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chapter 10
The Visionary Dream of God
The Parable Gospel According To John
The Power of the Parables

When you think of World Heritage Sites, you usually imagine ancient places and ruined cities. But one site is emphatically neither. It is a city planned in the open savannah to become its country’s new capital. It is a city only fifty years old that was almost immediately declared a World Heritage location. It is a city whose only antiquity is its Latinized name, Brasilia, capital of Brazil.

Look east from the observation deck of the city’s centrally located television tower and imagine that you are on the tail of the plane whose shape inspired the city’s design. In front of you, on both sides, are the evenly balanced and deliberately named North Wing and South Wing, city sections that sweep elegantly backward from the plane’s central cockpit. On both sides of the cockpit’s broad central axis the separate government departments look like so many glass-faced dominoes standing upright on their longer sides. They march in serried ranks toward the cockpit’s core in the plane’s nose. There, in Three Powers Square, are the judicial, legislative, and executive functions that guide the plane- city of Brasilia and the Federal Republic of Brazil.

My present focus is on a very beautiful building located— along with the National Museum and the National Library— just before the South Wing’s line of government departments start their march toward the Three Powers Square. It is Brazil’s National Cathedral, the Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida, whose circular design, concrete ribs, and stained- glass totality arch upward like hands opened in prayer. You enter the building by going underground outside and then up inside, because doorways would have broken the glass circularity.

You approach those descending stairs by walking between statues of the four evangelists, austere and double- life- size bronzes sculpted by Alfredo Ceschiatti. They are not divided two on each side, as you might expect for an entrance avenue. Neither are all four on one side facing those government complexes to make a religio- political statement. Instead, three on one side face one on the other side of the entranceway.

The east- side triad are what scholars call the synoptic evangelists— so- called because you can view their texts together in parallel columns. First comes Matthew holding with both hands a scroll opened from right shoulder to left hip across his body. Then Mark, bare- chested, with a closed scroll in his lowered right hand, his lowered left in an open- handed gesture of supplication. Finally, there is Luke, also with a closed scroll in his lowered right hand, but with his left over his heart and his head veiled for worship. On the west side of the entranceway, facing those three synoptic authors, is John. But, unlike them, he holds his scroll in his left hand, so that his right can be raised with palm toward them in the authoritative gesture of speaker, teacher, and witness. (We still make that gesture while swearing to the truth in court.)

In that sculptural complex, all four evangelists are depicted as authors, but it is John alone who teaches the others. It is John who witnesses to the synoptic triad of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. That claim gives me my generative questions for this chapter. If each of the synoptic gospels has created a megaparable— whether it is challenge and/or attack— about Jesus of Nazareth, how does John’s parable “instruct” those others? Does it do so by challenge or attack? Even more important, does it “instruct” them correctly or incorrectly? Throughout this chapter, therefore, those provocatively positioned evangelists from Brasilia’s National Roman Catholic Cathedral will remain as a permanent visual matrix.

The present chapter will proceed— like the three before it— with five linked points. My first point asks whether John is an attack parable. If so, what is attacked and against whom is that directed? And how does its focus of attack compare with those already seen for Matthew and Luke?

My second point is a short probe of the opening words in John’s parable gospel. How do those words— and all of John’s overture in 1:1–18— compare with and challenge the synoptic overtures in Mark 1:1–8, Matthew 1–2, and Luke 1–2? That probe gives me a working hypothesis to explore the following third point— which has four steps. It asks how John sees the life, death, resurrection, and “return” of Jesus in comparison to what we find in the synoptic tradition of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

The fourth and fifth points follow the pattern established in the three preceding chapters. The fourth point asks: What do the preceding conclusions reveal about the overall purpose and general intention of John’s parable gospel? The fifth point asks: How do attack and challenge coalesce for John? If attack, against whom is it directed? If challenge, to whom is it directed?

That first point’s question seems a very easy one to answer. The immediate impression from reading John’s gospel is that it is an attack parable with obvious parallels to both Matthew and Luke. We saw in Chapter 8 that Matthew’s attack was from Christian Judaism against Pharisaic Judaism. Matthew was, in other words, still inside Judaism. We saw in Chapter 9 that Luke’s attack was from Gentile, and especially God- worshiping Gentile, Christianity against traditional Judaism itself. Luke- Acts was, in other words, already outside Judaism. Watch, now, how John combines Matthew and Luke, as it were, by escalating his attack from part to whole, from, say, “Pharisees” or “chief priests” to— simply— “the Jews” (as if Jesus and all his companions were not also “Jews”!)

First, with regard to the Pharisees, John is as accusatory as Matthew— and, indeed, even more so. The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees in John 7–9, for example, concludes like this: “Some of the Pharisees . . . said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains’ ” (9:40–41). But even the accusation of blindness— as already seen repeatedly in Matthew 23— is not John’s most serious attack on the Pharisees.

More seriously, John— and only John— directly involves the Pharisees— and not just the chief priests— in the death of Jesus. And that association starts early in John’s narrative: “The chief priests and Pharisees sent temple police to arrest him,” and later “the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, ‘Why did you not arrest him?’ ” (7:32, 45). Furthermore, that collaboration continues to its lethal climax: “The chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs’ ” (11:47). So “the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him” (11:57). Finally, “Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons” to arrest Jesus (18:3).

Second, John regularly escalates accusations from part to whole, from Jewish authorities to Jewish people. For example, compare these comments by Mark and John about the early and lethal opposition to Jesus because of his Sabbath- day healings. The former says that the “Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6). The latter says that “the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was . . . breaking the sabbath” (John 5:18). The escalation from part to whole is obvious.

Or again, with regard to name- calling and character assassination, compare Mark and John on the specific accusation of demonic possession. The former records that “the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons’ ” (Mark 3:22). But, in the latter gospel, once again, that same accusation escalates to all: “The Jews answered him, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’ ” (John 8:48). That is attack, not challenge.

Furthermore, with regard to name- calling, Jesus himself does even more of it in John than in Matthew. He had just said this to those same Jews: “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (8:44).

Finally, watch these different versions of the Roman trial of Jesus and the release of Barabbas in Mark and John. Mark speaks consistently of “the crowd” (15:8, 11, 15), encouraged by “the chief priests” (15:11–12), who prefer Barabbas to Jesus. But John makes this change:

When the chief priests and the police saw him [Jesus], they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” (19:6–7)

In John, the specific phrase “the chief priests and the police” is escalated to “the Jews.”

In other words, and on this first point, John’s external attack is not just against Pharisaic Judaism, as in Matthew— but against Judaism itself, as in Luke- Acts. The term “the Jews” appears only a few times in the synoptic tradition— mostly as a neutral expression used by non- Jews. But in John— as in Acts— the term is sometimes used neutrally as an ethnic designation, but it more often occurs with an adversarial edge to it.

My second point is a short but crucial probe, like an archaeologist’s preliminary sounding on an unexcavated ancient site, into the opening words of John’s parable gospel. First of all, every gospel begins with an overture— an initial action that focuses and summarizes the entire following story. Think of them as similar to the overtures of classical operas or musical comedies, which combine themes or melodies to be heard later throughout the following drama. Think also of how those gospel overtures must have helped ancient hearers or readers confronted with wall- to- wall writing, all in uppercase Greek, without paragraphs or headings, and certainly lacking our chapter and verse numbers.

Mark’s overture goes back to Isaiah’s “prophecy” about John the Baptist (1:1–3), and Matthew’s and Luke’s overtures are very different versions of the nativity of Jesus in which Matthew goes as far back as Abraham (1:1), and Luke goes all the way back to Adam (3:38). But John’s overture begins far back beyond any of those times mentioned by the synoptic authors. It begins not with John, or Isaiah, or Abraham, or Adam. It begins with a visionary dream in the mind of God, a visionary dream that is with God and is God:

In the beginning was the Word (ho logos),
and the Word (ho logos) was with God,
and the Word (ho logos) was God.
This one (houtos) was in the beginning with God. (1:1–2)

We translate the Greek ho logos as “the Word,” and that is both correct and vacuous. What does ho logos or “the Word” mean in the opening words of John’s magnificently poetic overture?

It means that God did not come up with a bright new idea called Jesus around 4 bce. The eternal and generative dream of God was for a world of justice and peace, for an earth unsullied by oppression and injustice, by violence, bloodshed, and war. That hope, vision, dream for the earth was always with God and was God. But, John claims, it became embodied, incarnated, revealed humanly in Jesus: “The Word (ho logos) became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). John’s overture claims that Jesus of Nazareth is the visionary dream of God as embodied humanly in time, place, and sandals.

Think of it this way. A mighty river pushes steadily against a logjam, but cannot break through except in trickles and rivulets. Then, one day, it breaks through fully and floods forward on its way. It broke through at a specific moment in time, but it was not created at that moment. It was always there, pressing, pressing, pressing. Furthermore, if you could control all the variables, you might be able to explain that moment of breakthrough. But it would be a serious mistake downriver to think that the river had just been invented. And that too is a challenge parable.

My third point follows directly from that initial probe. It asks whether John’s megaparable of Jesus is, despite what we saw in my first point above, not merely an attack parable against Judaism, but even more profoundly a challenge parable to the three synoptic gospels. This present point proposes that John’s gospel is a challenge to the life, death, resurrection, and “return” of Jesus as they are presented in the synoptic vision of the other gospels. The next steps of this point will compare those four elements of Jesus’s story as they appear in John with those as they appear especially in Mark, as Mark is the major source for Matthew and Luke.

I begin with the life of Jesus. My focus here is how differently John interprets the miracles that fill so much of that life in the synoptic gospels. The healing miracles, for example, were cited by Luke to establish and vindicate Jesus’s very identity when questioned by the imprisoned Baptist: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (7:22). I give just one example to show how differently John interprets those traditional miracles.

The miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes is told five times in the synoptic gospels (Mark 6:32–44; Matt. 14:13–21; Luke 9:10b–17; Mark 8:1–10; Matt. 15:32–39). I focus here on that first one, in Mark 6:32–44, to compare it with the parallel version in John (6:1– 13) and the long discourse by Jesus following it (6:14–59).

The story of the multiplication in Mark is directly and literally about food for the hungry. Furthermore, it is another attempt by Jesus— like those seen already in Chapter 7— to educate the Twelve in their responsibility as community leaders. The difference between Jesus’s vision and theirs is emphasized in this opening dialogue after a day of teaching “a great crowd”:

When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” (Mark 6:35–37a)

The opposing solutions are quite clear:

From the Twelve: “Send them away to buy something for themselves to eat.”

From Jesus: “You give them something to eat.”

And their response almost mocks him: “They said to him, ‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?’ ” (6:37b). Thereafter, Jesus pulls them into the middle between himself and the crowd at every stage of the miracle:

[1] Seeking: And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” (6:38)

[2] Seating: Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. (6:39–40)

[3] Distributing: Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled. (6:41–42)

[4] Gathering: And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men. (6:43–44)

In other words, and quite deliberately for Mark, the Twelve are forced to abandon their solution (send them away) and participate in every stage of Jesus’s solution (give them something to eat).

The point of this miracle parable is, for Jesus, that the food already present— already present and not divinely delivered like, say, the manna from heaven as in Exodus 14— is more than enough for everyone when it passes through his own hands exercising God’s distributive justice for God’s people on God’s earth. The point is also, for Mark, that the Twelve as community leaders have denied their own responsibility for that process. But the story is always and ever about real food as the material basis of life in this world. It is never just about food. It is always about just food.

The story about the miraculous distribution in John 6:1–13 is similar to that in Mark— the same already present five loaves and two fishes (6:9), the same “large crowd” of five thousand people (6:10), and the same twelve baskets left over (6:13). But there is one rather minor and one very major difference between Mark’s and John’s versions. First, the minor difference. Mark was quite willing to have Jesus ask a question: “How many loaves have you? Go and see” (6:38). But John is not happy with that implicit ignorance on the part of Jesus. So he starts his parable this way:

Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” (6:5–7)

That is only a minor change, although it is also a significant one, because, for John, Jesus knows everything beforehand and asks not to learn, but to test.

Next, here is the major difference between Mark and John in this miracle parable. The remainder of John 6 reduces— that verb is carefully chosen— that story to a visual aid for the long discourse that follows it (6:14–59). And that discourse by Jesus refers exclusively to the loaves and not to the fishes. You can already see those fishes disappearing in John by comparing the end of the action in Mark with this transition from action to discourse in John:

They took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men. (Mark 6:43–44)

They gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. (John 6:13)

For John, the fishes can go because, in the following discourse, Jesus is the bread— but not the fish— of life. Here is what happens in the bread- of- life discourse.

First, negatively. Jesus admonishes the people for any interest in the reality of the loaves as bread, as actual food: “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (6:26). Or, again: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” (6:27).

Second, positively. When you read the discourse for yourselves, notice how it is structured around Jesus’s repeated claim to be the bread of life that came down from heaven:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (6:35)

The Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” (6:41)

“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” (6:48–50)

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (6:51)

By the time you reach the end that discourse in John 6, you will have forgotten the actual loaves— and fishes— that served, for John, as a simple visual aid and symbolic referent to Jesus himself as divine food from heaven.

One final emphasis. The difference between Mark and John is not simply between Jesus giving actual or physical bread and Jesus being symbolic or spiritual bread. Both stories are symbolic. Mark’s story symbolizes— and effects— God’s gift of food. John’s story symbolizes— but does not effect? — God’s gift of Jesus. We now read Mark and John and get both. But John intended to challenge Mark and have the story read in his own divergent version.

John interprets all the physical or restorative miracles of Jesus as symbolic of what God is in Jesus rather than of what God does in Jesus. Look back, for example, at John 4 and note how physical drinking in 4:7–15 and physical eating in 4:31–38 become spiritual symbols of Jesus. Or, again, do you really think that Cana was just about wine?

My second step concerns the death of Jesus. Three examples will suffice to show the immense differences between Mark and John concerning the death of Jesus: first in the garden; then on the cross; and finally at the tomb.

For Mark, Jesus is almost out of control in the Garden of Gethsemane. Notice the three themes of ground, cup, and disciples:

Ground: He began to be distressed and agitated . . .. And said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death.” . . . And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. (14:33–35)

Cup: He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” (14:36)

Disciples: All of them deserted him and fled. (14:50)

Watch those three italicized themes and compare how John retells that story and changes each of them quite completely:

Ground: Judas brought a detachment (speira) of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. (18:3–6)

Cup: Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (18:10–11)

Disciples: Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” (18:7–8)

That is— from Mark to John— an absolutely extraordinary reversal. Jesus is not out of control, but totally in control. He is, in fact, managing his own arrest. His humanity has ceded overt and total place to his divinity. Notice the elements in John’s version.

First of all, that vague word “detachment” is quite specific in Greek— it is speira, a cohort, that is, six hundred troops. John’s very deliberate emphasis is certified by that word’s repetition at the end of the passage: “The soldiers (speira), their officer (chiliarchos), and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him” (18:12). That officer is a tribune or, literally, commander of a thousand soldiers. It takes all of that to arrest Jesus— when he lets them up off the ground.

Next, there is no mention by Jesus— even with total submission and obedience— of having the cup of suffering pass him by— as in Mark. Instead, there is that rhetorical question in John: “Am I not to drink the cup?”

Finally, the disciples do not desert Jesus and flee, as in Mark. Instead, in John, Jesus commands those arresting him to “let these men go.” It is not that they abandon Jesus, but that Jesus protects and saves them. And that was “to fulfill the word that he had spoken, ‘I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me’ ” (18:9), recalling his earlier word that “not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost,” that is, Judas (17:12).

What about the crucifixion of Jesus? Think of John’s account of Jesus’s death as Mark’s desolate human darkness rewritten in translucent divine light. What we have just seen in the garden is continued on the cross. Here is Mark’s version— and watch the purpose of the sour wine:

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. (15:33–37)

That drink of sour wine is to revive Jesus and keep him alive long enough to see if Elijah comes to his aid. For Mark, Jesus dies amid external mockery and internal— how strong should the word be— despair? But that must, of course, be balanced for Mark by what also happens externally: “The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ ” (15:38–39).

In any case, the parallel scene in John is— as you expect by now— the precise opposite of Mark’s. For John, Jesus is once again in total and final control even of his own death. Watch that incident of the sour wine:

When Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (19:28–30)

The proffered wine is now given not to mock Jesus, but to obey him. Jesus is portrayed as in control of his arrest by his commanding the arresters and of his execution by commanding the executioners, so that the scriptures are all fulfilled. And, needless to say, there is no loud death cry in John. Jesus dies when all is finished, and he is ready to give up his spirit. The Jesus of Mark dies in human agony. The Jesus of John dies in divine radiance.

With regard to entombment, in Mark, Jesus is buried swiftly and somewhat inadequately, “since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath” (15:42). It is not a dishonorable burial, because Joseph of Arimathea “bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb” (15:46). But there was no time for proper anointing or full mourning, so “when the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him” (16:1).

That was at least a decent burial, but in John it escalates into a royal or even a divine burial. Note the differences. John begins, first, with Joseph of Arimathea’s request for Jesus’s body from Pilate (19:38), just as Mark did (15:42–45). Then John reintroduces Nicodemus, whom we have not seen since 3:1–9 and 7:50–52. That allows John to add two major new aspects to that burial:

Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. (19:39–41)

That the tomb was new and unused is present in both Matthew (27:60) and Luke (23:53), but not in Mark (15:42–44). That the tomb was in a garden, that is, in the ideal and idealized location for a burial site, is unique to John. (We are back, by the way, where the death story of Jesus began— in a garden.) But, of course, John’s major addition is that anointing with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.”

If we did not have John’s gospel, we could imagine composing it like this. Take Mark, turn any negative into positive, any darkness into light, and any humanity into divinity. Then, put Jesus in full and total control of his own execution— all happens as Jesus wills it and when he is completely ready. Finally, bury Jesus not inadequately, but superadequately. Do not give him a hasty and unanointed burial, but a slow, fully anointed, and regally if not divinely magnificent one.

My third step focuses on the resurrection of Jesus. It was relatively easy to see how John challenged the synoptic tradition of the life and death of Jesus. It is much harder to understand how he does the same with its general tradition of Jesus’s resurrection and return. Whatever he does there is much more oblique and very, very ambiguous.

To begin with, think about the story of Lazarus. On the one hand, it is a spectacularly clear miracle of resurrection as resuscitation. Jesus deliberately waits until Lazarus is securely dead: “After having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (11:6), so that “when Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days” (11:17). Next, Martha protests that “already there is a stench because he has been dead four days” (11:39). Finally, Jesus commands Lazarus to “come out,” and “the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’ ” (11:44).

It is hard to avoid that insistence on the reality of bodily death and decay. “Life” and “death” in John 11 are very literal words referring to very literal facts. Yet in the middle of that reality we find this interchange between Jesus and Martha:

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (11:23–27)

Those italicized words indicate a shift from the literal to some metaphorical meaning of “life” and “death.” Furthermore, Martha does not exactly answer Jesus’s question. She believes he is the Messiah, the Son of God, but does she believe that everyone who lives and believes in Jesus will never die? What does it mean to never die?

Is Lazarus, for John, a positive or negative parable? Is his raising a positive model for that of Jesus or a negative model almost lampooning resuscitation mistaken for resurrection? Is John 11 similar to John 6: Is the physical miracle not important in itself, but only present as a visual aid to the spiritual challenge of Jesus as “the bread of life” (6:35, 42, 48, 51) or “the resurrection and the life” (11:25)? I think that John is using Lazarus in John 11 as a negative foil for Jesus in John 20. Watch, next, what happens there— as a challenge to the synoptic accounts.

Two— possibly the two? — most important early Christian leaders known from the synoptic tradition, Mary and Peter, are flatly challenged concerning the resurrection of Jesus in this chapter. They are almost woven together: Mary in 20:1–2 and 20:11–18 frames Peter in 20:3–10.

First, Peter. Luke told the story like this: “Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened” (24:12). But John rephrases it like this:

Peter and the other disciple [“the one whom Jesus loved” from 20:2] set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’s head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. (20:3–9)

The Beloved Disciple gets there first, looks in first, and believes first— or even alone (note my italics). All Peter gets to do is— in ultimate deference to Luke 24:12— enter first. But, says John in a challenge to the synoptic tradition, an empty tomb and abandoned death wrappings may or may not inspire belief in the resurrection of Jesus.

Next, Mary. Neither is the empty tomb enough for Mary to believe in resurrection. Three times John has her interpret it incorrectly— as a case of grave robbery:

[1] She ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” (20:2)

[2] They [the angels in the tomb] said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (20:13)

[3] She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” (20:14–15)

That last scene is quite extraordinary. Even a risen vision is not enough until Jesus calls her by her name: “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher)” (20:16). An empty tomb is ambiguous, says John, and so— just in itself— is a risen vision. Both empty tomb and risen vision require interpretation— by faith.

One final point on Mary. She is not told by Jesus noli me tangere, “Do not touch me,” as in the traditional Latin translation. The Greek is importantly different: “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” ’ ” (20:17). In other words, the risen apparitions that count are not before, but after the ascension of Jesus into heaven. When Jesus appears in 20:19 and again in 20:24, he has ascended and is appearing from heaven above and not from an empty tomb below. That is John’s ultimate challenge to the synoptic apparition tradition, and it leads directly into my next section.

My fourth and final step involves the so- called return of Jesus. In the synoptic tradition, the consummation of the kingdom’s presence was understood as the return of Jesus in the imminent future. Jesus says in Mark, “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (9:1). And Jesus says in Matthew, “You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (10:23). But the counterchallenge of John to the synoptics is that the return of Jesus has already happened. Jesus is already back— in the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus appeared to all the disciples from heaven in John 20:19–23, he “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ ” (20:22). That mention of their receiving the Hoy Spirit directs our minds back to the great final discourse of Jesus in John 13–17. In that long section, the Holy Spirit— well- known from the synoptic tradition— is uniquely renamed as the Advocate, the Defender, the Comforter (Greek parakletos):

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. (14:16–17)

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (14:26)

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. (15:26)

First, the Holy Spirit or Spirit of Truth is renamed as the divine Advocate in the legal and forensic sense of an attorney who defends Christians against “the ruler of this world” (16:11). Furthermore, it is “another Advocate,” so that Jesus himself was also an earlier Advocate. Finally, sent by the Father in the name of Jesus (14:26) is the same as sent by Jesus from the Father (15:26).

Immediately after that first citation above, Jesus continues with this promise: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live” (14:18–19). That phrase “a little while” is later repeated like a dramatic refrain. Indeed, it is not just repeated, but pounded on:

“A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.” Then some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying to us, ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They said, “What does he mean by this ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.” Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’?” (16:16–19)

That phrase “a little while” is cited seven times in those four verses. Why is it so important for John?

My proposal is that John is challenging and correcting the “little while” until the return of Jesus as imagined by the synoptic tradition. The first “little while” is, for John, the time until Jesus is crucified and he is gone from his companions— Holy Thursday to Good Friday for Christians today. The second “little while” is, for John, the time until Jesus is resurrected and returns not for a day or even forty days but permanently in the Spirit Advocate— Good Friday to Easter Sunday for us. A “little while” means days— at the most.

In other words, John’s challenge to the synoptic tradition is that the return of Jesus has already happened in the heavenly gift of the Holy Spirit. “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7). Nobody has seen God, but Christians see God in Jesus. Jesus is gone, but Christians have him— or, better, he has them— in the divine Advocate as the Holy Spirit of Truth. That mystery of the Trinity is at the same time terribly obvious and wholly mysterious.

My fourth point asks, as usual, about situation and location with regard to those preceding points. Granted what we have just seen of John as attack against Judaism and, even more so, as challenge to synoptic Christianity, where was John standing to launch such a two- front operation? It seems clear that John, unlike Matthew but like Luke, speaks from outside Judaism. But from where exactly? Is he just now outside or was he— like Luke— never fully and completely inside?

Here is my very best— but not at all original— conjectural answer. John’s gospel speaks so readily of— and against— “the Jews,” because it comes not from a Jew converted to Christianity, but from a Samaritan converted to Christianity. My proposal is that a Christian Samaritan can both attack Judaism and challenge Jewish— or Gentile— Christianity with equal knowledge on both fronts.

Was “John” a Samaritan converted to Christianity? Notice, for example, how John differs from the other gospels with regard to Samaria and Samaritans. (You will recall, by the way, the tensive relationship between Jews and Samaritans from Chapter 3.)

Mark never mentions either Samaria or the Samaritans. Matthew has Jesus warn his companions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans” (10:5). The first volume of Luke- Acts speaks of Samaritans both positively (Luke 17:11–19) and negatively (9:51–56). But in the second volume everything about Samaria is extremely positive. The risen Jesus promises his companions: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). That geographical mandate then moves from Judea (Acts 1–7), through Samaria (Acts 8), and on, slowly but surely, to Rome (Acts 9–28). For Luke- Acts’ vision of Christian destiny, Samaria is a crucial step in the transition from Judea to Italy, from Jerusalem to Rome, and from Jew to Gentile (Acts 8:5–25; 9:31; 15:3).

John, however— and John alone— tells that special story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Jesus “had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon” (4:3–6).

The Samaritan woman recognizes Jesus as “a prophet” (4:19), and Jesus then reveals to her that he is “the Messiah/Christ” (4:25–26). Next, “the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.” (4:29–30). Finally, there is this climactic conclusion:

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” When the two days were over, he went from that place to Galilee. (4:39–43)

The escalation of Jesus’s identity is from “prophet” (4:19) to “Messiah/Christ” (4:25, 29) to “Savior of the world” (4:42). But the point of this story is to tell the conversion of the Samaritans to Christianity in miniature, microcosm, and parable.

We could understand how, if “Luke” was a Gentile God- worshiper converted to Christianity, he could know so much about Judaism and still reject it profoundly. Similarly here. “John” as a Samaritan converted to Christianity is no more than a possibility, but it is one that at least explains how he can know so much about Judaism and be so clearly outside it and against “the Jews.”

The fifth point for this chapter asks, as always, whether the gospel involved here is attack, challenge, or some combination of both. In this case, you already have my answer. It is a bitter attack on Judaism, from outside it, possibly from a Samaritan tradition. It is also a serenely sweeping challenge to all aspects of the synoptic Jesus in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. And, by the way, when Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (14:2), John is not proposing toleration for other interpretations of Christianity. The author of the fourth gospel is demanding toleration for his own divergent vision as the synoptic tradition becomes more and more ascendant, more and more normative.

Finally, John’s gospel is also a challenge parable to Roman imperial authority. You can see that most clearly in the climactic interchange between Pilate and Jesus. Notice how John formats this miniparable:

My kingdom is not from this world.
If my kingdom were from this world,
my followers would be fighting
to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.
But as it is, my kingdom is not from here. (18:36)

You can read and then ignore John’s usual anti- Judaic phrasing “handed over to the Jews”— as if Pilate were not legally, officially, and operationally in charge of the crucifixion. But my present focus is on those twin frames concerning “my kingdom.”

We often quote only that first line, “My kingdom is not from this world,” and thereby leave it open to several possible misunderstandings. Does Jesus mean that the kingdom of God is not about the earth, but about heaven? Or that it is not about the present, but about the future? Or that it is not about the exterior, but only about the interior life?

But, actually, Jesus continues and makes his meaning emphatically clear. “The difference, Pilate, between the kingdom of Rome and the kingdom of God— here below upon this one and only earth, in this one and only world— is that yours is based, supported, and defended by violence, and mine is not. No, not even to free me from you, Pilate, would or could my followers ever fight and use violence.”

John’s megaparable is, in conclusion, both an attack parable directed against and from outside Judaism— like Luke- Acts— but also, and even more so, a challenge parable directed against but from inside Christianity— like Mark. It is also, as are all the gospels in their different ways, a challenge parable to the Roman Empire. We saw this sort of challenge already in Luke- Acts, but John’s is a more subversive version than Luke- Acts’. It does not simply request noninterference as Christianity replaces Judaism with Roman approval. It is not about accommodation with Rome’s violence, but about replacement or transformation of that imperial normalcy.

Taken from The Power of the Parable by John Dominic Crossan

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