John in July: Failing to Nail God Down but Finding a Sermon and a Light (Jn 7)

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Trying to Nail God Down

The first chapter of John alludes to the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) (1:14), the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) (1:5), and the Feast of the Passover (1:29, 36).

These festivals show up throughout the Gospel in the following order:

1) Passover (2:13, 23): Jesus cleanses the temple

2) Unnamed Festival (4:45; 5:1): Jesus heals ill man at Bethesda

3) Passover (6:4): Jesus feeds the 5,000, walks on water and says, “Eat me”

4) Tabernacles (7:2): Jesus debates with Jews in the temple

5) Dedication (10:22): Jesus debates with Jews some more

6) Passover (11:55…): Jesus debates and dies

The festivals do not seem to line up as well as the seven signs (changing water into wine, healing royal official’s son, healing at Bethesda, feeding five thousand, walking on water, healing man born blind, raising Lazarus) and the seven “I am” statements (Bread of Life, Light of the World, Gate for the Shepherd, Good Shepherd, Resurrection and Life, True Vine, the Way and the Truth and the Life). Even if I were to decrease the signs and statements to six (by combining two into one) they still would not coincide well with the Jewish festivals. I can see why so many scholars have tried to rearrange the Gospel so that it fits better into a cleaner pattern. It actually seems like the author was trying to create a magnificent pattern of signs, statements and festivals, but couldn’t quite make it all fit together.

Or perhaps the author is trying to challenge our need for patterns by deconstructing its own categories. The Gospel seems to initially tease the reader with some patterns and cohesion, explicitly pointing out the first sign (2:11) and the second sign (4:54) and alluding to Jewish festivals in the first chapter. Soon the author stops holding the reader’s hand, inviting the reader to follow the pattern of the festivals, signs and statements in the Gospel. But I really think the patterns fall apart, thus compelling many readers (including me) to try fixing the author’s literary structure. This attempt to fix John ultimately seems futile to me. Just like Jesus in John, the Gospel itself refuses to fit within our ready-made categories and structures. Perhaps.

At the same time, I think it is important to keep ours eyes open to patterns, which can be elucidating. Yet when the Gospel resists and refuses to fit within our categories and structures, will we reject it as too difficult or will we say with Peter, “Where else can we go? You alone have the words of eternal life” (6:68). By letting go of our need to fit the Gospel and the Johannine Jesus within the strait jacket of our ready-made structures and categories, we may begin to see what we were intended to see.

In chapter 2, the mother of Jesus attempts to tell her son what to do when the wedding runs out of wine. Jesus resists her: “Why does this concern me?” It’s like me saying, “Hey John! You’ve run out of Jewish festivals! You need one more to keep the pattern of sevens going for ya!”

Why does this concern me? I am not restricted by your categories.

When his mother lets go and lets him do his own thing in his own time saying to the servants “Do whatever he tells you” (2:5), then Jesus reveals his glory by changing water into the finest wine.

The invitation is to let the Gospel speak in its own way on its own terms.

At the same time, the Gospel and the Johannine Jesus are not devoid of real and well-structured patterns. Honestly, I think the Gospel and the Johannine Jesus invite us to see the structures and to see God within the structures. They invite us to see God limiting himself to our structures in order to draw us in and then to eventually let go of those structures, admitting that God cannot fit in any of our boxes.

We see this perhaps most dramatically at the cross where we try to nail God down and God lets us nail Him down for a little bit, but then He deconstructs our categories by resisting the ultimate limitation (death) through the resurrection.

Jesus’ brothers try to nail him down when they say, “Go to Judea and make yourself known to the world.” In other words, “If you really want to be a star, go to Hollywood. You’ll never make a name for yourself here in Podunk.” The author comments that “not even his brothers believed in him.” Clearly, his brothers see him as a small time rabbi who has some real gifts, but needs a manager to help him make the big time.

Jesus resists the claws of their categories by saying “I will never make the big time in the sense you’re speaking of. In fact, the world hates me. I am not going to this festival” (7:8).

Once again, the Gospel and the Johannine Jesus baffle the reader with this apparent contradiction:

Jesus said, “I am not going to this festival” (7:8)

After his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went (7:10)

John’s Sermon on the Mount?

Now the Gospel of John seems to ridicule those who take Jesus’ words literally (Nicodemus on being born again, Samaritan woman on living water, etc.), but here it really looks like Jesus is flat out doing exactly what he says he was not going to do. It reminds me of the parable of the two sons in Matthew 21 in which a man tells his sons to go and work the vineyard. The son who did the will of the father was the one who says, “I will not” but then later changes his mind and goes (Matt 21:29). Is this John’s commentary on the parable? Or John’s creative and somewhat esoteric way of saying Jesus is doing the will of the Father? This might make sense because, after all, he is with his brothers who never actually say that they are going to the festival, but then go. Maybe…

I think this is a fascinating idea because when I read through John 7, I am reminded often of Matthew’s Gospel.

So, at the beginning of chapter 7, does John tell his version of the parable of the two sons by making Jesus the son who does the will of the father? Is Jesus in John a character in a parable told by Jesus in Matthew?

When Jesus teaches at the festival he begins by talking about “the will of God”: “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether [my] teaching is from God [because I am the son who does the will of the Father]” (7:17)

And the next verse contrasts those who seek their own glory with those who seek the glory of God (“Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true” 7:18), a contrast which Jesus also stresses in the Sermon on the Mount: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven…but your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:1, 4). Compare that to John 7:10 which says “Jesus also went, not publicly but in secret.

And then he talks about the correct way to interpret the law, linking anger with murder (Jn 7:19-23) as he does when he begins to make a fence around the Torah in Matthew 5: 21-22.

And then in John, he says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” which could be the Johannine version of Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”

In Matthew 7:7, Jesus says, “Seek and you will find” but in John 7: 34, Jesus says, “You will seek me but you will not find me.”

On the last day of the festival, the great day, Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” Margaret Barker writes, “Although the original festival had been extended from seven to eight days (Lev 23:39), the great day was probably the seventh, when there was a longer and more elaborate procession carrying willow branches around the great altar [Mishnah Sukkah 4.5]. There was also the procession bringing water from Siloam and the libation, and it is in this setting that Jesus proclaims: ‘If anyone thirsts…’” (Barker, 265). Jesus then (supposedly) quotes Scripture saying, “As the Scriptures say, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (7:38), but what Scriptures is he quoting here? I’m not sure. Psalm 36:7? Ben Sira 24:1-34? Ezek 47:1-12? Zech 14:8? I personally like the idea of him referencing Amos 5:24 “Let justice roll down like waters, And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” I like this because of the preceding verses, which criticize the festivals:

“I hate, I despise your festivals,

and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them;

And the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals

I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,

And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24)

That would be quite a bold thing to say on the “great day” of one of the greatest Jewish festivals. But I’m still not sure exactly which Scripture he is referencing here.

I don’t really see how these lines connect well with the Sermon on the Mount or Matthew in general. Maybe it’s John’s way of saying “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). Maybe it’s John’s way of talking about bearing good fruit (Matt 7:15-20).

Or….

Maybe its John’s way of saying “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled” (Matt 5:6). Is this John’s version of a Matthean Beatitude?

I have to ask…

Are Jesus’ teachings in Chapter 7 John’s version of the Sermon on the Mount?

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is structured (roughly) like this:

-Beatitudes

-Law

-Acts of Piety

-Don’t Judge

-Seek and you will find

-Contrasting Parables

-Crowd astounded

The “Sermon on the Mount” in John is structured (even more roughly) like this:

-Contrasting Parable (Jesus and brothers)

-Crowd astounded

-Acts of Piety

-Law

-Don’t Judge

-Seek and you won’t find

-Beatitude?

The similarities between Matthew and John 7 are a little too many to be ignored, but how does this help illumine John? And how does this give insight to my question about how Jesus responds to the human need to blame?

If John 7 is John’s version of Matthean teachings, why does he present them in such a way?

A Light in Galilee

I still can’t pin him down.

And neither can the chief priests and Pharisees. They want him arrested. And they think that the people listening to Jesus are cursed.

Our friend Nicodemus then decides to stand up for the soon-to-be scapegoat and is insulted for doing so. He points to the Law as God’s safeguard against violent scapegoating: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”

Once you side with the victim, you better be prepared to be a victim yourself.

“Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.”

I would ask the Pharisees to take a look at Isaiah 9:1-2

“But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined”

This is a clearly a reference to the coming Messiah and “Galilee” is mentioned so it’s at least worth looking at, right?

If we remove the story of the woman caught in adultery, which follows nicely after Nicodemus standing for the victim but is not included in most ancient manuscripts, we read about Jesus basically referencing the very text I suggested: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (8:12)

“He will make glorious Galilee of the nations…The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined”

Search and you will see that a light will shine in Galilee…

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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