John in July: God as Outcast (Jn 1)

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This summer I need to buckle down and focus on the Gospel of John in order to prepare for the writing of my dissertation. I decided to take on the discipline of daily blogging in order to force myself to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the Fourth Gospel. The current ambition is to write some brief reflections on each chapter of John for each day of July: July 1st will cover John Chapter 1, July 2nd John Chapter 2, July 3 John 3 and so on. Although I may throw in some random thoughts about the text here and there, I will primarily approach the text through the lens of mimetic theory.

Initially articulated by French anthropologist René Girard, mimetic theory asserts that all desire is imitated (mimetic) and often leads to rivalry, which is mollified by a scapegoat, who receives the blame for the rivalry and its violent potential. Throughout human history, this scapegoat mechanism has served as the foundation of religion, culture and myth (which are the stories we tell ourselves to justify our violence against the innocent scapegoat victim). The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, however, reveal this mechanism to us in various ways and perhaps most clearly in the collective murder of the innocent Jesus of Nazareth, who bears the blame for our rivalry and the brunt of our violence. Through the resurrection of Christ and the witness of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit (the “Advocate”) has been continually revealing to us our complicity in violent scapegoating and thus serving as an advocate for the innocent victims who have been falsely accused by the powers of mimetic violence, often personified as the Satan (the “Accuser”).

I will be looking at how Jesus responds to the human need to blame and how the Gospel itself works to transform the reader by moving her or him out of a blame-bound existence into a life no longer contingent upon victims.

So, John in July…

Chapter One: God as Outcast

The Logos Outcast

The Logos in the Johannine prologue should be understood in light of Lady Wisdom or “Sophia,” who, according to Proverbs 8, existed before creation, was active during creation and continually calls out in the streets, eager to share her many blessings with humanity. The first-century Jewish mystic Philo of Alexandria elaborated on this “Sophia” by clothing her with slightly more Hellenistic garb, giving her a masculine identity, naming him the “Logos” or the “Word” of God and describing him as an intercessor between humanity and God. Though still strict monotheists, the Jewish people of the first century were able to hold enough plurality within the Godhead to make allowance for a divine mediator who was an expression of God but not God in God’s fullness.

The author of John, clearly aware of these meanings, writes a midrash on Genesis 1 when he writes, “In the beginning was the logos and the logos was pros (with, towards, facing, close beside) God…in him was life and the life was the light of all people…The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the kosmon (world).” The Wisdom of God (from Proverbs 8) and the divine mediator (from Philo) was coming into the world to bring wisdom (light) and life to all people.

In this telling of the Creation story, God does not offer life and then withhold wisdom or “knowledge of good and evil;” instead, God seeks to give life and enlightenment to everyone. And in this telling of the Creation story, the humans are not the ones cast out by God; instead, God is the one cast out by humans: “He came to his own and his own rejected him.”

Right away, God takes on the role of the victim, the one who is rejected and cast out. God is the outcast. And those who receive the outcast are given power to become children of God (1:12).

The Passover Lamb (to be Slaughtered) 

The Logos Outcast becomes flesh (sarx) and sets up his booth or tabernacle or sukkah among us. So far, the author has already alluded to the Feast of the Dedication (Hanukkah) with the light imagery and here he alludes to the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) with the booth imagery. Both of these feasts will appear again in the Gospel. Another Jewish festival alluded to in the prologue is the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), which celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17).

The other major Jewish festival that will appear often in the Gospel is the Feast of Passover, perhaps the most important feast in the Fourth Gospel. Scratch the “perhaps.” It is the most important feast in the Fourth Gospel. So why is it not also referenced early on?

Well, though I don’t see a clear reference to the Passover in the prologue itself, the first title given to Jesus after the prologue is “Lamb of God.” After denying that he is the Messiah, Elijah and “the prophet,” John the Baptizer describes the one coming after him, whose sandal he is not worthy to untie. The next day, he sees Jesus coming toward him and says, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” He then shares his testimony about the Spirit affirming Jesus as the Son of God (which was a way of saying “Messiah,” not a way of calling Jesus the second person of the Trinity). And then, wash, rinse, repeat. The next day, John sees Jesus again and says, “Look! The Lamb of God!”

The Lamb of God and the Passover are crucial for understanding the cross, which is perhaps why the author repeats this title, wanting to make sure that the reader is paying attention. Since the Passover and the Lamb will come up again in the Gospel, I will hold off on unpacking their meaning until later.

What do you desire? 

After pointing out the Lamb of God for a second time, two of John’s disciples decide to follow Jesus, who then asks them, “What do you seek?” or “What do you desire?”

“Are you looking for wisdom and life? Power and prestige?”

In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ first question to his disciples (and to us) requires us to reflect on desire and on our desire specifically. For Buddhists, desire or “thirst” (tanha) leads to suffering (dukkha). According to Genesis 3:6, the forbidden tree of knowledge was associated with desire (חמד) and the final commandment of the Decalogue, which sums up all the commandments (according to the rabbis) is “Do not desire (חמד) your neighbor’s stuff.” Do we desire what other people tell us to desire? Do we imitate each other’s desires? Do I have any desires that are truly my own? What am I really looking for? Honor and recognition? Do I want to be like God? Perhaps and that’s not all that bad.

God wants us to be like God. God wants to give us power to be children of God. Athanasius, the Father of Christian Orthodoxy, said, “God became man so that man can become God.” Do I want to be like God in such a way that I’m in rivalry with God, vying for position, and deifying my ego? Or do I want to be like God in such a way that I am in loving intimacy with the self-giving community of God? Desiring to be like God can be the most egotistical and narcissistic desire and yet it can also be the most humbling and self-giving desire…

So what do you desire?

A True Israelite…

After eating the fruit from the forbidden tree, Adam and Eve realize they’re naked and make clothes for themselves out of fig leaves (Gen 3:7). This verse causes many to suggest that the forbidden fruit was itself a fig. We don’t know for sure, but I like the idea. Also, according to legend, the Buddha attained enlightenment under a fig tree. (And after a seven-day juice cleanse, I broke the fast with a delicious fig!)

When God shows up in the garden and asks about the forbidden tree, Adam and Eve start to play the blame game: “It was the woman’s fault! The woman that you gave me!” “It was the serpent’s fault! He tricked me!” Like Adam and Eve, we blame each other, we blame the devil and sometimes we blame God.

So with figs and the human need to blame on our minds, let’s finish John 1 by looking at the Call of Nathanael…

By now, Jesus has added Andrew, Simon Peter (now called Cephas), the Unnamed Disciple (maybe the Beloved?), and Philip to his newly formed posse. Excited about his new rabbi and clearly gifted in evangelizing (as seen in Acts 8:26-40), Philip decides to tell Nathanael about Jesus, saying, “We have found him about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

Nathanael responds, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

(literally: “Out of Nazareth can what good exist?”)

Many commentators like to get Nathanael off the hook by saying that he asks this question because he has read the Scriptures and knows they say nothing about the Messiah coming out of Nazareth. But if that were the case, why wouldn’t he ask, “Can the Messiah come out of Nazareth?” Instead he doesn’t seem to think that anything good or useful or honorable (let alone a Messiah!) can come out of Nazareth. We learn in John 21:2 that Nathanael is from Cana, which is a small town in the Galilee, just like Nazareth. Often, the more similarities there are between individuals or communities the more potential there is for rivalry and animosity. There is no outside evidence of rivalry or animosity between Cana and Nazareth, but Nathanael’s question seems to suggest that some people in Cana did not think too highly of the neighboring town of Nazareth.[1]

One easy way to feel good about ourselves is to put others down. We do this all the time, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I work and study at a theological union, which is a consortium of about eight seminaries; and it is not rare to hear a student from seminary A speak disparagingly about seminary B and say something to the tune of “Can anything good come out of seminary B?”

We do this not only with schools, but also with towns, cities, states, regions, and countries; and history has shown how much we have done this (and continue to do this) with race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, background and so on. This kind of prejudice, I believe, is connected with our need to blame. In a way, we are blaming others for our own self-hate. We put others down so that we can hate ourselves a little less.

I see Nathanael doing this when he asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Now what interests me most is how Jesus (the Logos Outcast) responds to this kind of prejudice, not only as an observer of the prejudice but as its target and victim…

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Look! A true Israelite in whom there is no guile!”

Ok, what is this about? First of all, pay attention to the words Israelite and guile (dolos). The word guile (dolos in the LXX and בְּמִרְמָה in the Hebrew) was used by Isaac to describe what his son Jacob did in stealing his brother Esau’s birthright, the same Jacob who was later named Israel after wrestling with God. However, it is worth noting that the narrator of Genesis disagrees with Isaac and says that Jacob/ Israel is without guile (aplatos in the LXX and תָּם in the Hebrew). So there is tension in the text. Is Jacob a man of guile, as his father Isaac says, or is he a whole, perfect and complete man (as the Hebrew word תָּם suggests), without any guile?

Jesus’ words evoke these passages and perhaps the tension they share.

Nathanael asks, “Where did you get to know me?”

Apparently, Nathanael fancies himself a true Israelite with no guile.

Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Now these words evoke several passages in Scripture: The figs in the Garden of Eden, the false accusers in the apocryphal book of Susanna, Chapter 3 of Zechariah and more. Commentators also like to point out that it was Jewish custom for rabbis to teach and study Torah under fig trees (Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 5:11). So maybe Nathanael was studying Torah under the fig tree when Jesus saw him. Maybe he had some mystical experience, some enlightenment under the fig tree (like the Buddha) that he told no one about. It’s really all guesswork.

Jesus says, slightly more literally, “Before Philip called you under the fig tree, I saw you” (Πρὸ τοῦ σε Φίλιppον φωνῆσαι ὄντα ὑpὸ τὴν συκῆν εἶδόν σε) The word for “before” is a tricky preposition, which we’ve already seen before, in the first verse of the Gospel: pros. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was pros God…” It means many different things depending on the context and the cases of the surrounding Greek words. Obviously, we don’t say, “The Word was (temporally) before God.” That wouldn’t make sense. But we do say “Before Philip called you…”

I am wondering if we could read this pros as a spatial preposition rather than a temporal preposition. So instead, Jesus says, “In the place where Philip called you, under the fig tree, I saw you.” In other words, “When Philip told me about you, I saw you. I also heard you say, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ That’s how I know you are someone who is honest about his prejudice, someone who says what is on his mind, who doesn’t hold back. You are someone who is not afraid to argue, to put up a fight, to wrestle with God, like a true Israelite. You’re not trying to cover anything up. You don’t need fig leaves. You are upfront about your prejudice, your doubts and insecurities. You are open about your need to blame others for your own self-hate. You are naked before God. I can work with you.” (See Naked Before God by Bill Williams).

Jesus says all this and more. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the reference to the Garden in Genesis and didn’t even begin to unpack the references to Susanna and Zechariah 3, which are jam-packed with meaning. I’ll have to save all that for the dissertation…

Based on this brief exchange, which overflows with meaning for Nathanael (and for us, if we pay attention), Nathanael is convinced: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

Jesus seems a little taken back by how quickly Nathanael has changed his attitude towards Jesus.[2] He says, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”

If my response to your prejudice has blown you away, just wait. Wait and see how I will respond to everything else that will be thrown at me. I responded to your prejudice by showing you my appreciation for your honesty and emboldening you to stay honest and naked before God. Watch how I respond to the violence of Rome.

And he said to him, “Amen Amen (the first of Jesus’ double Amens), you all will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Remember the reference to Jacob/Israel? Here is another one: a reference to Bethel, where Jacob had a dream of a ladder (κλίμαξ in LXX and סֻלָּם֙ in Hebrew) upon which angels of God ascended and descended. Here, Jesus is saying he is the ladder. The angels will be ascending and descending upon him. He is the bridge between God and humanity, the divine mediator, the Sophia wisdom, the Logos. The one whom the world casts out, the Passover lamb who is slaughtered and the victim of Nathanael’s prejudice is the same One who bridges heaven and earth.

James Alison writes, “Here at the very beginning of his public ministry, Jesus explains to a group of witnesses what will be the centerpoint of their experience…by accompanying him they will learn to see heaven open and angels ascending and descending on Jesus. His whole project for them is explained in this line…The opening of heaven will be the making accessible of the Father who knows not death and the presence of Jesus as risen victim, by means of whom heaven stands open and there begins that flux of heavenly riches and abundance for those who perceive him as the access to the Father.”[3]

So much more to be explore, but that’s a good note to end on. Looking forward to swimming in the flux of heavenly riches and abundance this July with the Gospel of John…

 

[1] James Alison says, “This Nathanael was a good Israelite, a little grumpy, half incredulous, to judge by his few words” Raising Abel, 78.

[2] “Jesus is surprised to be so easily recognized and tells him that he will see greater things yet” Alison, Abel, 78.

[3] Alison, Abel, 78 – 79.

 

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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