According to John

18 March 2018 — Fifth Sunday in Lent

General Observations: The Gospel According to John (the Johannine Gospel) differs from the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) in style and content in several ways. John’s Gospel omits a large amount of material found in the Synoptic Gospels, like the temptation of Jesus, Jesus’ transfiguration, and the institution of the Lord’s supper. The sermon on the mount and the Lord’s prayer are not found in the Fourth Gospel. In John we do not see proverbs and parables but symbolic discourses. Jesus’ miracles are designed to provide symbolic insight into Jesus’ identity and his relationship to the Father. In the Johannine Gospel, Jesus is clearly the Wisdom of God, the source of eternal life, and still continually living within the community of faith.

According to the Johannine Gospel, Jesus’ public ministry appears to extend over a period of at least three years. During that time, he went, several times, from Galilee to Jerusalem. The synoptics, on the other hand, have Jesus making only one journey to Jerusalem — the final one — with most of his ministry taking place within one year.

The Johannine Gospel uses a “post-resurrection” point of view. The author looks back on the Jesus events and emphasizes the inability of the apostles to understand the things that were happening at the time they occurred. See for instance: John 2:17-22, where there are obvious references to the Resurrection, “He was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body, and after he rose from the dead his disciples remembered.” John 12:16-17, “At the time his disciples did not understand this but later, after Jesus had been glorified, they remembered….” And John 20:9, “Until this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Perhaps we do not always clearly understand?

The gospel’s prologue (John 1:1-18) is most likely an elaboration of an early hymn. Interestingly, the rest of John’s Gospel does not speak of Jesus as the pre-existent, creative Word. Many biblical scholars suggest, therefore, that the prologue was added after the gospel had been completed.

Authorship and Locality: The old tradition, from the second century, was that the author was the apostle John, son of Zebedee. Most contemporary scholars are not of this opinion. Scholars such as Raymond E. Brown believe that the original author of an oral tradition, that evolved into the Johannine Gospel, was a companion of Jesus, the “Beloved Disciple,” who formed a community, most probably in Ephesus. Scholars call this “the Johannine community.” An oral tradition of eye-witness recollections of the Beloved Disciple evolved and began being written down around 90 CE. The final redaction occurred ten to twenty years later, giving us a gospel composition date of between 90 and 110 CE. We don’t know who the “Beloved Disciple” was. There is quite a variety of scholarly opinions: a truly unknown disciple, the Apostle John, James the brother of Jesus, or even Mary the Magdalene.

The Johannine community was greatly concerned with hot issues in the church–synagogue debate and defined itself primarily in contrast to Judaism. The final version of the gospel was composed after the crisis created by the expulsion of Christians from the synagogue. The Judean criticism is strong; and, over the centuries, some have incorrectly used the Johannine Gospel as an excuse for anti-Semitism. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is unfortunate that English translators have so often used the words “Jew” and “Jews,” when “Judean” and “Judeans” would have been more correct and less problematic.

Four sections: Contemporary biblical scholars, break the Johannine Gospel into four parts: the Prologue (John 1:1-18); the Book of Signs (John 1:19 to 12:50); the Book of Glory (John 13:1 to 20:31) and the Epilogue (John 21).

The seven “signs” point to a new creation brought by Jesus and are clear indicators of his divinity: Changing water into wine at Cana (John 2:1-11) “the first of the signs;” Healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum (John 4:46-54); Healing the paralytic at Bethesda (John 5:1-15); Feeding the 5000 (John 6:5-14); Jesus walking on water (John 6:16-24); Healing the man blind from birth (John 9:1-7); and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45).

Signs and Personal Reflections: Once again, as I re-read the Johannine Gospel, I see texts that speak loud and clear to our contemporary life situation. (Next week, as we enter Holy Week 2018, I will have some reflections about the “Book of Glory.”)

Authoritarian Self-Defense: The inability and unwillingness of “respected” leaders to see the obvious. In their obsession with secrecy and defending their good name, “seeking the glory that comes from men” (John 12.43; 7.18) they refuse to rock the boat. Jesus says they put the honor that comes from people before the honor that comes from God. It is a question of ethics: an ethic of only self-love.

Authoritarian Followers: Why did the Judean leaders, including conscientious Pharisees, conspire to crucify Jesus? Why did so many ordinary people collude in their decision? Was the High Priest Caiaphas any different from contemporary national leaders in his simple judgment that “If we let him [Jesus as the just and prophetic person] go on speaking in this way, everybody will believe in him…. it is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:48-50) Today, political leaders – and some church leaders — know well the power of demonizing specific people and certain groups, as a way of achieving a semblance of social or institutional unity: high school students demonstrating against guns, radical feminists, Mexicans, and gays.

Conversion: Throughout the Johannine Gospel Jesus persists in his call for conversion: “On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.’’ (John 7:37-38) Jesus’ call is significant. The pre-requisite for faith is thirst. Thirst for more. Thirst for justice, truth, and com-passion. Thirst for the divine.

Systemic Sin: In the Johannine Gospel, I see systemic sin as the deeper sin: the origin of other sins. All people need to interact socially, they need to base genuine community on love, mutual respect and openness to difference. Not on ideology and accepted customs (John 5:10); nor on a common enemy (John 7:32); nor the exclusion of dissenters (John 7:47-48; John 9:35). Genuine believers need to face every-one’s propensity to sin. And not deny it nor cover it up, nor simply ignore it, as has happened with the clerical sexual abuse of children and with the lying, dishonesty, and gross sexual immorality at the highest levels of our political leadership.



Healing and Reconciliation

The Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 11, 2018

While Mark focused on the mostly Gentile Christian community in Rome and Matthew was more focused on the Judeo-Christian community in Antioch, Luke stresses that Christianity is a way of life for Gentile as well as Judeo-Christian believers; and that it warrants legal recognition in the Roman Empire. Luke is about healing and reconciliation: actions greatly needed in our own contemporary society.

Luke’s author was a highly educated Gentile Christian who came from a thoroughly Greco-Roman environment. Unlike Matthew’s author he is not well-grounded in the Judaic tradition. Scholars speculate on whether his “ordered account” was written for a Christian community in Antioch or some other location in Asia Minor, like Ephesus or Smyrna. Luke and the Acts of Apostles make up a two-volume work often called simply Luke–Acts; and they are addressed to the “most excellent” Theophilus (Friend of God).

For documentation, Luke’s author drew from the Gospel of Mark, the sayings collection called the “Q” source, and a collection of material called the “L” (for Luke) source. The author is not named in either volume, but a tradition dating from the 2nd century suggested that the author was the Luke who was a companion of Paul. While this view is still occasionally put forward, many biblical scholars today question that supposition. I tend to agree with them. There are significant contradictions between Acts and the authentic Pauline letters. Textual analysis suggests that Luke-Acts was written not earlier than 80–90 CE; and most likely as late as 90–110 CE, because the text was still being revised well into the 2nd century.

Last week I stressed that Matthew saw Jesus as the fulfilment of Hebrew history. He began his infancy narrative with a genealogy of Jesus from Abraham down to Joseph and Mary. Luke, on the other hand, understands Jesus as the high point in all human history. His genealogy is presented at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and runs backwards from Joseph to Adam. Luke is also more Mary-oriented than Joseph-oriented. In Matthew’s infancy narrative the light is on Joseph. In Luke’s account, it is Mary who shines. She is the one who hears and keeps God’s word.

What strikes you, as you re-read this gospel? Three themes caught my attention: women, building bridges, and religious hypocrisy.

WOMEN: In Luke Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39), a 12-year-old girl (Luke 8:41-42, 49-56); a woman with a 12-year infirmity (verses 43-48); and a woman who had been crippled 18 years (Luke 13:10-17). In Luke we see Mary, an early disciple of Jesus. She sits before Jesus and listens to him. Her sister Martha complains to Jesus that Mary should be helping her with serving. Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha…it is Mary who has chosen the better part.” (Luke 10:38-42). In the Resurrection accounts, women not men are most important: Women were among those who observed the crucifixion (Luke 23:27, 49). Women prepared spices to anoint Jesus’ body (verses 55-56). Women were the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty (Luke 24:1-3) and angels told them Jesus had been raised from the dead (verses 4-8). Women were the first to proclaim the Resurrection to Jesus’ other disciples (verses 9-11). (Reading these verses, I thought: How ironic that the former president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, was barred by the Vatican from taking part in a conference celebrating International Women’s Day, due to her views on gay rights and clerical sexual abuse.)

BUILDING BRIDGES NOT WALLS: Luke’s stress on peace-making implied a new relationship with the Roman Empire. Dialogue had to start, and destructive polarization had to end. In Luke’s infancy narrative, angelic messengers proclaim: “Good news of great joy for all people. To you is born this day . . . a Savior! . . . Peace on earth among those whom God favors!” (Luke 2:10-11,14] These words echo and go far beyond the Roman monument inscriptions that had praised Augustus Caesar as “god” and “savior.” Luke hereby stresses that Jesus had completed more fully and uniquely the work of Augustus. Later in this gospel, Luke offsets the fact that Jesus was executed by the Romans, by having the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate declare Jesus innocent three times (Luke 23:4,14,22). Only Luke, unlike Mark and Matthew, has the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross exclaim: “Surely, this man was innocent.” (Luke 23:47) Building bridges. In Luke’s narration, Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate become unlikely friends, after being in Jesus’ presence (Luke 23:12). And finally, only in Luke’s Gospel does Jesus pray for forgiveness for his crucifiers (Luke 23:34).

RELIGIOUS HYPOCRISY: Some observers accuse Luke of antisemitism, because he regularly shows Jesus criticizing Jewish religious leaders (Pharisees, scribes, and Levites). I think these critics miss the point. Jesus was strongly critical of the arrogant religious hypocrisy of the religiously elite in his day. When invited to dine in the home of a Pharisee, for example, the religious leader accused Jesus of not washing ahead of time. Jesus replied: “Now then, you clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people!…give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you…you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God….Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” (Luke 11:37-44) Luke speaks strongly to our own contemporary society, in which the religiously elite praise God and ignore the poor, the oppressed, the diseased, and the marginalized.

And I conclude this week’s reflection with a quote from Billy Graham: “It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” I think Luke would agree with that….

Next week, we look at John.

— Jack


THIRD SUNDAY of LENT: March 4, 2018

A bit longer reflection today, with two opening thoughts:

(1) Each of the four gospels is carefully crafted to present the message and person of Jesus — the Messiah, the Human One and Son of God, the Christ — to a specific audience. Depending upon the “audience” and its specific needs, elements mentioned or stressed in one gospel are minimized or even ignored in another. Last week we saw that the Gospel According to Mark makes no mention of a virgin birth or of Jesus’ infancy. The gospels of Matthew and Luke do indeed mention a virgin birth; but their accounts of Jesus’ infancy are imaginative and quite different in some details. The gospels, again, are about the meaning of the Christ-event and are not strictly-speaking historical accounts.

(2) Translations of the scriptures are necessary, of course, because people in different places and times speak a variety of languages. Most contemporary scripture readers are not fluent in biblical Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. (As a friend said, I am a bit unconventional. When it comes to languages, I can squeak by in Hebrew; but my Greek and Latin are really quite good.) Ideally, people who want a more comprehensive understanding of biblical texts should use a good biblical commentary, because all translations are filtered through the vision and vocabulary of the translator. Sometimes this creates problems in correctly understanding a passage.

An example of what I mean: In recent years, scholars and translators of the New Testament have suggested that we seriously reconsider how one translates the Greek term ioudaios, originally translated in English as “Jews.” Ioudaios is more accurately translated as “Judean,” not “Jew.” The Greek ioudaios and the Latiniudaeus come from the Biblical Hebrew word Yehudi meaning “from the Tribe of Judah.”

Bear with me. The word “Jew” did not appear in the first English translations of the New Testament. The best known early editions of the New Testament in English are the Douai Rheims edition and the King James Authorized Edition. The Douai Rheims translation was first printed in 1582; but the word “Jew” did not appear in it. The King James Authorized translation was first published in 1611. The word “Jew” did not appear in it either. For the first time the word “Jew” appeared in both these well-known editions in their 18th century revised versions.

“So, what?” a friend asked. Well, since the late 19th and early 20th centuries the word “Jew” has been used increasingly in a pejorative way and has greatly contributed to antisemitism. Expressions like “Jew someone” or “Jew lawyer” or “Jew down” have been common negative terms. Over the years, a mythology grew up around Jews, linking them with greed and avarice. One can recall Christopher Marlowe’s play “The Jew of Malta” and its demonic image of Jews; but even earlier in Shakespeare we found the “Jew” moneylender Shylock and his bloodthirsty desire to claim his “pound of flesh.”

Today, some people try to avoid using the word “Jew” and use “Jewish” instead. Nevertheless, one needs to stress (especially today when antisemitism is growing so strongly) that “the Jews” did not condemn Jesus. Judean religious leaders in Jerusalem condemned him. Jews did not kill Jesus. Judean religious leaders turned Jesus over to the Roman Pontius Pilate, the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea; and the Romans crucified Jesus.

Now some reflections about Matthew. Brief, but I think to the point.

Last week I stressed that the Gospel According to Mark was designed for Gentile Christians in Rome, and composed by an anonymous author, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Mark’s Gentile Christians in Rome faced and feared persecution and death at the hands of Roman authorities; but they also had to live with negativity and discrimination from Judeo-Christians living in Rome.

The Gospel According to Matthew, was most likely written by an anonymous Judeo-Christian scribe in the mid-80s CE. The most probable location for the Matthean community was Antioch, whose ruins today lie close to Antakya, Turkey. The community was strongly Judeo-Christian. There were Gentile Christian members, but they were expected to obey Torah norms. Some scholars say even circumcision. The Matthean Jesus came, therefore, “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it” (Matthew 5:17).

One can say that Matthew was organized for Judeo-Christian instructional purposes; and the stress is on the “Judeo” element. It contains five sermons of Jesus (Matthew 5:1-7:29; 10:1-42; 13:1-52; 18:1-35; and 23:1 through 25:46) which, for the evangelist’s audience symbolized the five books of the Torah. In the first of these, the “Sermon on Mount,” the rabbi Jesus, like a new Moses, presents his definitive teaching about the Torah. Notice how he so often says “you have heard it said of old . . . but I say to you . . .” (Matthew 5:21-22) Rabbi Jesus takes a teaching found in the Torah and then intensifies and expands on it.

For Matthew Jesus is the great embodiment of all preceding Hebrew history. He constructs an infancy narrative that begins with “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, Son of David, son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1-17). Matthew’s genealogy features four notable Hebrew women, a number of “fulfillment” passages that relate Jesus to prophetic texts; and allusions to famous Hebrew men of the past. Note for instance that Jesus, like Moses, was rescued as an infant from a murderous king (Matthew 2:16-18). In Matthew’s creative narration, Jesus’ ministry begins with three temptations in the desert. They correspond to the experiences of Israel in the desert, after the Exodus. Jesus is God’s great liberator, the new Moses.

What strikes me as I re-read the Gospel According to Matthew, is Jesus the rabbi: the great teacher. And I conclude this Sunday’s reflection with my own translation and contemporary reflection on Matthew 5:1-10, where Jesus goes up a hill with his disciples and begins to teach what we have come to know as the “Sermon on the Mount.” It is truly a charter for Christian life today.

The Christian Charter Based on the Sermon on the Mount

1.How fortunate are those people, who are humble in spirit.

The humble in spirit realize that greatness is achieved through service not domination. Power and control over people have no place in the community of faith. The humble in spirit realize they are not masters of the universe. They understand they cannot survive on their own.

2.How fortunate are the gentle.

The gentle are the meek: those people who can make room for someone else, even for the “losers.” They are neither so arrogant nor so self-centered that they see only what they want to see. Arrogant and crude belittling of other people has no place in the words and behavior of those who claim to be followers of Christ – even when they sit in high political office or wear colourful clerical uniforms. “You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them; and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you.” (Matthew 20:25-26)

3.How fortunate are those with compassion.

They can feel the pain of another. They put an arm around the fearful and the oppressed. They do not simply send their “thoughts and prayers,” and then head out to play golf. They lift oppressive burdens from the shoulders of the old, the infirmed, and the impoverished. They do not cut their food stamps and health care benefits

4. How fortunate are those whose greatest desire is to do what genuine Christianity requires.

We are fortunate if we have high ideals, strong values, noble goals, and the motivation to build up what is best in others and in ourselves….. But the temptations are strong: to conform, to do what everyone else does, to simply read the news and then not rock the boat.

5. How fortunate are those who show mercy to others.

Merciful love is assistance without conditions. Genuine Christians are not fear mongers who scapegoat Hispanics, feminists, blacks, gays, or immigrants from “shithole countries”

6. How fortunate are the pure of heart.

The pure of heart are honest-hearted. They are not two-faced, with hidden agendas or secret desires to advance themselves by using and abusing other people. They do not brag and joke about grabbing genitalia. The pure of heart honor and search for truth. They do not fabricate “facts.”

7. How fortunate are those who work for peace.

Those who work for peace do not erect walls. They do not launch oppressive trade wars. They are bridge builders. They cooperate rather than compete. They struggle to resolve political, social, and religious polarization through tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect. To paraphrase Matthew 25:52, “put your guns away, for all who draw their guns will perish by guns.”

8. How fortunate are those who suffer persecution because they truly live the Gospel.

There are a lot of phony Christians in high places these days, who love to denigrate and oppress their critics. They profess love of Christ. In reality they love only themselves. Matthew’s Jesus is adamant about this. He spoke of religious leaders who wore impressive religious garments and talked God’s values but never lived God’s values. “Do not do what they do,” Jesus said “for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see. (Matthew 23:3-5)

It is still winter, but spring is on the horizon.

Jack –