What we today call social injustice is not an uncommon finding in the gospels due to the social milieu and cultural practices at the time the gospels were written (latter part of the 1st century CE). We identify as marginalized any part of the ancient population that lived outside of the norm or center of accepted (approved, in-group) society (and they were probably oppressed or exploited because of it). Examples are the poor, the handicapped, the common or uneducated (specifically in Mosaic Law), foreigners, women, the religiously unorthodox, the institutionally dishonored. In the stories in John's (Jn's) gospel, these marginalized, these disenfranchised, were all sought out by Jesus for inclusion in his group of disciples. At the time the gospel was written, these were all sought out and welcomed by the Johannine (Jn) community. In our time we should reflect and ask whether we seek out and welcome these outcasts to our communities?
There are contradictions in scriptural testimony, which raise questions for the objective late 20th century reader (possibly resolvable some day under the influence of the Spirit), that hinder forming conclusions. These contradictions, per Rensberger (141), reflect the fact of inability of the writers to express the theological facts clearly.that dogmatic formulations simply can't contain the truth, and the truth may not be known until the hereafter in any case.
a. The Common Purse, Almsgiving
Jesus and his group had a common purse that they used to cover communal expenses. From this purse Jesus and his company contributed alms to the poor, e.g., on holydays and festivals. This social consciousness and care had deep roots in Old Testament (O.T.) justice practices, e.g., caring for the anawim (Deut 10:18-19; 16:14) (Malina, 206; Karris, 23-31).
Philip testified (6:5-8) that not enough money existed in their common purse to feed all the hungry people in the entourage. It was expected, apparently, that their common money could be used for such purpose. (Karris, 28-31)
Jesus didn't fault Mary of Bethany for the extravagance of the purchase of nard for his anointing (12:1-8), because, he stated, the poor will always be with them to benefit from alms given from their common purse. Jesus and the disciples had money for such purposes; almsgiving was a common, normal thing they did. (Karris, 23-26)
Jesus dismissed Judas Iscariot from the Last Supper to do his work (13:27b). The other disciples believed that Judas, as holder of the common purse, was going about his duties to buy what was needed for the festival (Passover) or to give the (festival) alms offering to the poor (13:29). Karris (27-8) states Jesus and his disciples evidently performed their social-justice practices of alms-giving in a routine manner.
b. Social Bandits
The economic and political situations of the time saw impoverishment and unsettling of large numbers of people in the land who resorted to banditry to satisfy basic human needs. Bandits frequently formed into groups, in fact, became part of the fighting revolutionary forces early in the great Jewish revolt of the 60s CE and eventually coalesced with other groups to form the Zealot party (Malina, 262-3). Barabbas was one such bandit (18:40).
a. Man Born Blind, The Paralytic
People with infirmities, such as described in the Jn stories of The Man Born Blind (9:1-41) and The Paralytic at the Pool (5:1-15), were excluded from religious practices by both Jewish (O.T.) and Qumran communities (Karris, 42-45). Both characters in the Jn stories were also beggars, compounding the public bias.
In The Man Born Blind story a man who is blind to the law comes tosee (believe in) Jesus, while Pharisees educated in the law and history don't see (believe in) Jesus. Jesus pitied the man and healed his blindness on the Sabbath in a way that was forbidden by Mosaic Law. The man was subsequently expelled from the synagogue, and was welcomed by Jesus into discipleship. The man represents many similarly oppressed at the time who were welcomed by the Jn community (Karris, 46-50).
The paralytic at the pool was also pitied by Jesus and cured on the Sabbath. This man, however, betrayed Jesus to the Pharisees.
Not everyone who was helped by Jesus really received him and came to belief. Not every act of reconciliation was successful.
Beggars, such as the man born blind and the paralytic at the pool, were considered expendable in every ancient city (Malina, 171). To the Jews, specifically the Pharisees, beggars were considered impure, were shunned and despised.
a. The Crowd
The crowd (7:40-52) was low class, below Pharisee social status. The crowd was looked down on by the Pharisees, who saw it as common, viewed it as uneducated, and considered it worse as accursed (Dt 27:26). Jesus saw the crowd, the world, as loved by God (3:16), and approached them as he did all marginalized: he invited them to believe. (Karris, 33-41)
The uneducated were lowly regarded: "How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?" (7:15).
Jn 6 discloses Jewish (Judean) prejudice against Galileans due to their perceived inferiority, associated with their rural existence, modest social standing, inferior education, and laxity in religious practices (Karris, 28-31).
Questions were raised regarding Jesus' origin in Galilee: "surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he?.the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem?" (7:41-42). Clearly the preference is for a Judean Messiah rather that a Galilean. Further, Nicodemus is questioned on the same theme: "surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee" (7:52).
In the crucifixion story (15:18-16:4), one notes that Jesus and his closest disciples were all Galileans. Jesus was put to death by Judeans. The hostility had all the appearances of in-group/out-group confrontation, especially when viewed from 1st C CE Mediterranean cultural perspective (Malina, 239-40).
d. Jesus' Origin
Jesus' claims in The Bread of Life Discourse (6:25-59), in the synagogue in Capernaum, outraged the Jews because of Jesus' perceived pretentiousness. "They were saying, 'Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say 'I have come down from heaven'?'" (6:42). W. Meeks (Ashton/Meeks, 182) states there is an implication of something improper about Jesus' birth. Malina (134) identifies the Jews here as Galileans who consider the non-elite status of Jesus' family when challenging his being "from above" and the honor status that would imply.
Jesus responds to this challenge by stating that this drawing power, rather than residing within him, is God's power, and that he is merely the broker. "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person on the last day." (6:44). Note in the last phrase he figuratively sticks his finger in the eye of any challengers.
e. The Royal Official
A "royal official" in Galilee believed in Jesus' signs and words to the extent that he begged Jesus to heal his son's illness (4:43-54). Royal officials, like government bureaucrats today, were not highly esteemed. The official himself was likely a Galilean with the perceived impediments noted in 4.c. above. Jesus cured the official's son, a sign of Jn community missionary outreach to the non-Christian Jewish Galileans. (Karris, 57-65)
The Samaritans were a demeaned people because of their history and geographic separation from the Jews. The Samaritans, with native roots in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, had a history as a conquered people and had been forced to assimilate with a mix of foreign tribes brought into the territory by the conquering Assyrians. Their culture suffered, their worship practices were compromised, and they were unclean and hateful as far as the Jews were concerned. (In Mt 10:5 Jesus warns his disciples to stay out of Samaritan towns.)
The story of The Samaritan Woman at the Well (4:4-42) tells of Jewish hatred of the Samaritans, for reasons of ethnic and religious impurity stated above, and tells of common cultural oppression of women (see below). Jesus' conversation with a Samaritan woman led to her belief in the Messiah and to her going forth on an evangelistic mission to her Samaritan townspeople. Jesus subsequently seals the townspeople's belief by dwelling with them and teaching them. The story is a metaphor telling of the Jn community missionary outreach to the Samaritans and other demeaned foreign (relative to Judah) non-Christian peoples (Karris, 65-72).
The meeting-at-the-well scenario presents a wooing paradigm that is seen in several instances in the Old Testament. The patriarchs wooed in this fashion. Jesus wooing the woman into belief is likely a metaphor for the Jn community wooing the Samaritans into belief.
Women were oppressed in antiquity. Jesus' disciples marginalized women, a situation unquestioned by Jesus even though by his actions in the gospel he emancipated them. Jn's gospel, however, suggests a Jn community outreach to and enfranchising of women, because of their faith beliefs alone, regardless of their Christian home community identity. History informs us, moreover, that women's roles in antiquity were enhanced by religious involvement, giving opportunities for service and leadership (Karris, 75-78). It is known that women shared leadership roles in Diaspora Judaism and in early Christianity.
a. The Mother of Jesus
Jn's treatment of the Mother of Jesus (2:1-11; 19:25-27) is limited in the extreme. His Mother's role here is as exemplar of Christian faith. She reaches the epitome of enfranchisement at the foot of the cross. In Jn, faith is shown to be more important than biology. The Beloved Disciple is the corresponding exemplar of discipleship and of Jn Christianity. (Karris, 78-81)
b. The Samaritan Woman
The story of The Samaritan Woman at the Well (4:4-42) tells of Jewish hatred of the Samaritans, for reasons of ethnic and religious impurity, and tells of common cultural oppression of women. That Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, would speak intimately with a Samaritan woman was shocking to the disciples. The conversation led to the woman's growth in belief in the Messiah and to her going forth on an evangelistic mission to her Samaritan townspeople. Jesus subsequently seals the townspeople's belief by dwelling with them and teaching them. The story suggests an apostolic/missionary role for the woman, which is certainly emancipating. (Karris, 65-72)
The woman, characteristically of women in scripture, is portrayed as wanton. The bible teaches using such caricatures, permanently casting women as inferiors. Sandra Schneiders (Ashton/Schneiders, 236) opines that the biblical text is not innocent, it has an attitude, and that the bible was written by men for men. She uses the Exodus story as an example of the failure of liberation theology when applied to women. Women (as Jews, certainly) were oppressed in Egypt before the Exodus, were marginalized afterward as this story highlights, and are still oppressed today.
The disciples are noted as being astonished at Jesus' conversation with a woman (no mention of her being a Samaritan) on their return from their trip to town. This was probably more surprising considering Jesus' status as a rabbi. They might also have been uncomfortable with the prospective harvest arrangement.they were not in control. (It is noted in several commentaries that the Fourth Gospel gives no evidence of a hierarchical structure in the Jn community.) The Jn community involvement with Samaritans and women at this time may have made apostolic Christians in Jerusalem very nervous.
Through conversation with Jesus the woman grows in belief, identifies Jesus as prophet, becomes the recipient of Jesus' first "I AM" identity in Jn, becomes the first catechist and promulgator of the Messiah, and becomes a disciple in the manner of John the Baptist, Andrew and Phillip. Embarking on her discipleship, she leaves her water jug at the well, no longer needing it, just as Peter and others left their fishing paraphernalia to follow Jesus.
The woman's five husbands and current live-in situation are judged by most commentators as being symbolic of the five foreign tribe cohabitation of Samaria (2Kings 17:13-34), and Samaritan then extant non-covenantal worship practices. The sequential five-husband situation for an individual person is judged to be practically impossible at the time.
Jesus' attitude could be considered ethnically supercessionist, e.g., salvation is from the Jews, and adapting superior presumptions vis-à-vis the woman. As the gospel is written, however, it is apparent Jesus didn't question the privileged position of men.
Jesus and the woman comprised the prototype missionary set. They went forth, overcoming prejudices, personalizing, knowing the territory, building bridges, building trust and building faith.
c. Mary and Martha of Bethany
An urgent message came to Jesus from Lazarus' sisters, Mary and Martha, about Lazarus' illness, which implied a request for Jesus' attendance (11:1-6). The message suggested a potentially critical, terminal situation regarding Lazarus. The unexpected response was: "Jesus dawdled!" (Malina, 194-201). Jesus purposely delayed responding to the request for two days, anticipating Lazarus' death, which transpired. In appearances, Jesus not only neglected his beloved friend (the only one so identified in Jn's gospel) in his hour of need, but he disregarded the family's plight in not attending the funeral. In the social ethos of the time, this brought dishonor to Lazarus' family.
In the ensuing events, Jesus traveled to Bethany, Lazarus' family's home, where the sisters met him and he confronted the situation of Lazarus having been dead now four days. His initial greetings by the sisters were testy(11:21, 32), and other mourners present (Jews) questioned his circumstances and motives (11:37). They knew he "dawdled."
Jesus knew his own situation was critical and terminal. He knew he would perform an act that would overcome Lazarus's death, honor God and bring honor to himself. He knew that implied accusations about his friendship and loyalty were unjust. This situation, these misunderstandings and false accusations made him angry (11:33, 38) (Malina, 200).
Jesus wept (11:35), prayed (11:41-42), and called Lazarus forth from the tomb (11:43). The dead man came out, was unbound, and let go (11:44). Dishonor was overcome. Family honor, never lost in fact, was affirmed.
For Jesus, even dawdling had a purpose, according to Jn. Martha's confession (11:27) and Jn's confession (20:31) were more profound than Peter's confession (6:69) in Jn's gospel, but similar to Peter's confession in Matthew (16:16) which is the basis for Church foundation, i.e., apostolic faith. This suggests that Martha may have been a foundational element of the Jn faith community. She was certainly a leader of the community. Martha was an archetype of the marginalized in the world whom Jesus appealed to, related to, and elevated. (Karris, 86-88)
Jesus joined Mary, Martha, and the raised-from-the-dead Lazarus at dinner at "Lazarus'" house in Bethany (12:1-2). It was six days before Passover (i.e., it was Sunday in the Jn community, Eucharist day). The meal thus had Eucharistic overtones, and Martha served (diakonein in Gk). This may imply that, at the time of writing, Martha was ordained for Eucharist in the Jn community. (Karris, 88-89)
Mary's generosity to Jesus (12:3-8) is contrasted with Judas' venal greed. Mary washed Jesus' feet after calling him teacher, implying she was a disciple, per the Last Supper foot-washing (13:13-14). It might also imply that, in the Jn community, Mary may have been ascendant to a leadership role as a result of her great faith and discipleship. (Karris, 89-98)
d. Woman Taken in Adultery
The Woman Taken in Adultery episode (7:53-8:12), proposed as having dubious Jn authenticity, expresses a powerful statement about social injustice in its allegations against and near-execution of a woman improperly judged (even if guilty) according to "Mosaic Law". Jesus' statement, "let anyone among you (meaning men) who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (8:7), accepts a peculiar standard for judging joint sinners, in this case adulterers, by punishing only the woman. An earlier verse states (by the Jews), "Moses commanded us to kill such women" (8:5). These judgments are contrary to Old Testament Law (Dt 22:22; Lv 20:10) which requires both parties be put to death.
Malina (292-3), addressing this story, cites two honor issues:
e. Mary Magdalene
The main character in Jn's gospel to be examined regarding questions of social justice or injustice to women is Mary Magdalene. Jn 20 suggests considerable emancipation for women, or does it?
Jesus, risen from the dead, appears first to Mary Magdalene, a woman, one of the powerless (20:1-18). Jesus asks, "whom do you seek?" which approximates the question posed in calling the first disciples (1:38). Mary Magdalene is a disciple, she hears his voice and responds (10:3-4). She reports to the disciples "I have seen the Lord," the same words used by Paul to claim his apostleship (1Cor 9:1; 15:8-9). She is commissioned to preach (20:17) which she does faithfully (20:18).
Sandra Schneiders writes (Ashton/Schneiders, 250), "Jesus' first words in the Gospel, to his first disciples, are 'what do you seek?' (1:38) using word forms consistent with his question to Mary Magdalene on the morning of the resurrection 'whom do you seek?' (20:15). The Greek word for 'to seek' expresses 'deep desire that finalizes religiously significant attitudes and actions.'" Jesus clearly marks the ultimate motivations of discipleship in both cases.
Culpepper notes (144), "Mary Magdalene's understanding is limited. Jesus is her friend and teacher, she sees how he dies, discovers the tomb empty, sees the angels, sees the risen Lord, but is unenlightened, wondering only where they have taken the Lord's body."(!)
Raymond Brown comments (192), "In the Good Shepherd parable (10:11-18), the shepherd's own sheep recognize him by his voice when he calls them by name. In the resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene she recognizes him only when he calls her by her name 'Mary' (20:16). She is thus recognized as one of his own, as one he loved to the end (13:1)."
What constitutes true discipleship, or, dare we say, apostleship?
Brown (189f) writes that Paul cites two conditions for being an apostle: having seen the risen Jesus and having been sent to proclaim him. A key to Peter's importance was the tradition that he was the first to see the risen Jesus (1Cor 15:5; Lk 24:34). Brown: "Jn revises this tradition by having it be a woman, Mary Magdalene, to whom Jesus first appears (20:14), instructing her to go and tell his 'brothers' (the disciples: 20:17-18) of his ascension to the Father." In Jn Mary Magdalene is sent by the risen Lord himself, and she proclaims the standard apostolic announcement of the resurrection:
"I have seen the Lord." It is she, not Peter, who is the first to see the risen Jesus.
Brown notes in footnote (190): "The tradition that Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene has a good chance of being historical." The secondary tradition from Jn and
Mt of first appearance to a woman or women "probably reflects the fact that women did not serve.as official preachers of the church," thus promulgation of the story was unlikely!
Mary Magdalene's role somewhat parallels that of the Samaritan Woman (Jn 4). Both were evangelizers. Mary Magdalene differs in being sent. Jesus instituted Mary as apostle to the apostles. She evangelized her co-apostles with the news of the resurrection of the Messiah.
Brown suggests (154-5) it was probably Jn's portrait of Mary Magdalene that sparked the gnostic Gospels to make her the chief recipient of post-resurrection revelation and a rival of Peter. He notes further that in the Gospel of Philip she has become the disciple whom Jesus loved most; in the Gospel of Mary Peter becomes jealous of Mary Magdalene even as he is jealous of the Beloved Disciple in Jn 21:20-23.
One can hear hosannas in Howard-Brook's commentary (453) regarding the role of Mary Magdalene in Jn 20: "For all time, the news of the resurrection is brought to the community by a word of a woman, the first apostle of the risen Christ... Both her experience and her apostleship remain privileged, unassailable, and apart from the experience of all later believers." What greater fulfillment is there? (20:31).
One wonders how this portrait of woman acting was created in scripture, especially in view of ecclesial practices at the time the gospels were written.
Sandra Schneiders comments (Ashton/Schneiders, 241-2): "What experience within the Jn community would have suggested to the evangelist to make a woman the central character of two such major missionary texts as the story of the evangelization of Samaria (4:1-42) and the commission to announce the resurrection (20:1-18)? Would such stories have been acceptable in a community that restricted apostolic identity and missionary activity to males? Would a male writer have.been allowed by other males to (write) so?"
But Jn, being Jn, is inconsistent in his treatment of Mary Magdalene. Jn 21:14 states: "This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead." The text "was raised" is out of character for Jn, raising a challenge regarding the authenticity of the overall Jn 21 text. One should also question why the appearances noted in 20:15, 20:19, and 20:26 don't make 21:14 the fourth appearance. The text as it stands suggests Mary Magdalene is not a disciple (!). Howard-Brook (475) states "This seaside experience is marked as the third revelation to the disciples.(It thus is) keeping the appearance to Mary Magdalene in a privileged (sic) category by itself." Malina (288) writes that the evangelist is numbering the descents (sic) from God in his accounting. The inflation of Peter in Jn 21, discussed in 8.d. below, may have something to do with, or at least suggest consistency with, the anomalies cited here.
f. Exclusive Language
Jesus addresses the Jews in second person plural, equating "you" with the circumcised, which is surely sexist (7:19-24). Yet, 7:24 gives a clever closure, "Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment."
Jesus' claims in the Bread of Life Discourse (6:25-59), in the synagogue in Capernaum, outraged the Jews because of Jesus' perceived pretentiousness. "They were saying, 'Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say 'I have come down from heaven'?'" (6:42).
Emanating from a supercessionist-religious bias: "surely you have not been deceived too, have you? .has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?" (7:47-48).
b. Nicodemus (Closet Christians)
Nicodemus is a member of the authority class, but one who ismigrating, however slowly, toward the separated community of believers. One in such a transition was likely to be haunted by fears of discovery and the sure-to-follow acts by religious authorities of expulsion from Temple and synagogue, and the ensuing ostracism from society. The Jn community forthrightly appealed to such fence sitters to bring them over to belief and to join their nurturing community.
This story (3:1-21; 7:47-52; 19:38-42), unique to Jn, describes a ruler of the Jews (3:1), a teacher of Israel (3:10), and a closet Christian; he is at best lukewarm to the cause of Jesus (7:50-52) in his defense of the oppressed. In Jn 19 Joseph of Arimathea, another lukewarm closet Christian (for fear of the Jews, 19:38), and Nicodemus collaborate in Jesus' burial. Nicodemus, who is wealthy, purchases burial spices weighing 75 lbs (19:39), an extravagant amount. The amount reflects practically a royal burial context, certainly not ordinary, and perhaps suggesting no expectation of resurrection. In the end, Nicodemus' conversion appears to be complete. He and Joseph set examples for closet Christians similarly locked into their status quo. (Karris, 97-100)
Two social justice concerns appear in this reading. The first deals with Nicodemus' defensive self-protection, his fear of action and betrayal of trust, which have communal consequences. The second, not unlike the first, is the exclusivity of the Johannine community that is defensively self-protective on a larger scale, isolationist, and contrary to Jesus' own way of dealing with people in his lifetime.
Regarding closet Christians: those who know the truth, whatever their standing in society, must openly side with those who attest to it and suffer for its sake. Otherwise they will find themselves co-conspirators with the world, their half-way measures unable either to halt the world's oppression or to give them a share in reorientation toward God. (Rensberger, 113)
Nicodemus is to be found today where Christians in power relate to powerless Christians, where white Christians relate to blacks in the US and in South Africa, where affluent members of church hierarchies relate to peasants and the poor in Latin America and elsewhere, where men relate to women in nearly all societies, where the educated relate to the ignorant, where the well-fed relate to the hungry, where the healthy relate to the sick, where the born relate to the unborn, where present humanity relates to future humanity that is powerless to prevent our crimes against it, where any Christian refuses to admit identity if danger might result, where there are reluctant activists for justice and peace, and for John for the one way his Christians are known by their love for one another (Rensberger, 115).
There was a major exclusionary practice at work, that was cultural and religious (Torah)-based, that is called Phariseeism (Malina, 177-8). This had to do with application of the purity laws, and the resulting practices of non-interaction with and exclusion from everyone and everything beyond prescribed boundaries. Justification for these practices was based on holiness, fulfilling Torah demands, as determined by the Pharisees, and applied to people, to places, to times, to what was eaten, and to what was touched. These practices enabled Pharisees to maintain their self-esteem as an exclusive (holy) people, as they judged God was exclusive in creating them. What resulted was a class-culture with hierarchical structure, with boundaries to exclude the undesirables, i.e., beggars, invalids, women, Samaritans, Gentiles, Christians, and all the unwashed, impure in general. A religious principle effected alienation and oppression of large segments of the population in favor of the few privileged.
Malina (207) comments on religious biases in social customs associated with dining out (12:1-2). The Pharisees would not accept a dinner invitation from common Israelites, for example, since they (commoners) could not be trusted to provide tithed and consistently pure food. If a common person was a guest in a Pharisee's house, he was provided a ritually clean garment to cover himself. This garment could then be cleaned, thereby avoiding ritually cleaning all furniture with which he may have come in contact.
Malina (208) also describes a class discrimination practice associated with social occasions, hosted meals, at which guests of different social rank were seated in different rooms and even served different food and wine, depending on their social status.
So that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover, Jews did not enter the Praetorium (Antonia) during the trial of Jesus (18:28). "The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: This is the ordinance of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it" (Ex 12:43). Jesus overturned these ordinances and practices.
d. Expulsion from Temple/Synagogue
The NRSV refers to synagogue expulsion as an approved policy and practice of the synagogue authorities against anyone professing Jesus as Christ (Jn 9:22). Malina (173-4) claims the practice was possibly effected in accordance with the twelfth of the Eighteen Benedictions against heretics in general. These benedictions required public statements of self-condemnation. Rensberger (26-7) says the consensus among scholars is that expulsions were rather probably carried out in a more limited, selective manner in local communities against members who professed such beliefs, or who were otherwise lax practitioners of Torah piety. In any case the expulsions were real for the Jn community (cf., 9:22, 12:42, 16:2), and it was apparent that the Pharisees were behind the movement (see also: Ashton/Moloney, 223; Culpepper, 93). The expulsions were clearly a form of religious persecution.
Many, even some authorities, believed in Jesus, but they didn't talk about it because of fear of being put out of the synagogue by the Pharisees (12:42) (Malina, 215).
It was the high Christology of the Jn community that led to its expulsion from the synagogue. The closet Christians, having a low concept of Christology and no open discipleship, generally were not threats to the synagogue.
e. Community Exclusion and Isolation
The expulsions were followed by Jewish societal exclusion and shunning of those expelled, and a Jn reactive isolation within its own community. The consequence was alienation between the two factions. This was formal social separation and ostracism of the Jn community, with associated economic dislocation and oppression. It split communities, families, and relationships. It was a clear form of social sin. In the end, both sides shared in the guilt-the Pharisees for misappropriation of Torah, and the Jns for discrimination (against the unenlightened). (Rensberger, 26-7; Culpepper, 93; Ashton/Moloney, 223-4; Malina, 215).
The Jn citation, ".Because you do not belong to the world." (15:18-21), is a clear statement of the antisocial character of the Jn group vis-à-vis the "world". Members of the Jn group simply did not belong to the "world" and they withdrew. One of the results of the withdrawal was hatred returned by mainstream society, the "world" (".they have seen and hated both me and my Father." 15:22-25). "In the world you have trouble; but courage! I have overcome the world!" (16:33). Jesus justified the isolation/alienation of the Jn community from the "world" (17:9-19). He wished them to be truly set apart, exclusive, without social admixture and contamination-just as Jesus was for their sake (Malina, 237-45).
Rensberger (79) presents an idea that Jn's appeal to abiding ("Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them," 6:56) is related to the solidarity required by the community to resist the persecutions. Louis Martyn (Ashton/Martyn, 127-30) concurs with the notion, noting that the Jews designates a group with a constant unchanging hostility toward Jesus, and by implication the Jn community. The synagogue judgment was a strong social force of acceptance or rejection in the community, and the mutual support provided by abiding in love would be greatly needed and strongly felt in the Jn community.
One can assert, if not definitively conclude, that the Fourth Gospel is the testament of a sectarian faith and a sectarian community. The Holy Spirit seems to have a sectarian preference for the Jn in-group (14:17) (Rensberger, 70). Verses 13:34 and 15:12 suggest Jesus' endorsement of Jn community sectarianism.
g. Sectarianism-The New Commandment
Jesus' new commandment to "love one another as I have loved you," (13:34; 15:12) constrained the prescribed relational action to in-group practice of the Jn community. To "lay down one's life for one's friends" (15:13), rather than requiring martyrdom (cf., 16:2), meant laying out one's resources (life) to help the needy (1Jn 3:16-17) (Rensberger, 128). The justice concern, however, is the limitation of the New Commandment to the in-group, the brotherhood, the friend, and its corresponding implication in social practices. There is an expression of Jn understanding of the O.T. ethic of care for the powerless, the helpless (the anawim), but limited to the in-group.
Malina (236), discussing Mediterranean meaning of friend in the 1st C CE, cites Aristotle's definition of a happy person as one possessing good birth, plenty of good friends [a good friend possessed honor status, was worthy, was a social equal (a she most unlikely)], wealth, fame, and honor. Friends so described are implicit in the New Commandment verses; a class/honor consciousness was present in the selection of friends.
One is tempted to call the new commandment of love the anti-commandment or the commandment of alienation, and to re-title John's Gospel of Love in a similar fashion. One further gets the impression that John (Jn) misinterpreted the O.T. precedents (Dt 6:5; Lv 19:18-19). Jn reduced the scope of the Great Commandment, "to love," in a way that all but undermined the intention of the historical Jesus (cf. Mk 12:28-34; Mt 22:34-40; Lk 10:25-28).
Jn's subversive sectarianism had a dark side. Let us love one another, it said, but not the world. This attitude toward outsiders (let alone enemies) was manifested in the Jn community as mistrust and even bitterness. It is hard to imagine the real Jesus calling the Jews children of the devil, denying their descent from Abraham and even from God (8:31-47). The outsider was dehumanized, characterized as inferior and demonic.
Communal solidarity against persecution was engendered, true, but it also had the potential for reverse hostility toward the out-group. A groundwork for violence was thus laid such that, given the opportunity, the oppressed could simply have exchanged places with their oppressors and continued the pattern of persecution in reverse. If love could not be extended to oppressors, they would possibly never know of any other way of existence. Worst of all, a merely sectarian love ran the risk of creating new oppressors. The word that liberates the world is "love your neighbor as yourself". (Rensberger, 110-31). Even more liberating, one should say "love your neighbor as the synoptic Jesus loves you."
As stated in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus the Galilean is the heroic outcast, the ultimate radical independent loaner, an itinerant teacher of truth, one totally in control of his destiny, and one on a mission. He was from God, he would return to God, he was in and of God before all creation and forever, he was the Messiah, the Christ, who offered salvation for all. This identity and his work led to his death, at the hands of the orthodox Jewish religious abetted by the Roman political establishment, and his glorification (in the words of the gospel). His followers, mostly Jews, emulated him, forming a community similarly radical and independent, in time suffering alienation, at least partially self-inflicted, from mainline religion and society, and were ultimately oppressed because of it. There was great spiritual solidarity between Jesus and the Jn community, and community holiness grew remedially in response to oppression by society. In parallel, the higher the community spiritually, i.e., Christology, developed, the greater was their alienation, isolation and oppression vis-à-vis society. The instability is noted; in-/out-group tensions never really abated.
The Jesus in Jn was one whose alienation from the world was identical in kind to that of his oppressed disciples and the Jn community. They related to him intimately and had hope in him. He validated their worth against the contempt of their oppressors, assuring them that they belonged to God and their way led to God. The danger was that the solidarity, through exercise of the inwardly directed Jn love ethic, would promote further marginalization and oppression.
There is an affinity for Jesus Christ and his Jn community within modern day marginalized groups, e.g., blacks, native ethnics, aliens, or any helpless, powerless people (modern day anawim). The model of the Jn community with Christ as its center offers hope for a saving, sovereign God over the oppressive sovereignty of world orders (states, religions, economies, etc.).
Howard-Brook (456) comments on Jesus' appearance to the disciples in hiding following his resurrection (20:19b). He describes how it is for all gatherings of oppressed peoples who shake in fear of authorities. "Somehow, despite all of our cowering, all of our attempts to insulate ourselves from the brunt of police-state threats and violence, Jesus is present in the midst of community, offering the gift of peace. It is not a matter of passing through locked doors of a room, but of prayerfully opening the locked doors of our hearts, that allows the community to perceive the presence of the Risen One.
i. Sectarianism-Forgiveness of Sins
The forgiveness or retention of sins passage, 20:23, differs substantially from Mt 18:18. Here are three takes on the Jn passage:
(1) Howard-Brook (458): "Jn speaks of a community reality that is essential to their living out of the love commandment (13:34; 15:12). It does not convey authority or responsibility, but reminds the community of what life together is about. If they hold on to the sins of each other, then they will indeed remain focused on sin. But, if they are able to let go, then they will be able to move together as Jesus has encouraged them to do." It also requires acknowledgement of the existence of sin.The three agree 20:23 is empowering of the Jn community, but they have their own take on identities of offender and offended: (1) addresses only sins within community (in-group); (2) addresses only sins against community from without; and (3) addresses anyone's sin against the world, not just community (an assertion). The weight of opinion rests on a parochial, communal, introversive, protective, exclusive application of the ethic of sin-forgiveness or -retention. (2) Malina (280): "Jesus explicitly corroborates his disciples in their choice to forgive or not forgive offenses against their in-group, Jn's antisociety." (3) Rensberger (144): ".quoting Takashi Onuki, "The task of forgiving or retaining sins is given to the community by the risen Jesus.and is oriented, not to community members only, but to 'anyone'." By this Onuki means everyone, not just Israel." While Rensberger/Onuki do not state who is sinned against, one can assert everyone, the world, and not just those in community.
Rensberger, in his section on "Sectarianism-Hazards to Ecumenism" (139-41), writes regarding Christian-Jewish relations: "Jesus gives little encouragement to Christians and Jews seeking calm and open dialog with one another. It is a fact that Jn Christianity arose from the persecution of one group of Jews by another because of their confession of Jesus. History has long since passed that situation by; and for this very reason we must frankly declare that the gospel of Jn is of no use in attempting to establish, or reestablish, Christian-Jewish relationships today."
Regarding Christian interfaith relations, Rensberger writes: ".Jn's sharply sectarian sense of isolation and his dogmatic insistence on right confession of Jesus poses problems. (its) Christological dogma did in fact lead it to dissension with other Christian groups. Jn's introverted sectarianism yields a poor model for those seeking rapprochement among the various forms of contemporary Christianity."
After a number of years of involvement in ecumenical activities, I can attest to the difficulties with insularity cited above within the Catholic community. In this period, after dozens of attempts to contact Catholic pastors for discussions on ecumenical matters, I can count on one hand the number of times I've actually spoken with a pastor! Ecumenism may be church policy, may even be practiced at high levels, but when one cannot accomplish a telephone conversation with a pastor on the subject, one can safely judge that ecumenism is simply not a Catholic priority.
a. Perversion of Judicial Practices-Plan to Kill Jesus, Lazarus
Jewish civil leaders-the Council/Sanhedrin-pervert justice in adopting a plan to kill Jesus for the good of the nation (11:47-53) without benefit of trial, witnesses, accusers, i.e., without due process (Dt 19:15-19) (Culpepper, 172-4; Rensberger, 91). This plan was subsequently extended to include the killing of Lazarus as well (12:10), again a perversion of law.
b. Perversion of Justice-Apprehension and Trial
In "criminal" trials involving social equals the purpose was to dishonor the opponent; when involving social inferiors, the purpose was to mete out punishment, to win satisfaction; between social inferiors there were no trials, per se, instead there were accusations and punishments (Malina, 249). In overview, these hearings by the Council (18:12-27) and by Pilate (18:28-19:16) exhibited a lack of concern for justice by the Jews and ultimately a perversion of justice by Pilate (Culpepper, 172-4), both contributing to the Kangaroo Court nature of the proceedings. According to Malina (253-60) it wasn't long into the proceedings before all knew what outcome to expect.there was no pretense of real trial or evidence. It began when Jesus received a dishonorable and insulting blow to the face (18:22). The immorality in the big picture rests on Annas, Caiaphas, Pharisees, and the Temple Police because they delivered Jesus (18:28-19:7) to an unwitting Pilate. Pilate at least initially was merely cooperating in the execution of God's plan (19:9-12); subsequently he appears to have had an agenda vis-à-vis the Jews. Near the end, Pilate and the Jews traded insults-Pilate offered to free a Galilean as "King of Judah" (18:33-19:22) and the Jews demanded release of a social bandit, an enemy of Rome, Barabbas (18:39-40). The insults were not social-justice issues, but were part of a larger political strategy to dishonor political enemies.
The verdict finally rested on two moves by the Jews. The first was an accusation, "We have a law, and according to that law he (Jesus) ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God" (19:7); the charge was blasphemy against Jesus, but the injustice of religious persecution rested on the Jews. The second was coercion by the Jews, "If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor" (19:12), bringing Pilate to heel, i.e., to judge relative to expectations of his patron, Caesar, to whom Pilate owed favors, loyalty, commitment, and probably his whole identity. Pilate got final political satisfaction when the Jews exclaimed "we have no king but the emperor" (19:15), abrogating the kingship of God and forfeiting their covenantal faith and history. Ultimately Jesus was condemned by the Roman civil authority on false charges, but, in depth, true in Jn's typically construct.
c. Perversion of Justice-Crucifixion
Jesus was crucified by the Romans (19:17-42). The whole practice was a social-justice nightmare with extensive and horrific acts of cruelty to and inhuman treatment of individuals, even if they were guilty as charged. For a graphic description, see Malina, 263-4.
Pilate's efforts to atone for his concessions to the Jews are seen (Culpepper, 143) in the title he set on Jesus' crucifix, the permission he gave to hasten deaths of the victims, and the approval he gave for a proper burial of Jesus.
d. The Redemption of Peter
Peter was an unwitting foil in Jn. Peter's staunch defense of Jesus (18:10) hashim attacking Malchus the servant (hitherto unidentified) rather than the more worthy police, Pharisees, or soldiers. Peter rose to the occasion, and not finding a dog to kick, struck a blow to the servant who was probably not armed. Peter was a trouper! Subsequent to this, Peter denied Jesus three times (18:12-27), revealing himself to be without honor even vis-à-vis a maid, a slave, or the crowd, all socially "below" his status. He lacked loyalty and character (Malina, 250-4; Culpepper, 175). One is tempted to say Jesus himself was a poor judge of character in his selection of personnel; but of course in Jn everything had (at least one) purpose and meaning, however obscure.
If the "Jn" who wrote Chapters 1-20 (certainly Jn 2-20) were to read Jn 21 he would be allowed to make an accusation of forgery. The style of Jn 21is similar but its content has a new perspective, specifically toward Peter. In Jn 1-20, Peter is depicted as possessing a kind of innocence, but moreso as being a dolt of no particular promise. One is led to question why Jesus picked such a one, as he did in the synoptic gospels, to lead his flock after his departure. In addition, Jn 1-20 suggests a community of Jn Christians in late 1st C CE having no particular affinity for gradations or classes of community membership or leadership.
Jn 21 seems contrived to accomplish the redemption of Peter. We witness the creation of a profile of leadership (21:2-3, 7, 9, 11, 15-22), a "cover" (to some), a whitewash job (to others), making Peter recognizable to the Jn community, if not acceptable to it, in his synoptic role. After 20 chapters of development of an idealistic, egalitarian, love (agape) your brother community, the Jn community was confronted finally, in Jn 21, with a fact of life for the Christian community-there would be leadership, there would be hierarchy, there would be institution, there would be law (!).
Why is this a social justice issue? Because the justice of law in institution was and is not the justice of love in Christianity. The painful and stifling experiences of institutional injustice over 20 centuries of church history, continuing to this day, weigh heavily on the message of 20 chapters of Jn.
e. Fear of the Jews/Romans
Following the crucifixion and burial, another issue presented itself that terrified the poor disciples. "They stole the body, we do not know where they took it" (20:1-2). In the meaning of the empty tomb is explained the new and immediate fear of the disciples vis-à-vis the Jews/Romans. If the disciples were suspected of body-snatching, a Roman capital offense, major punishment could ensue for the perpetrators, probably death. The language of 20:1-2 is typical in-group and out-group boundary marking. No one is innocent, the boundary is sustained, and the alienation and ostracism continue. (Malina, 282). (Following confirmation of the resurrection, it is not known whether this issue developed further.)
The disciples holed-up secretly behind locked doors for "fear of the Jews" (20:19). This is an interesting Jn irony in that fear is manifested in a secret room lock-in rather than the former synagogue expulsion/lock-out. A further twist is noted in the former closet Christians (Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) moving bravely and openly to express their relationship with Jesus in his burial at a time when the disciples were in hiding.
The Jews claimed lineage from Abraham and disclaimed ever having been slaves, even though of course Jews were slaves in Egypt. Jesus responded that sin is the slave-state to be concerned about (8:33-34). The Jews rejected slavery as a social class for Jews, although they themselves kept slaves.
Servants, a marginal lower class, were a fact of life in the social fabric of the Mediterranean world. The servants at Cana (2:9) had inside knowledge that the water had become good wine, suggesting a hint of social justice reconciliation for their marginal status. The Jn community similarly was composed of the marginalized of society, and had its own insight regarding the divinity of Jesus, which was in its favor in its struggles with Jewish society and even the apostolic church.
According to Malina (220), footwashing, culturally, was an honor practice between people of equal status on hosted social occasions, but was actually performed by a person of lower status, e.g., a servant, for a person of higher status. When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples (13:1-20), Peter was astonished that Jesus would assume this role. The fact of a lower servant class is thus demonstrated, and the keeping of servants was common practice at the time.
g. Inclusive Language
Evaluating inclusivity in language I stumbled on an interesting quandary. First, the NRSV, e.g., in Jn 6, is inclusive: "whoever" (6:35), "anyone" (6:37), "all" and "them" (6:40), "all" and "everyone" (6:45), "whoever" (6:47-51), "whoever" (6:57), etc. In Malina, the language for this section is not inclusive, but is literally closer to original Greek (I'm told). One notes, therefore, that the use of inclusive language in modern scriptural texts incorporates words and thus meanings that are not present in source manuscripts. The readings become politically correct, true, but the materiality of scripture is changed. Critical readers must be informed that there is an accommodation in the text that may influence an objective assessment. (My HarperCollins NRSV study bible notes simply on the bottom of page xvii, when speaking about inclusivity: "In addition, it avoids language that might inappropriately suggest limits of gender.") Use of inclusive language is certainly the Christian way, but the fact should be caveated clearly to readers that the scriptures were created by men for men.
Jn presented themes to nurture the faith life of his community. The Jn community was in conflict with Jewish society/synagogue (9:22; 12:42; 16:2) because of Jn community's attack on the "elect" concept of Jewish provenance, e.g., by appealing to and attracting the oppressed (e.g., Samaritans). Jn polemic against the synagogue and its leaders led to Jn community isolation and sectarianism, strengthened its resolve to persevere, to spread the good news, and to not fear opposition. Finally the Jn community maintained its support of the poor, caring for the most marginalized with money. Jn's gospel from beginning to end deals with the oppressed. Jesus was "at home" with the marginalized. (Karris, 102-107)
In reflecting on the meaning of Jn's gospel in our time (14:12), we must realize a need to perform and promote continued work to benefit the marginalized and expect continued persecution for those who do the work. Jesus became the ultimate alienated person, and we should expect alienation if we do his work. The dignity of humanity-men, women, and children-demands it. There is no preferential option for the poor.there is only a clear mandate for the poor!