CNS Bible Blog: Jesus’ farewell discourse

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

After the supper (described in the Gospel of John, chapters 13-17), Jesus gives a long farewell discourse reminiscent of the sort of teachings that great philosophers and religious figures were expected to give to their followers prior to their departure from this world. It represents a sort of last will and testament.

Many of the verses are repeated several times and the discourse is rather circular. It probably is a compilation of many of the things that Jesus had said at various times in his ministry. Jesus tells them that in the Father’s house there are many dwelling places and he is going to prepare a place for them (14:2). But they are puzzled and can’t understand where he is going and how they can follow even though he insists that they know the way.

Scott M. Lewis SJ

Scott M. Lewis, SJ

Finally, he must spell it out for his rather slow-witted disciples: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6).

How are we to interpret this? For so long it was thought that one must be a card-carrying Christian in good standing in order to be “saved” and be with God. And we must remember that John would have raised the bar even higher: one must be a member of his particular brand of Christianity. But we must not confuse what Jesus is saying about himself with institutional Christianity.

The “way” is the term given to the earliest Christian communities. It simply means the path — the spiritual path — that leads to God. We saw earlier that when Jesus is portrayed as the “truth” it has nothing to do with doctrine. Jesus simply knows and reveals God as God really is: love and light, in whom there is no darkness or violence. He is the “life” in that he imparts the life-giving spirit of God to all those who open their hearts and minds to him.

Jesus is the divine pattern for what it means to be authentically human and divine. Those wishing to reach God must conform to this pattern regardless of who they are or what label is attached to them. This pattern is love, humble service, and openness to the transcendent and holy. An astounding promise is made in verses 12-14: the believer will do the works that Jesus did and even greater ones!

A stained glass image of Christ (CNS photo from Crosiers)

A stained glass image of Christ (CNS photo from Crosiers)

If this is true, then it seems that we have missed something. Often we are too literal in our interpretation of the Gospel, others times not literal enough. This instance belongs to the latter. This spiritual empowerment — already indicated in the prologue (1:12-13) — is possible because Jesus shares all that he is and has with his disciples through the gift of the spirit.

But there is an important proviso: disciples must “abide” in Jesus. Abide (menein) appears 10 times in the image of the vine in chapter 15. This image of the vine is similar to that of the body of Christ in 1 Cor 12:12-27; Col 1:18; and Eph 1:22-23. The image indicates that we are totally dependent on Christ for our spiritual power and sustenance. Once cut off from him we wither and die, although we may not realize it immediately. We can even continue to go through the motions of religious practice. One abides in Christ by means of love. Verses 12, 15, 21, and 23 spell it out: If you love me (conditional) you will keep my commandments. It is then that Jesus and the Father will take up residence in the believer’s heart and soul. It describes a mystical union that is a way of life rather than an experience of a few key moments.

Love is the way in which God is known as well as an empowering principle. Love — abiding in Jesus — also transforms human relationships with God. The divine friendship to which Jesus invites his followers means that nothing is hidden and that there is an easy familiarity with the Lord. Being a servant of the Lord is great, but being the Lord’s friend is far better. Which are we?

CNS Bible Blog: What made Peter squirm?

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

We have all seen the Holy Thursday scene so many times: a few embarrassed-looking parishioners in front of the congregation with their shoes off and an alb-clad priest trying to wash their feet without stumbling or falling. Everyone seems relieved when it is over.

But the footwashing that Jesus performed in chapter 13 of John was not intended to give us another liturgical ritual. It was supposed to be a paradigm for authentic Christian life.

Washing the feet of the guests was considered the lowest task in a household and no Jewish slave would ever be asked to do it. So when Jesus puts a towel around himself and begins to wash their feet we can imagine their shocked and stunned silence. There are echoes of Philippians 2:1-11 –- assuming the condition of a slave –- as Jesus begins his task.

Scott M. Lewis SJ

Scott M. Lewis, SJ

The synoptic Gospels portray the disciples squabbling among themselves at the Last Supper about who is the greatest. John considers this question so important that he is willing to omit the institution of the Eucharist in order to relate this scene. But the footwashing will illustrate love to the limit and can be seen as an interpretation of the meaning of Eucharist rather than a replacement.

Peter’s objections are often thought to reflect humility or feelings of unworthiness. That may be the case but there is another possibility. Peter might have seen all too clearly what Jesus was doing and was struggling to come to terms with it. The paradigm that Jesus mimes for them is one of renunciation of status, honor, and ego and runs counter to human values and human societies. This was an essential element of spirituality in the early Christian communities. No wonder Peter was squirming. But Jesus was adamant and uncompromising: unless I wash your feet you can have no share with me!

A church window depicts Jesus and his apostles at the Last Supper. (CNS photo from Crosiers)

A church window depicts Jesus and his apostles at the Last Supper. (CNS photo from Crosiers)

As Jesus dons his robe again, he recognizes that only later will they understand what he has just done. He is teacher and lord, and if he is willing to serve others in what is considered the lowliest way without feeling slighted or diminished then how much more should his disciples?

Humility has a bad reputation — understandably so — because of how it is often invoked to oppress and control others. The humility that Jesus models is not one of subordination or domination. New Testament scholar Sandra Schneiders describes this as a “radical new order of human relationships” between equals. Disciples are invited to draw their sense of worth and honor from their relationship with Jesus Christ and the love which they share with one another.

At the conclusion of the supper he gives them a “new” commandment: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Chapter 15 will clarify the manner of this love: No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Love alone is to be the identifying sign of the Christian disciple, not what one eats, drinks, or wears, nor the manner of ritual and prayer.

In what sense is this commandment new? Christianity did not invent love. When Jesus refers to love of God and neighbor as the greatest commandment in the other three Gospels he quoted from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. But it is new in the sense that it is the first and essential commandment given by Jesus in the new age that he has inaugurated by his incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection.

The spirituality that Jesus invites us to follow in every aspect of our lives is a continual letting go of pride, fear, and desire for honor, power, and recognition. In its place we should be eager to lay down our “life” (ego, selfishness, and personal advantage) for the sake of others.

CNS Bible Blog: Signs of the Messianic age

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The miracle at Cana is of a rather strange variety. No healing or exorcism is involved, no one is raised from the dead and no sins are forgiven. It appears only in John’s Gospel.

Today, there are three separate candidates in Galilee for the Cana in question — the most established of them sports two or three churches in honor of the event. Souvenir shops sell bottles of Cana wine but the quality does not inspire much confidence in the miracle. Wedding feasts lasted for days and the bridegroom’s parents were expected to provide a lavish celebration. Family honor was at stake, and in an honor/shame-based culture its importance cannot be overstressed.

Scott M. Lewis SJ

Scott M. Lewis SJ

When the “mother of Jesus” (she is never named in John’s Gospel!) tells him that the hosts had run out of wine, Jesus responds in a way that makes us uncomfortable. He addresses her as “woman,” which sounds rude and disrespectful, an address he uses to her again from the cross in chapter 19 as well as to the woman of Samaria in chapter 4. It is the Greek translation of an Aramaic form of address that is formal but not disrespectful — more akin to “madam.”

His reply is unclear: “Ti emoi kai soi” — in Greek, literally “what to you and to me?” The gist of it is, “Why are you telling me?” He insists that his hour — the hour for the Passion as well as the beginning of his earthly ministry — has not yet arrived. There is tension in the story — Jesus is defined by his relationship with God the Father, not earthly ties even to his mother. But the mother of Jesus is undeterred, simply ordering the waiters to do whatever Jesus told them to do — advice we would do well to follow. The six huge stone jars were soon filled to the brim with wine of excellent quality.

A church window depicts Jesus performing the miracle at Cana. (CNS photo from Crosiers)

A church window depicts Jesus performing the miracle at Cana. (CNS photo from Crosiers)

The head steward comments on the quality of the wine and the fact that the best vintage was saved until last. This leads into the meaning of the story — it is about the change of the age — the new world and the advent of the Messiah. There are references to wine of the last days and the arrival of the new age in 1 Enoch (one of the apocryphal Gospels); Amos 9:11, 13; Joel 4:18; and Isaiah 25:6. In this first of John’s seven “signs,” Jesus revealed his glory — divine power — and in doing so announced the inauguration of the Messianic age.

The story of the woman taken in adultery (7:53-8:11) is one of the most beloved in Christian tradition. It comes as a surprise to discover that the story is missing from the earliest manuscripts that we have of John’s Gospel. Other manuscripts place the story elsewhere in the narrative; a few even place it in Luke. It probably represents a free-floating Jesus tradition that was later inserted into the text. This should not cause us concern, for the New Testament itself was created over a period of time by the church in response to the experiences of individual communities and the work of the spirit.

The crowd is out for blood and is behaving in the murderous and unthinking fashion of crowds in every time and place. Scholars such as René Girard would even suggest that what is at work here is a “scapegoating mechanism.” This occurs when a community relieves the conflict arising from competition and desire by selecting and projecting on a victim the collective negative energy and tension. And we know immediately something is wrong: adultery requires two individuals but her male partner is nowhere to be seen.

The question posed to Jesus puts him on the spot — either he will break the demands of the law or the demands of compassion and mercy. But he refuses to meet their eyes and merely bends down and writes in the sand. What was he writing? Pious tradition says that he wrote all of their sins down. Unlikely — that would take a huge amount of sand and most people were illiterate. He needn’t have been writing anything in particular — it was a device to stop them in their tracks, make them begin to wonder and question, and eventually to force them to look within themselves.

The parting words of Jesus to the woman are interesting — he does not “forgive” her because he never judged or condemned her in the first place. He merely gives her some friendly advice and sends her on his way. And that is what this passage is about -– not primarily forgiveness, but self-knowledge. The unreflective crowd was doing what mobs of people or even societies have always done -– project their unexamined darkness on individuals or groups.

CNS Bible Blog: No shortcuts to our `second birth’

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The story of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John, Chapter 3 is the key to understanding much of the fourth Gospel. It describes in symbolic form the human condition — the inability to understand spiritual things as well as the inability of many to understand and accept the teachings of Jesus.

The end of the prologue has prepared us for this scene, for 1:18 informs us that no one has ever seen God except the Son, who alone can make him known. All human beings are ignorant of God (according to John), even the best and holiest. There is a “glass ceiling” in our striving for God that renders direct and true knowledge of God impossible without divine help.

Scott M. Lewis SJ

Scott M. Lewis, SJ

Nicodemus symbolizes “everyman” and is the best that human society can create. He is educated, pious, and righteous -– a decent human being. Nicodemus appears on the scene by night -– in John’s Gospel, darkness is the absence of God.

His preliminary flattery is brushed aside by Jesus with an almost brusque insistence that one must be born from above in order to see the Kingdom of God. In a Johannine pun, the Greek word anothēn means both “again” and “above.” Speaking from the limitations of ordinary human consciousness, Nicodemus interprets the word in a literal fashion — “again” — and is therefore flummoxed in his attempt to understand the absurdity and impossibility of a grown man returning to his mother’s womb to be born a second time.

As Jesus continues, he contrasts human nature with what is born from above, the earthly and the heavenly, the above and below. In several places in the Gospel Jesus tells the uncomprehending crowds that they are from below while he is from above. Ordinary human nature is incapable of comprehending the world of the spirit or having true knowledge of God. The doors of perception must be cleansed, and only by being born of water and the spirit — baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit — can one enter the Kingdom of God and experience spiritual illumination. No one has ever ascended to heaven to be with God — only the one who has descended from there (Jesus) is able to speak from experience. The Kingdom of God is understood not as a place but a state of spiritual consciousness or awareness.

In the story Nicodemus symbolizes a whole group of people, namely those who are open or sympathetic to Jesus but do so in secret. He is attracted to the message of Jesus, but wants it both ways — he wants to be part of the system and accepted by his peers and is afraid to make a public commitment and face the cost, just like so many of us! He appears again in 7:50 and 19:39, and appears to be rather timid and weak, refusing to take a positive and unequivocal stand.

So how does one experience this second birth from above if human perception is so limited? First of all, one must recognize the flawed and provisional nature of all human knowledge, especially the conventional or received wisdom. The enigmatic parables and word plays serve to destabilize the reader’s awareness and understanding so he or she can begin to question and search.

Secondly, Jesus gives many signs that disclose his divine and transcendent identity. Those who read the signs and are willing to put their faith in him — and remain in him — are led into an ever-deepening spiritual awareness. But let the reader beware: The Johannine understanding of faith is not belief in specific doctrines or creeds. It is a total surrender of the self and all aspects of one’s life to the one who has descended from above. No shortcuts, no easy out — but a whole new life.

CNS Bible Blog: Life and truth in John’s Gospel

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The prologue to the Gospel of John — Chapter 1, verses 1-18 — consists of a poetic hymn of great beauty and symbolic power. In centuries past the words themselves were thought to contain spiritual power so the prologue was often read over the sick. It also used to be recited by the priest at the end of the liturgy.

The prologue itself has been likened to the overture of an opera — it contains all of the themes that will be developed throughout the Gospel. Make note of some of the special words like “light,” “truth,” and so on and then watch for their repetition in later chapters as their meaning and application are unfolded.

Scott M. Lewis SJ

Scott M. Lewis, SJ

Let us examine two of those words: “life” and “truth.” Life (zōē) is used 36 times in John, 17 of these with the qualifier “eternal.” This is the life not of world to come but world above. Jesus — the Word of God — is identified with life itself. The logos or Word which is life (zōē) (1:3-4) came into a world alienated from God (1:10-13). He has the power of life within himself (5:26) and anyone who receives eternal life through belief in Jesus passes from death to life (5:24). Jesus can grant it to anyone whom he wishes.

Jesus insists that he has come so that we might have life and have it abundantly (10:10) and that he alone has the power to lay down his life and take it up again. In 11:25, he tells the grieving Martha that he is the resurrection and the life, and that anyone who believes in him will live even if they die, and anyone who lives and believes in him will never die.

A literal or superficial understanding of these words is absurd: many devout people have died. But John’s seemingly mundane words always have a transcendental meaning, and here he is definitely not speaking of biological life and death. The life that Jesus grants — eternal life — is living in the presence and awareness of God. Believers in Jesus experience eternal life even while still living their earthly life. In order to prove his claim to be able to give life to whomever he wishes, he promptly goes to the tomb and restores physical life to Lazarus. But this is not a resurrection, for Lazarus will still have to die again.

Truth is another of those rather vague and illusive Johannine terms. In 1:14, Jesus is described as full of grace and truth. What can that mean? In the encounter with the woman at the well in 4:24, Jesus denies that the worship of God can be tied to any particular place. The time has arrived for all true worshippers of God to worship Him in spirit and truth.

Jesus promises his audience in 8:32 that they will know the truth and the truth will make them free. Human knowledge is not what he had in mind, despite the dismaying tendency of many libraries to inscribe that verse over their doors.

Jesus told a perplexed Pilate that he had come into the world to witness to the truth, and Pilate responded with a rather weary and cynical, “What is truth?” not realizing that truth was quite literally staring him in the face. In fact, Jesus identifies himself in 14:6 as both life and truth and as a visible manifestation of the Father. This means that Jesus lives totally in God and God in him, and he is able to manifest the true God and the truth about God to a world ensnared in ignorance. Only by knowing and experiencing God directly and personally will we be freed from fear and ignorance and live as free children of God.

John is subtle and complicated. We should be wary of throwing Johannine verses around to prove theological points. John’s “truths” are meant to be experienced personally, not analyzed or rationalized.

CNS Bible Blog: Only seven miracles in Gospel of John

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

There are striking differences between John’s Gospel and the three “synoptic” Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).

The presentation of Jesus is the most prominent of these differences. Mark portrays Jesus as the “man of sorrows” who suffers and dies abandoned and misunderstood by all. From the cross he cries out, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?”

Scott M. Lewis SJ

Scott M. Lewis, SJ

John’s Jesus, on the other hand, is a man of power and glory, the complete master of his fate in every circumstance. This majestic and omniscient figure moves with confidence and purpose towards the cross and experiences the Passion with something approaching serenity. One scholar aptly described John’s Jesus as “God striding across the face of the earth.”

The synoptic Gospels are filled with the miracles of Jesus, and they are described as dynamis or deeds of power. Each miracle announces the arrival and presence of the kingdom or reign of God. In the fourth Gospel, on the other hand, there are only seven miracles — seven being a sacred number — and they are referred to as semeia or signs. Each miracle is an authenticating sign of the identity of Jesus as the one sent from above into the world.

In Mark, it seems that all of Galilee was teeming with demons — exorcisms play a prominent role in the ministry of Jesus. Exorcisms are conspicuously absent in John. But there is another glaring difference in detail that no amount of intellectual contortions will reconcile. In the synoptic tradition Jesus makes only one journey to Jerusalem as an adult — his first and last. Upon entering Jerusalem he “cleanses” the temple, an act considered so threatening by the authorities that they plot his death. The temple cleansing is the last significant public act of Jesus.

The fourth Gospel has Jesus making at least three journeys to Jerusalem, which is probably more historically accurate. Not only that, the temple “cleansing” takes place at the very beginning of his ministry, his first significant public act and one that initiates tension and controversy with the authorities. The “last straw” for the authorities in John is the raising of Lazarus, which is not even mentioned in the synoptic tradition.

We should not try to reconcile or harmonize John with the other three, for the integrity of each of the four Gospels must be respected. Each of the Gospels has a distinct theology and way of presenting the life and the significance of Jesus.

John is easily misunderstood if read in a literal or superficial manner. Things are never as they seem, for words and symbols have subtle shades of meaning and levels of understanding. Water is never just water; bread is more than bread. Ordinary words are used to convey higher spiritual truths, a reality of which most people are blissfully unaware.

John makes extensive use of irony — a literary device that draws the reader into the perspective of the narrator or author. The character in the story does not grasp the irony and is the hapless “victim,” while the reader — clearly in the know — is drawn deeper into the story. Most of the irony is centered on the origin and identity of Jesus as well as his death.

Chapter 9 — the story of the man born blind — is a good example of deep symbolism, for blindness is used to portray the human inability to perceive spiritual truth. Chapter 6, in which Jesus describes himself as the “bread come down from heaven” and his flesh and blood as a source of spiritual sustenance and life, further illustrates John’s use of metaphor and symbol.

We should be wary of reading John too quickly or thinking that we understand a passage clearly. Each verse must be interpreted in terms of John’s overall theology and spiritual lexicon.

CNS Bible Blog: The enigmatic Gospel of John

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The Gospel of John holds a special and rather exalted place in Christian tradition. Our theology and spirituality draw heavily on its lapidary but enigmatic verses.

We immediately recognize “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” as descriptive of Jesus. The dramatic insistence in 1:14 that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us is the foundation of our theology of the Incarnation.

Scott Lewis SJ

Scott M. Lewis, SJ

But it was not always so. This Gospel was not universally accepted in the earliest church. It was viewed with suspicion because of its enthusiastic use by Gnostic groups — overly spiritualized groups who denigrated the flesh, creation, and involvement with the world.

The Gospel shares some of the dualism of Gnosticism — a sharp contrast between light and darkness, good and evil, truth and falsehood. In an ironical turn that John would truly appreciate, by the fourth century this Gospel was considered the epitome of orthodoxy and was a rich source for many of our Christological doctrines.

But there are problems. Since the Gospel of John is a faith document, we have to confront three problematic areas if it is to continue to speak to people in the 21st century: 1) its anti-Judaic bias; 2) its relevance for the poor and marginalized; and 3) its exclusivism in a world that is increasingly pluralistic.

John was written at the end of the tumultuous first century A.D. — around 90 or so — and in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. There is harsh anti-Judaic polemic throughout the Gospel, and the term “the Jews” was used repeatedly to refer to those opposed to Jesus. Chapter 8 contains the infamous passage in which Jesus seemingly calls the Jewish people offspring of the devil. This had tragic consequences for it fueled theological and popular anti-Semitism for centuries to come.

A page from the ninth-century Lorsch Bible, showing a decorative painting of St. John the Evangelist. (CNS photo courtesy of the Vatican Library)

A page from the ninth-century Lorsch Bible, showing a decorative painting of St. John the Evangelist. (CNS photo courtesy of the Vatican Library)

We must remember that the author of the Gospel and those of his community were also Jews. John has often been accused of having an excessive concern with coming to faith — “getting saved” — and precious little to do with social justice, the poor and engagement with the problems of our world. It is true that John is extremely reticent on specifics. But as we will see, his one commandment — to love one another — is deceptively simple on the surface but comprehensive and demanding when it is unpacked and applied.

John is rather sectarian in his outlook — there are very sharp and clear boundaries between those who are “in” and those who are “out.” In his three letters, John’s harshest words are for those who were formerly members of his community. He reserves the epithet “Antichrist” for them.

He is uncompromising in his view of salvation — in 3:16 there is the well-known and beautiful statement about the extent of God’s love for the world and his sending of the son. But if we read a bit further, there is harsh judgment and condemnation for those who refuse to receive him. In fact, John has a simple explanation for those who will not come to faith in Jesus: quite simply, they are evil and never belonged to God in the first place. John was adamant that his particular interpretation of Jesus Christ was the only valid one.

We must remember that the fourth Gospel is a mixture of the beautiful and sublime with the very human and the negative. John’s community felt itself threatened and under siege. Inspiration is always mediated through human consciousness and historical circumstances. Interpretation of the text should always be done with an open mind and a compassionate and generous heart.

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