequences: war, famine, disease, and death in exchange for plundering the environment, coveting our neighbor’s homes and territories, and murdering whole populations because they don’t look like us.
Jesus’ disciples finally get it in 16:29: “Now you’re using plain language rather than talking in riddles. Now we see that you know everything and don’t need anyone to question you. That’s why we believe that you have come from God.” Jesus responds, “I have told you all this so that you can enjoy peace in me. In the world, you’re going to face persecution. But be brave! I have triumphed over the world.”
In contrast to the synoptic Gospels, John is clear that Jesus’ last meal with his disciples was not the Passover meal. Instead, it was the night before the day of preparation for the Passover, when the lambs for the ritual meal were sacrificed. In John’s narrative, that particular day of preparation was also the day before the Sabbath – so that particular Sabbath was a high holy day for the Jews (see John 19:31). This detail is important for understanding the symbolism for this writer of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Indeed, every detail from 13:1 to the end of the gospel is significant. Unfortunately, the gospel is nearly always cherry-picked in order to make a point of religious piety. The “last supper” is assumed to be the Passover meal. The breaking of bread and the pouring of the cup of wine described in Mark, Matthew, and Luke (and memorialized by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25) gets conflated with the foot washing described by John. Maundy Thursday liturgies then become problematic: do we wash feet? serve Communion? dramatize our complicit shame as we leave the darkened church one-by-one?
The chapters following the last meal contain the heart of John’s argument that Jesus was the Anointed One sent by God to fulfill the longing of the Jewish people for deliverance from injustice, foretold for first century Jews in the book of Daniel. Raymond E. Brown proposes that Chapters 15-17 are not part of the evening meal; but are further reports of Jesus’ teachings added in to emphasize who Jesus was. Brown’s opinion is that 16 is a duplicate of the teaching in 14, and 17 follows logically from 15, so the sequence should be 14, 16, 15, 17.
For now, consider the last meal described in Chapter 13. There is no ritual of bread and cup. There is only the demonstration of a radical abandonment of self-interest. John writes, “Now that the devil had planted it in the mind of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, to turn him in, at supper Jesus could tell that the Father had left everything up to him, and that he had come from God and was going back to God.” Here is the apocalyptic claim. The One who would bring liberation from the Empire of Rome had come from God, and would be returning to God. There is no more time to waste in explanation – only a profound demonstration will do. So – apparently in the middle of the meal – Jesus gets up, assumes the role of a slave, and washes the disciples’ feet.
Peter (of course) doesn’t get it. The Master never washes the feet of the disciples. To do so disrespects the whole relationship. So he says “no way you’ll wash my feet!” And Jesus says, unless I do, you won’t have anything in common with me.” The NRSV says “. . . you have no share with me.” These words have been misunderstood since John first put them to parchment. Peter still doesn’t get it, nor have many since. This demonstration is not about being physically or mentally clean of “sin” or the dust of the road. Jesus’ action means there is no hierarchy among the followers of Jesus’ Way. Jesus says, “So if I am your master and teacher and have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet.” Paul put it best in Galatians 3:28-29: “You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer [even] male and female. Instead you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed, Jesus.” No priests, no bosses, no financial “masters of the universe” who claim higher worth than anyone else; most especially no dominion over anyone regardless of gender or circumstance. Jesus spells out how things work in the normal course of civilization: “Slaves are never better than their masters; messengers are never superior to those who send them.” Instead he proposes the radicality of the kingdom of God. “If you understand this, congratulations if you can do it” – meaning, follow his example, not the way things are always done; and good luck with that!
Jesus then refers to Psalm 41: “The one who has shared my food has turned on me.” We think that means Judas, and at one level it does. But look at what Psalm 41 is talking about. This psalm deals with those who consider the poor – not the poor themselves, but those who “consider” the poor – i.e., those who do God’s work. After the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus’ disciples were confused when Jesus said he had food they knew nothing about (John 4:31-38). That “food” is doing the work that God sent Jesus to do. In the context of the apocalyptic legend of Daniel, the “food” that nourishes the spirit is deliverance from oppression; the restoration of God’s rule – God’s kingdom – God’s distributive justice-compassion. In the Psalm, the narrator confesses that he has not considered the poor. His enemies are certain that the worst will happen to him as a result. “They think that a deadly thing has fastened on me, that I will not rise again from where I lie. Even my friend in whom I trusted who ate of my bread has exalted at my misfortune . . . But [God] has upheld me because of my integrity, and set me in [God’s] presence forever” (emphasis mine). Like Job, who knew he was a man of God, and maintained that identification no matter what happened to him, John’s Jesus claims his own integrity as the son, the servant, and the messenger of God: I AM, he says. “[I]f they receive anyone I send, they are receiving me; and if they receive me, they are receiving the one who sent me.”
Then Jesus becomes upset, and acts out the scene described in Psalm 41 by dipping bread in his dish and handing it to Judas. At that moment, in a direct contradiction of the meaning of the bread broken and shared in the synoptics, “Satan took possession of him,” and Judas leaves as soon as he has eaten the bread. “Satan” is God’s adversary – the personification of how the world usually works. Judas was unable to make the transition Jesus tried to demonstrate when he washed the disciples’ feet. Peter verbalized the confusion, but Judas acted on it.
When Judas had gone, Jesus says he is going where no one can follow – which seems to be a contradiction because we know the argument that is coming in Chapter 14: “If I go to prepare a place for you, I’ll return and embrace you, so where I am you can be too.” But the words that actually close the scene make clear what Jesus was trying to say all during dinner: “I am giving you a new commandment: love each other. Just as I’ve loved you, you are to love each other. Then everyone will recognize you as my disciples – if you love each other.”
The scholars comment in The Complete Gospels: “The ethic in this gospel has been reduced from the other gospels’ ethic of love of neighbor, even of enemy, and is restricted to love within the Christian community” (note, p. 239). That may well have been the case for John, whose community was under threat of being thrown out of the local synagogue. The problem with that interpretation for contemporary believers is two-fold: In the spirit of Psalm 41, John may have been claiming a level of integrity that he found lacking in those who did not accept Jesus as the Anointed One – leaving one of the most beloved of scripture verses standing for an exclusivity that the Jesus “everyone knows” would have rejected. Even worse, such a context risks reducing the commandment to the kind of verbal street defiance generally not acceptable in church sanctuaries.
Given the passion of John’s argument, and doing our best to avoid reading later Christian dogma back into John’s time and place, the scholars’ point is provocative and illuminating. But if 21st century progressive Christians can claim any part of this chapter as definitive for social and political transformation, then the more traditional interpretation must be used and expanded. John’s Jesus says, “. . . you are to do as I’ve done to you . . . If they receive anyone I send, they are receiving me . . . Just as I have loved you, you are to love each other.” Anyone – not just believers in Jesus – who are able to give up the kind of power conveyed by following society’s rules and can serve and love one another, will also serve and love others in the same way. Jesus’ reversal of roles demonstrated a radical abandonment of self-interest that includes relinquishing dominion over creation itself – biblical absolutists notwithstanding. And it is here and now, not in some “sweet bye and bye.”
Raymond E. Brown’s classic commentary on The Gospel and Epistles of John considers 11:1-12:36 as the last section of what he calls “Book 1 – The Book of Signs.” Brown titles this section, “From Death to Life and From Life to Death: Lazarus and Entry into Jerusalem.” The raising of Lazarus is Jesus’ final sign, and the ultimate proof that he is the expected, anointed One foretold in the apocalyptic prophecy of Daniel. Just as Lazarus was seriously dead, so will Jesus be seriously dead, so that God’s power and glory can be manifested in the raising of Jesus. For John, it seems incomprehensible that anyone would believe that Jesus can raise Lazarus from the dead, yet insist that Jesus is not God’s son.
Scene 1 of John’s final act opens with the anointing of Jesus by the woman with the alabaster jar of precious nard – an essential oil of lavender – to prepare the disciples and John’s readers for Jesus’ death. The woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with either tears or expensive perfume and then uses her hair as a towel has been written about, filmed, and debated for as long as the Jesus story has been told. This blog has dealt with all three versions of the legend that are included in the Revised Common Lectionary. Mark 14:3-9, considered for Palm Sunday in Year B, includes a Tenebrae Eucharist. John 12:1-8, considered for Monday of Holy Week in all three lectionary years, explores the nature of kenotic power. The Elves include 1 Kings 21:1-21; 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15; and Galatians 2:15-21 along with Luke 7:36-50, for Proper 6, Year C. The commentary concludes:
Jezebel is a mythical character, but nevertheless is a powerful female presence – otherwise, she never would have been named. In the battle between the Hebrew God and Baal, Jezebel is a major force. She is also the anima – the dark feminine – for Ahab, and perhaps for God as well. When Ahab can’t bring himself to really act on his selfish desires, he projects it onto his wife, who acts for him. Have we heard this before? Didn’t Adam do the same with Eve? What is it with these patriarchs?
Acting outside the law is not the same as perverting the law, as Paul makes clear, and Jezebel’s fate illustrates. If sin (injustice) is indeed a product of the law, then the wild feminine outside the law must be the pure spirit of justice-compassion: grace, free gift (charis), the woman with her alabaster jar of precious essential oil.
The version in Matthew is never read – apparently the Elves had had enough of Mary Magdalene (if that’s who she was).
In John’s setting, Mary (the sister of Lazarus, not the Magdalene) confronts whoever is listening to John with the fact of Jesus’ inevitable, physical, irreversible death, and Jesus confirms this. “Let her alone,” he says, “Let her keep it for the day of my burial.” John sets up the hapless Judas for everlasting contempt. In an aside, John explains that Judas’ objection to the extravagant waste of the oil was not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief: “He was in charge of the common purse and now and again would pilfer money put into it.” The scholars’ translation suggests that Jesus’ comment about the poor as reported by John was likely not meant to say that poverty is inevitable. Instead it was probably an ironic jibe at Judas. “Funny you should be so worried about how much money is in the kitty . . . .”
The “huge crowds” continue to come out to see Jesus, who had raised Lazarus from the dead, but also to see Lazarus himself. So “the chief priests” decide to kill him too. Then, in a departure from the interpretation in the synoptic gospels, John throws in the entry into Jerusalem as a further illustration of how the “crowds” were flocking to see Jesus, and celebrating the raising of Lazarus. This just solidifies the determination of the Pharisees to get rid of both of them. “You see, we can’t win; look, the world has gone over to him.” As further proof that “the world” has shifted, some Greeks (non-Jews?) show up and ask to meet Jesus. This is the sign that Jesus’ time has come at last.
In yet another difference from the synoptics, Jesus fully embraces the role that God has laid out for him. There is no “agony in the garden.” Jesus says, “it was to face this moment that I came” – in contemporary words, “bring it on.” God responds with a rumble of thunder, and Jesus says “that wasn’t for me, it was for you. Now the sentence is passed on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And if I’m elevated from the earth, I’ll take everyone with me.” These words are right out of the scene in Daniel 7:9-14. The final judgment has arrived; the rulers of the world (Satan, or the Emperor) are defeated; the Son of God will be taken up to heaven, and everyone who believes in him will go along.
There is some left-over confusion from a few people, which allows John’s Jesus to reiterate the essence of his teaching, as John understood it: “The light is still with you for a little while. Walk while you have light, so darkness won’t overpower you. Those who walk in the dark don’t know where they are going. Since you have the light, believe in the light, so you will become children of the light.” When Jesus had said this, he went into hiding. End of Act 1, scene 4. The narrator comes onstage and drives the point home. People may have believed in Jesus – even members of the ruling class – but they were afraid the Pharisees would throw them out of their congregations, so they played it safe.
Twenty-first century progressive Christians might be tempted to jettison the Gospel of John. It is a time-capsule from the first and second centuries, possibly 80 or more years after the death of Jesus. The magic acts – changing water into wine, the remote healing of the government official’s child, telling the ungrateful disabled man to take up his mat and walk, the “feeding of the five thousand,” and the raising of the four-day-old corpse of Lazarus are barely useful even as metaphors without some fancy rhetorical footwork on the part of Sunday morning sermon writers. Dodging embedded anti-Semitism adds a further complication to reclaiming this Gospel, even with scholarly new translations.
But what was the Gospel writer trying to say? He (or she, if Sr. Sandra M. Schneiders’ suggestion is taken seriously) presents an impassioned argument that reads with some desperation between the lines. After all, if folks won’t believe the magic, what will they believe? This Gospel writer was convinced that Jesus was the Son of God, prophesied by the legend of Daniel to deliver the world from political oppression and restore God’s rule. Two thousand years later, progressive political, social, scientific, and religious leaders are equally convinced that humanity has so affected the balance of nature on the planet that what we do will determine whether or not life itself will be able to continue to evolve in sustainable ways.
With that thought in mind, consider what the narrator’s summary in John 12:44-50 might have to say to those among us working to end war, to stop mountain-top removal, to develop sustainable energy supplies, to eradicate poverty: If you believe Jesus, then you believe in the evolutionary process that produced such a mind; you are liberated from the darkness that prevails in the unjust systems of empire. He does not judge the ones who hear the message but don’t keep it. In the end, the message itself will be the judge. The message is that God’s intention – the order of the universe – is distributive justice-compassion. To live in the light is to transform water to wine: to bring healing to everyone, whether they are the children of collaborators with oppression, or ingrates that game the system. To live in the light is to step out with Lazarus from the realm of injustice and death into justice and life.
The raising of Lazarus from the dead is the final, last-gasp, over-the-top sign that John’s Jesus does. John’s point is clear: if the people don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah after this, they won’t believe him even if he comes back from the dead himself. John makes sure his listeners know that Lazarus was seriously dead. Lazarus’ sister Martha warns Jesus against taking the stone away from the entrance to the tomb. “But Master, by this time the body will stink; it’s been four days.” But Jesus looks up and thanks God for hearing him. “I know you always hear me, but I say this because of the people standing here, so they’ll believe that you sent me.” Then he shouts for Lazarus to come out, and out he comes, with his hands and feet still bound in strips of burying cloth, and his face covered. Jesus says, “Free him (from the cloth) and let him go.” Literal minds might notice that the dead body must have had to float out of the tomb, given that Lazarus was bound hand and foot; nor could he have seen where he was going, with his face covered.
No way this story walks on all fours, regardless of the century in which it was invented. But – tellingly – the “chief priests and Pharisees” believed it. For purely political reasons they decide they will have to kill Jesus. “If we let him go on like this, everybody will come to believe in him. Then the Romans will come and destroy our (holy) place and our nation.” Caiaphas – the famous capo di tutti capi — convinces the Council that they would be “better off having one man die for the people than having the whole nation wiped out” – which is precisely what happened in the year 70. Generations of Christians already know the symbolism of Caiphas’ seemingly prophetic words, because the writer tells us explicitly in a literary aside: “(He didn’t say this on his own authority, but since he was that year’s chief priest he could foresee that Jesus would die for the nation. In fact, he would die not only for the nation, but to gather together all God’s dispersed children and make them one people.)”
At the end of chapter 11, John sets up the final Act. “It was almost time for the Jewish Passover . . . ‘he certainly won’t come to the festival, will he?’” . . . stay tuned . . . .
For Revised Common Lectionary followers, Christian churches are now in Year B (the Year of Mark) and at the third Sunday in Lent. John 11 is only read on the fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A (the Year of Matthew). The Elves combine John 11 with Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; and Romans 8:6-11. The following is from a series developed for Lent in Year A, Repent for the Kingdom.
Repent for the Kingdom V: Redeeming the Bones — 5th Sunday in Lent
“Dem bones dem bones dem-a dry bones . . . Now hear de word of de Lord.”
The sermon for this week is a cake-walk for literalists. Ezekiel: “And you shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves . . . I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil. . . .” John: “Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to [Jesus], ‘Lord already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone . . . [and Jesus] cried in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out . . . .” Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord . . . If you, O Lord should mark my iniquities, Lord, who could stand? . . . I wait for the Lord, my soul waits . . . more than those who watch for the morning. . . . For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” Apostle Paul: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
All we have to do is repent from our post-modern skepticism and sin and believe that just as Ezekiel raised the army of dry bones in the desert using God’s command, so Jesus, the son of God, in his most astounding miracle of all, raised Lazarus from the dead with his own divine power. God in turn raised Jesus from the dead, and so also will the spirit of the Christ who is now one with God raise bodily – physically – those who believe. Those who don’t believe, as cherry-picked Paul says, “cannot please God. . . . To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
Is that really all we need, heading into the denouement of Holy Week and Easter Sunday?
Very little of Ezekiel is ever included in the Lectionary readings. Five selections are used in Year A, and three in Year B. The prophesy about the army of dry bones is used for two of the five celebrations in Year A: the fifth Sunday in Lent, and the Easter vigil. It is used again in Year B at Pentecost. None of these are combined with readings that deal with the subject that Ezekiel was most concerned about, which is Exile. They are all used to bolster the Christian interpretation of salvation from hell through belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus, and the conveying of the holy spirit upon those who believe.
In the post-modern, post-Enlightenment, post-Christian 21st Century, these readings are in real danger of being lost to ignorance of what they may have meant to the ancient Hebrew world and the early Christian way, and therefore lost to indifference about any prophetic relevance they may yet hold. But in a world bereft of meaningful metaphor that reflects current cosmology, Paul and Ezekiel may possibly be reclaimed. The story about the resurrection of Lazarus is more problematic.
Second Century people were no more likely that Twenty-First Century people to take such a story as literal truth, but nonetheless, to put it in contemporary terms, the story of the raising of Lazarus is perhaps about as useful as Elvis Presley sightings – except for one word that John’s Jesus says to Martha: I AM the resurrection and the life. The verb is present tense, not past or future. The power of Jesus’s message is the certainty of eternal life here and now, not there and then. That is a weak point to hang an argument on, even though Marcus J. Borg does so. “Martha spoke of the resurrection as future, as ‘on the last day.’ Jesus’s response shifts to the present tense. . . Martha thought of the resurrection as a future event at the end of time; but Jesus’s response corrects her misunderstanding and speaks of resurrection as a present reality.” Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary Harper One, 2006, p. 199. Nevertheless, Borg is the biblical scholar who has done the research. If the writer of John’s gospel had Paul’s extraordinary theology to refer to, all of Jesus’s I Am sayings have to be about present reality – realized eschatology – and are an invitation to join him in raising the dead.
Raising the dead is not about bringing back Elvis. Raising the dead is about returning from Exile.
Millions of people on this Planet are in political, physical, and economic Exile from homelands, and from the basic needs for human survival: food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical care. Millions more are in spiritual or religious exile, no longer able or willing to suspend disbelief in the premodern gods and cosmologies that continue to prevail. Still more are in personal exile from sustainable relationships, estranged from family, friends, and social networks. Nearly all of us think we are exiled from the interconnected web of our own biosphere.
For this reason, it is vastly unfair – if not unconscionable – to cherry-pick Paul’s words from Romans 8 in order to perpetuate the very misunderstanding that John’s Jesus gently pointed out to Martha. It is equally unfair to the shamanic experience of the ancient prophet Ezekiel, whose purpose was to encourage – that is bestow or invoke courage – on the demoralized Hebrew captives in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. We in 21st Century United States are no less exiles than those of the 6th Century B.C.E. from distributive justice, represented of old by the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, and described by Jesus and interpreted by Paul as “the Kingdom of God.” God will act to restore the people to their own land, promises Ezekiel. God will act to restore distributive justice-compassion, and the writer of John’s Gospel and the Apostle Paul proclaim that God has acted through the life and death of Jesus, and continues to act to this day whenever anyone – believer or not – chooses to accept the invitation.
If the Elves had allowed us to read to the end of Romans 8, the entire argument for this 5th Sunday in Lent would have been moot. “[I]n all these things we are more than conquerors,” says Paul – more powerful than imperial rulers, because “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The exile is over. The dead have been raised. The bones of the martyrs to injustice are redeemed and justified.
Further, if John Dominic Crossan’s interpretation of Paul’s letters is correct – or at least on the track – the dry bones raised by Ezekiel become a metaphor for those who died in the service of God’s justice; those who died working to restore God’s distributive justice-compassion to God’s earth, and who themselves never saw the transformed earth. The army of dry bones is an army exiled from justice. Fairness demands that if Jesus was resurrected into an earth transformed into God’s Realm of justice-compassion, then all the other martyrs who died too soon should also be raised with him. “But in fact,” Paul writes in 1st Corinthians 15:20, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” It is the Christ – the transformed and transfigured post-Easter Jesus – who has started that general resurrection, which restores justice-compassion to a transformed earth. The transformation has begun with Jesus, and continues with you and me – IF we sign on to the program.
This is a far cry from feeling sorry about petty sin, (which is the dumbed down meaning that most people think “repentance” means); it is also a very far cry from the deep and unforgivable sorrow that somehow we are personally responsible for Jesus’s crucifixion (substitutionary atonement). Petty sin, feeling sorry, even deep sorrow over an impossible responsibility, do nothing to empower people to radically change the way we live. Further, when that sorrow is experienced as “unforgivable,” the whole point of Jesus’s message is overturned.
Finally, there is a fascinating anachronism in John 11:2, if John’s Gospel is to be read as a chronological narrative: “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.” This only makes sense if John was writing to a group of Christians who already knew the stories from Mark. …
John’s appropriation of Jewish festival metaphors continues throughout chapters 9 and 10. Jesus again declares his power greater than the torches used to light the women’s court: “So long as I am in the world I am the light of the world.” The man born blind washes Jesus’ healing mud from his eyes in the waters of Siloam – which were used in the ritual prayers for winter rains – and is able to see. In chapter 10, after the lengthy and, to later eyes and ears, confusing argument about sheep, shepherds, gates, and folds, Jesus preempts the winter season Festival of Lights. This is neither accidental nor insignificant. The Festival of Lights (Hanukkah) celebrates the Israelite victory over Syrian-Greeks in 167 bce, and the reconsecration of the Temple in 165 with sacred oil that miraculously lasted 8 days.
A connection that is not usually made with John’s Gospel in the context of the festivals of Tabernacles and especially of Lights (Hanukah) is the apocalyptic story told in Daniel. This story is set in the time of the Exile; but it was written during the Maccabean uprising and defeat of the Syrian-Greek invaders of the 160s bce. John’s Jesus says “I and the Father are one”; and “do you mean to say to the one the Father set apart and sent to earth, ‘You’re blaspheming,’ just because I said, ‘I am God’s son’? If I don’t do my Father’s works, don’t believe me; if I do, even if you can’t believe in me, believe in the works, so that you’ll fully understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” At the end of chapter 10 John’s Jesus returns to “Bethany, on the other side of the Jordan” (likely a fictitious location), where John the Baptist had first baptized, “and there he stayed. Many people came to him; they kept repeating, ‘John didn’t perform any sign, but everything John said about this man was true.’ And many came to believe in him there.”
But not in the gospel writer’s conflicted community. If the writer of John’s Gospel believed that Jesus was the savior described in Daniel who would come to earth to liberate the people, be raised to heaven to wait until God’s rule was established on earth, and then return to a transformed earthly kingdom of God (Daniel 7), the continued celebration of the festivals of fire and water would have been a waste of time and a denial of prophetic scripture. That the religious leaders in his community refused to believe Jesus was the fulfillment of the liberation of the people described in the legend would have seemed incomprehensible to those who subscribed to the Baptist’s apocalyptic view.
Most of these two chapters are likely examples of the conflict among factions in John’s community, and between “believers and non-believers” in Jesus as the Anointed One. The man born blind whose sight is bestowed on him is thrown out of the synagogue by the end of the story. Then Jesus takes off on what can only be described as a diatribe against people who sneak in and attempt to steal the sheep. But, John says, the sheep know the true shepherd’s voice. Not only that, there are other sheep in other folds who also will recognize his voice. Much of this was probably clear to John’s community, not as a declaration of a universal kingdom of God, but that all factions should unite under Jesus.
So what should 21st century progressive Christians do with all this?
The number of sermons on the man born blind delivered to captive audiences world wide and spanning three milennia must number in the trillions. Unfortunately, plenty of mischief has been done by cherry-picking specific passages, not knowing (or caring) what the history or the context was. For example, “He was born blind so God could display his work through him.” This is first of all terrible theology, not to mention that this Jesus must be a total megalomaniac. The idea is monstrously unjust that a) God would create a blind baby so that the “savior of the world” would one day prove God’s glory and power by conferring sight; b) Jesus would claim to be the one designated by God to actually perform this magic (for the glory of God of course); and c) the parents and the child would feel blessed while they are stigmatized and traumatized for years by a society that wants to know “who sinned” and caused this misfortune. Yet even today this thought is pervasive among grief-stricken people and victims of accidents whether biological, medical, or mechanical. Many are able to work through their circumstances and arrive at wholeness despite their illness or injury. But that difficult journey is different from glib and pious judgment about the meaning or purpose of life’s “burdens.”
Another favorite verse is 9:4-5: “We must carry out the work of the one who sent me while the light lasts. Nighttime is coming.” These phrases have found their way into a beloved hymn: Work for the Night is Coming! The point is to bring people to Jesus and save their souls because an apocalyptic end is coming soon. What John likely meant was that so long as Jesus was on the planet, he had to do as many miracles as possible because his death was imminent.
At the end of chapter 9, after he has been thrown out of the synagogue, the man born blind finally realizes that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus says he has been sent into the world “to hand down this verdict: that the blind are to see and those with sight are to be blind.” This is Old Testament judgment. God often deliberately “hardens the hearts” of people so that God’s power can be realized. The most famous example is Pharaoh in Exodus 4:21. Later, after Moses’ death, in the summary of Joshua’s conquests (Joshua 11:16-23) the narrator tells us “Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. There was not a town that made peace with the Israelites, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon; all were taken in battle. For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”
John’s opponents in his fledgling Christian community could not get a break. “If you really were blind,” John’s Jesus says, “you would be free of sin; but now since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin is confirmed.” John has decided that not only is the blindness of the Pharisees willful; God himself has caused it. The religious leaders know the law and the prophets, and they refuse to believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of all of it. By the end of chapter 10, Jesus has given up. “The work I do in my Father’s name is evidence on my behalf. But you don’t believe me because you’re not my sheep.”
Preachers have turned themselves inside out trying to make chapter 10 into some kind of call for a universal Christianity, or a parallel with the parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14), or worst of all, a slur against Jews or believers of other religions who try to climb into the sheep pen (heaven) through another way. But despite all the imagery about sheep and gates and flocks and shepherds and who recognizes whose voice, Chapter 10 is not about anti-Semitism. The chapter continues the attempt on the part of John to describe who Jesus was. “Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I give my life for my sheep. Yet I have sheep from another fold, and I must lead them too. They’ll recognize my voice and there’ll be one flock, one shepherd. . . . I have the power to give [my life] up and the power to take it back again.” Here again is the apocalyptic promise of Daniel 7.
But neither that legend nor Jesus’ arguments about the business of herding sheep make sense in the 21st century. These chapters are of little use to progressive Christians except as artifacts of early Christianity — metaphors of blindness notwithstanding. In their own context, these stories are interesting. Warped to fit 3rd Century Christian dogma, they represent Christian triumphalism at best, and anti-Semitism at its most insidious. Unfortunately these chapters are required reading for the 4th Sunday in Lent in Year A (Matthew) and the 4th Sunday in Easter in all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary.