In defence of Thomas: a doubting sceptic? or a passionate firebrand? (John 20; Easter 2A)

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday provides the name by which this Sunday is often known in church tradition: it is Thomas Sunday. (The reading is John 20:19-31.)

We all know about Thomas: he had to have proof … had to see with his own eyes … had to touch to know it was real … did not have faith without tangible proof. Thomas often gets a bad rap: oh he of little faith! … why did he not believe straight away, like the others who followed Jesus? … why was he in the thrall of doubt at precisely the time that faith was called for?

Thomas wants to pin the matter down, to have the evidence produced, to know without question what has taken place. We remember him from this story, as the doubting sceptic.

Let us reflect a little on this: Thomas was not alone. All the other early witnesses, followers, and writers, in the movement of people clustered around Jesus, had the same need to pin the matter down. There were many sceptics in this movement. They needed some form of proof. They looked for evidence. They sought signs that would validate the new way that Jesus was in their midst.

The endings of the Gospels testify to this. The earliest Gospel ended with an open narrative, hanging on those words: the tomb is empty — he is not here! (See https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/04/21/the-tomb-is-empty-he-is-not-here-he-is-risen/)

Subsequent compilers of the narrative about Jesus could not live with the uncertainty of an open-ended story, with an absent Jesus who would appear only in a distant, remote, unimportant location (Galilee). No; they had to have him come to the women, the travellers, even the inner core of disciples, in or near to Jerusalem. Indeed, Luke explicitly reports that the risen Jesus provided them with “many convincing proofs” after his resurrection (Acts 1:3).

Thomas, of course, is the disciple whom we most closely associate with doubt, not with faith, derived from this very report of his encounter with the risen Jesus. “Unless I see, I will not believe”, the sceptic Thomas says, in John 20. “Unless I can put my finger in the mark in the side of my master, I will not believe that he has risen”, declares Thomas.

And in the modern scientific era, where we operate by testing, questioning, doubting, and seeking to prove hypotheses, this kind of approach has a certain attractiveness. For some Christians in the present time, in the period of probing scientific hypotheses and seeking historical certainties, Thomas has become a kind of patron saint—a saint of doubting, questioning, and proving. “Unless I see, I will not believe” is the mantra of such a saint.

But Thomas appears in two other places in John’s Gospel. One is at the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers, when Thomas asks Jesus a question: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” This question provokes one of the most well-known sayings of Jesus: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:5-7). It is thanks to Thomas that we have this saying of Jesus!

The other time that Thomas is mentioned in this Gospel provides us with another insight into the character of Thomas. He appears early on, in the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, as told in chapter 11 of John’s Gospel. In that story, we encounter a rather different Thomas. In that incident, Thomas was a man on a mission who was filled with faith. He spoke with Jesus with the intensity of a fervent believer. He declared that he was prepared to follow Jesus, whatever it cost him.

Faced with a request to travel to Bethany, near Jerusalem, because of the death of Lazarus, Jesus and his followers discuss whether they should make this trip. John’s Gospel tells us that the message of Jesus was so provocative to the southerners in Judea, that they had already mounted a number of attempts to stone him (John 8:59, 10:31).

So the disciples were convinced that if Jesus travelled close to Jerusalem, he would be walking to his death. What to do, they wonder, when this urgent message comes from friends in Bethany: “Lazarus is dead; please come; we need you here!” (John 11:1-8).

At that moment, Thomas springs into action. There is no doubt about it, he declares:  Jesus needs to go there; and the disciples need to go with him. “We need to get moving! Come on, why are we waiting?” And from the mouth of Thomas come these incredible words: “We should go too, and die with him” (John 11:16).

Thomas utters the excitable words of a zealous follower of Jesus; he gives a fervent declaration of commitment and trust in the one who had been his guide for many months now. Thomas was not paralysed by fear, not distressed by doubt; here, Thomas was fired up by faith, and committed to a journey that could well lead to death. If Jesus, our master, is going to die—then we, too, should be prepared to die with him! (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/23/yes-lord-i-believe-even-in-the-midst-of-all-of-this-john-11/)

This portrayal of Thomas as a committed follower, as a passionate firebrand, is not how we normally remember him, because the story from chapter 20 of the Gospel holds sway. Yet in this earlier story in chapter 11 of the Gospel, it is clear that Thomas has faith, even if it is somewhat unusual, and it is abundantly clear that he is prepared to put his life on the line for what he believes.

So, perhaps we should place this Thomas, the passionate firebrand of John 11, alongside the hesitating, doubting figure that we imagine him to be like, courtesy of John 20. Where are the signs of this passionate, committed, fervent, zealous man of faith, in this encounter? Where was the fiery partisan Thomas living out his faith in the risen Jesus?

I like to imagine (and it is only an imagination … a speculation … as the biblical txt is silent on this point) … I like to imagine that, as the disciples gather behind locked doors, paralysed by their fear, Thomas was not to be found in their midst, because he was back into his regular life, living out his faith in the public arena.

Even after Jesus had been raised from the dead, the transformation of Easter, as we know it, had not really kicked in for the disciples. They were locked into their fear. Where were the disciples living out their faith? It seems they took the line of least resistance, and shared their faith only in the safety of their own group, hidden away, safe in the seclusion of a private home.

And where was Thomas? He was not there. He was out beyond the locked doors, out in the community, in the full gaze of the antagonistic authorities. What was he doing? We are not told; we have to imagine.

Is it feasible to imagine that Thomas was back into his regular routine, going about his business, attending to his daily tasks? That he was seeking to live out his faith, not cowed by the threat of persecution, but firmly holding fast to his belief in Jesus in public? That he was continuing to live as that fiery, fanatical believer who was still willing to put his faith on the line? It is a tempting, enticing way to imagine him.

If Thomas was really the passionately committed believer whom we met in the Lazarus story, then it is quite plausible that this is why he was not with the other disciples, behind locked doors, hiding out of fear.

Perhaps Thomas was wanting to demonstrate his faith to those who did not yet believe. Something had happened to Jesus—the tomb was empty, believers were testifying that he was risen—so he was wanting to show others that his faith had not been shattered.

Where was Thomas living out his faith? In his everyday life, amidst acquaintances and friends—and even enemies. Now that is a model that we would do well to ponder, and imitate, in our lives!

(The image is of Saint Thomas, by Georges de La Tour, a French painter of the 17th century.)

See also

Reading scripture with attention to its context (John 11, Year A)

The lectionary has offered us a series of readings during Lent which show Jesus encountering and conversing with others (John 3, 4, 9, and 11). The anonymous author of the Gospel of John had high-level literary and dramatic skills. The lectionary has very clearly demonstrated this in the series of readings offered in weeks 2–5 of Lent.

The Pharisee in Jerusalem (Ch.3) is really a foil who asks leading questions which offer Jesus the opportunity to speak forth at some length for the first time in the Gospel (3:11–21). The woman in Samaria is a genuine dialogue partner for Jesus who learns through the back-and-forth of their conversation about a number of matters (4:7–26). The story of the man born blind (9:1–41) is presented as a seven-part comedic drama, illustrating the “light of the world” claim of Jesus (8:12; 9:5) and showing how people respond in varied ways to that.

Then, the story of Lazarus (11:1–45) is a complex dramatic moment, a story with its own integrity and form, with a range of characters and varied dramatic moments. This story also serves as the seventh and final sign in the Gospel; these signs commenced at 2:1–11 and are interspersed throughout the ensuing narrative (4:46–54; 5:1–9; 6:1–15; 6:16–21; 9:1–7; and 11:38–44). This sign, like others before, has lead many to believe (11:45), but it serves also to confirm the plot of the Sanhedrin leaders to arrest and kill Jesus: the reason for the crucifixion, in this author’s eyes (11:46–53; 11:57; 18:1–12).

All of this is a masterly dramatic development through the first half of this “book of signs”. These stories are certainly worth hearing in full every three years!

These encounters, however, are told in the context of an emerging story which places Jesus into a position of antagonist, arguing and dissenting, disputing and disagreeing, with some regularity. This thread comes to a head in the story of Martha and Mary, their recently-deceased brother Lazarus, and Jesus (John 11:1–45).

The emergence of Lazarus from the tomb marks a climactic moment, for the family in Bethany and many of their neighbours (11:44–45), but also for the chief priests and Pharisees, who together determine to put Jesus to death (11:53). The seventh sign recounted in this Gospel is the most significant miracle of Jesus, but also the deed that determines the fate of Jesus, for it leads immediately to the plot to arrest Jesus (11:53) and then inevitably to his death at the hands of the Romans (19:30).

Soon after he has raised Lazarus back to life in Bethany, Jesus says, “I have come to this hour” (12:27), the hour when “I am lifted up from the earth, [when I] will draw all people to myself” (12:32), the hour when the Father will “glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you” (17:1). The death of Jesus is to be, paradoxically, the complete fulfilment of his mission (19:30). Its inevitability has been flagged since early in the Gospel narrative.

Antagonism begins early in that narrative. It is initially signalled by “the incident in the Temple” (John 2:13–22). In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus tells the Pharisee, “we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (3:11–12). The plural form of the Greek word translated “you” makes it clear that the “you” being addressed is at least the collective Sanhedrin Council, if not the whole population of Judea. It is an oppositional, confrontational encounter at this point.

In talking with the Samaritan woman, Jesus reflects the historical antagonism between the Judeans of the south and those of the north. “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem”, the woman says to Jesus (4:20). Jesus replies, pugnacious oh, “you worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (4:22). The use of the plural “you” once again in these verses makes clear the antagonism between the peoples, especially if we translate that final phrase, “salvation is from the Judeans”.

When Jesus heals a man born blind, the Jewish authorities function as the chorus reflecting on, and reacting to, the events taking place in Jerusalem. First, some Pharisees declare, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath” (9:16). Then, they declare to the healed man, “we know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from” (9:29).

Their view of Jesus is quite negative— in an earlier debate with him, they had called him “a Samaritan and have a demon” (8:48), and that encounter ends, “they picked up stones to throw at him” (8:59). Mind you, Jesus had said to them, “you are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires” (8:44), so it was a vigorous two-way argument!

So Jesus responds to the negativity of the Jewish authorities who questioned his credentials after learning of the healing of the man born blind, with a statement, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (9:39), followed by, “if you were blind, you would not have sin; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (9:41). This encounter ends, yet again, on a negative note.

Then, after Jesus has raised Lazarus back to life, the Jewish authorities decide to make their move. Worried that, “if we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (11:48), Caiaphas leads with these prophetic words: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (11:50). And so, “from that day on they planned to put him to death” (11:53).

Jesus is clearly aware of this antagonism; he later warns his disciples, “the world hates you” (15:19), and then, “they will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God” (16:2). And of course, the narrative of the Gospel ends with Jesus handed over to die by crucifixion (18:28). We need to think carefully about how we interpret this antagonism.

*****

Was the world an evil place, in the sway of the devil, which would inevitably turn against Jesus? But what, then, of the claim that God sent Jesus because he “so loved the world” (3:16)? How are we to see the relationship between Jesus and “the world”?

Of course, it needs to be said that none of these scenes offered by the lectionary—nor any of the intervening scenes in this Gospel—come as eyewitness (or rather, earwitness) accounts of what actually happened in a real, historical encounter. Of none of the scenes can we say with certainty that they actually occurred, let alone that the dialogue recorded by the author of the book of signs was what was actually said. These scenes are all literary creations, perhaps based on a report of an encounter that took place, but most certainly elaborated and developed over a period of time, worked into a narrative that catches attention, invites reflection, and has a life all of its own.

“John” wrote his book of signs some 50 to 80 years after the lifetime of Jesus. The account of each of these conversations—at night with Nicodemus, at noon with the woman, in Jerusalem with the authorities, and then the encounter in Bethany and the council meeting in Jerusalem—are thus far removed from each of these events. (How could we possibly claim to know verbatim what was said in a Sanhedrin meeting in the early 30s CE? — especially since the High Priest articulates a central tenet of later Christian doctrine!).

I recently read a comment that said, “The television show MASH was set during the Korean War but was about the Vietnan War. While the framework was faithful to the earlier conflict with regard to combatants, equipment, etc., the issues selected reflected Vietnam: distrust of authority, questioning blind patriotism, the need to get around the rules, the effort to ‘get out of this place’, the cynicism-based humor.”

Similarly, John tells a story set in the the time of Jesus; but this period is seen through the lens of the division of Christians and Jews that has eventuated and the heartache that comes when there’s a separation. I think that’s a helpful analogy. The later situation, when the work is created, is reflected in so many ways, even though the story is set decades earlier. As with MASH, so with John’s Gospel.

The depictions of these encounter scenes in the first half of John’s Gospel are shaped by the events that have taken place over those intervening decades—particularly, the rising antagonism between “messianic Jews” following Jesus, and “rabbinic Jews” adhering to the teachings of their teachers. The antagonism reflects the situation.

John’s Gospel indicates, three times, that followers of Jesus were expelled from the synagogue (9:22; 12:42; 16:1–2). That’s quite a schism! So any negative comments or portrayals of people from years back may well have as much to do with what has transpired in those intervening years, as with the actual event—probably, I think, much more to do with those intervening years than with the conversations and encounters as reported in the book of signs. All of this is basic Gospel interpretation.

The church to which I belong, the Uniting Church in Australia, adopted a Statement on Jews and Judaism in 2009 (I was on the working group that developed initial material for this) which offered guidance about our theology, exegesis, and preaching. It is in the same vein as many other statements issued by various enlightened denominations around the world, ever since the lead was taken by the Roman Catholic Church in promulgating Nostra Aetate in 1965.

(I published an analysis of these statements as “Christians relating to Jews: key issues in public statements”, Journal of Ecumenical Studies 44/2, 2009, 180–202.)

Nostra Aetate covered important new ground: it repudiated the centuries-old “deicide” charge against all Jews, stressed the religious bond shared by Jews and Catholics, reaffirmed the eternal covenant between God and the People of Israel, and dismissed church interest in trying to baptize Jews. It called for Catholics and Jews to engage in friendly dialogue and biblical and theological discussions to better understand each other’s faith. Many other Christian denominations have followed suit in the decades since.

The 2009 Uniting Church Statement declares that “The Uniting Church acknowledges with repentance a history of interpretation of New Testament texts which has often failed to appreciate the context from which these texts emerged, viz. the growing separation of Christianity and Judaism with attendant bitterness and antagonism, resulting in deeply rooted anti-Jewish misunderstandings” (para. 9).

See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/key-papers-reports/item/1704-jews-and-judaism

That’s a key guiding principle for me, as I read and interpret the Gospels—particularly those attributed to John and Matthew, for these books contain texts which have been grossly and inventively distorted and misused by the Church over many centuries, to fuel the false doctrine of supersessionism and thus the hatred of antisemitism. They do provide evidence for the growing separation between Judaism and Christianity, but they should not be used in a supersessionist way or to fuel antisemitism.

The Uniting Church Statement offers concise definitions of supersessionism (“the belief that Christians have replaced Jews in the love and purpose of God”) and antisemitism (“a term coined in imperial Germany during the 1870s by propagandists who did not wish Jews to enjoy equal rights with Christians. Its true political meaning is ‘I am against the Jews’.”). We should take care not to reflect either of these in our interpretation of scripture. Passages from John’s Gospel, especially, present us with the temptation to be negative about “the Jews”. We need to resist these temptations with all our heart!

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See also

Flesh and bones, spirit and life (Ezek 37, Psalm 130, Rom 8, John 11, Lent 5A)

On the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the scripture passages offered by the lectionary revolve around a central theme: life in contrast to death. It’s not every Sunday that all four passages line up to provide a clear and obvious focus on a single theme. For more than half of the Sundays in the year, the Hebrew Scripture, Epistle, and Gospel each follow their own course, and any overlap of theme is accidental, not planned. For Sundays in Advent, Christmas, and Lent, as well as key days like Pentecost, Trinity, and the Reign of Christ, the thematic overlap is intentional. This week we have just such a Sunday!

Death is at the heart of the story of Lazarus that forms the Gospel passage for Sunday (John 11:1–45). Initially, Jesus is told “he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3), but when he arrives in Bethany, Martha accosts him with “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21)—an accusation repeated by her sister Mary (11:31); and then comes a graphic description provided by Martha as they draw near to the tomb: “already there is a stench because he has been dead four days” (11:39).

The emergence of Lazarus from the tomb marks a climactic moment, for the family in Bethany and many of their neighbours (11:44–45), but also for the chief priests and Pharisees, who together determine to put Jesus to death (11:53). The seventh sign recounted in this Gospel is the most significant miracle of Jesus, but also the deed that determines the fate of Jesus. Soon after this event in Bethany, he says, “I have come to this hour” (12:27), the hour when “I am lifted up from the earth, [when I] will draw all people to myself” (12:32), the hour when the Father will “glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you” (17:1). The death of Jesus is to be, paradoxically, the complete fulfilment of his mission (19:30)—the pathway into life eternal (3:16; 10:28; 17:3).

This climactic movement, of death moving to life in Bethany, resonates with the words of the prophet Ezekiel and also the writings of the apostle Paul that are offered for this coming Sunday. Ezekiel confronts the signs of death: “The Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry” (Ezek 37:1–2). Paul considers the state of humanity: “to set the mind on the flesh is death … the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:6–8).

So, death is in view in these three readings. It is no wonder that the psalm we are offered alongside them speaks a cry of deep despair: “out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” (Ps 130:1). The depths of the earth were the place where sinful people went (Ps 63:9; Isa 14:15), following the lead of the Egyptians who pursued the Israelites and “went down into the depths like a stone” (Exod 5:4–5; Neh 9:11; Isa 63:11–13). There, in the depths, God’s anger burned (Deut 32:22).

However, those banished to the depths were able to be brought back from the depths by God’s decree (Ps 68:22; 71:20; 86:13), so the cry of the psalmist from the depths is followed by the plea, “Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” (Ps 103:2). As the prophet Micah affirms, God’s steadfast love will rescue those who “lick dust like a snake,

like the crawling things of the earth”, and will indeed “cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Mic 7:17, 19). So the psalmist affirms, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (Ps 103:5).

Just as Lazarus emerges from the tomb where his dead body was laid, so Ezekiel foresees a wondrous revival amongst the dead bones of the people of Israel: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord” (Ezek 37:11). The vision he sees emac s that dramatically. Likewise, Paul glimpses that same hope: “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom 8:11).

Both prophet and apostle hold to the hope enacted in the Gospel and articulated by the psalmist: “Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities” (Ps 103:7–8).

*****

Ezekiel was both a prophet and a priest (Ezek 1:3). He had been exiled to Babylon during the siege of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (599 BCE; see 2 Kings 24:10–17). His prophetic activity was thus undertaken entirely in exile. He addresses both those in exile with him in Babylon, and also those left behind in Judah. His prophecies continue through the period when the people in Judah were conquered and taken to join Ezekiel in exile (587 BCE; see 2 Ki 25:1–21), and then for some time after that.

A dramatic vision opens the book, in which “the glory of God” appears in the form of a fiery, flaming chariot (1:4–28). Priestly attention to detail marks the account of this vision, whilst contains multiple allusions to other scriptural stories. The bright cloud and flashing fire evokes the scene on Mount Sinai, when God gave Moses the Law (Exod 19:16–19); the “burning coals of fire” (1:13) remind us of the burning coals in the scene of the call of Isaiah (Isa 6:6); and “the bow in the cloud on a rainy day” evokes the sign of the covenant made with Noah (Gen 9:12–17). In seeing this vision, Ezekiel has had a life-transforming experience!

Ezekiel is impelled to play his role as a prophet by “the hand of the Lord” (1:3; 3:22; 8:1; etc); indeed, he says, “the spirit lifted me up” (3:12). That same spirit continues to lift him up with regularity (8:3; 11:1, 24; 37:1; 43:5) to show him vision after vision. More than this, Ezekiel declares that “the spirit entered me” (3:24), a process which he promises will be experienced by Israel as a whole (36:26–28)—for the Lord says he will “pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel” (39:29).

This emphasis on the renewing spirit of God is seen, most dramatically, by Ezekiel when he is taken by the spirit into “the middle of a valley … full of bones” (37:1) and sees a vision that he conveys in what must be his most famous oracle. What Ezekiel sees in this valley of dry bones is the work of God, as God puts sinews and flesh and skin on the bones, and breathes into the bodies so created, so that they live (37:5–6, 8, 10).

The vision indicates what God will do: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil” (37:14). The end of the exile, it seems, is in sight. This passage is often interpreted in a Christian context as a pointer both to the resurrection of Jesus, and also to the general resurrection; indeed, its appearance on the Fifth Sunday in Lent means that it complements, and indeed illuminates, the dramatic story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life, as he approaches the tomb, and cries in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:38–44).

For Ezekiel, however, this vision is not a far-into-the-future prediction (foretelling), but a word of hope to the people in their immediate situation (forthtelling). Indeed, the very next section of this chapter reports a proclamation of Ezekiel which is quite directly forthtelling. The two sticks that he takes (37:16) stand for Judah and Israel; as he joins the sticks, so he points to the return of these peoples from their exile, their return “to their own land”, and a cleansing which will mean “they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (37:21–23, 27).

That final phrase is a common covenantal affirmation made by God (Lev 26:12; Ruth 1:16; Jer 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; 31:1, 33; 32:38; Ezek 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; Zech 2:11; and Hos 1:10–11, overturning Hos 1:9). The reunited people shall have one king (37:24) and they will observe “an everlasting covenant” (37:26).

So the dramatic story that the prophet Ezekiel reports from his vision set in the middle of a valley full of dry bones is intended to speak directly into the life of the covenant people of God, the people of Israel, offering them hope despite their current circumstances.

*****

Paul also was commissioned for his task through a vision—reported in graphic terms by Luke, who makes the moment into a grand call-and-commissioning scene (Acts 9:3–8; 22:6–11; 26:12–18), but mentioned only briefly, in general terms, in passing by Paul himself (1 Cor 9:1; and perhaps Gal 1:1, 12). Of course, Luke was not present for this event, so he shaped in along the lines of classic call-and-commissioning narratives that existed in earlier Jewish writings. (I have explored this in detail in my commentary on Acts in the Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, 2003).

That vision turned Paul from persecutor of the followers of Jesus to an apostle fervently declaring “the good news of Jesus Christ” as far as possible, “from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum” (Rom 15:19). (Illyricum was a Roman province that covered the coastal area of the Balkans, northwest of Macedonia stretching towards Italy.) Paul delivers this good news in person to many communities, but he sets it out at length in his letter to believers in Rome, which he had not yet visited.

Paul is embued with the same hope that the psalmist and the prophet demonstrate. He rejoices with the Thessalonians that they share with him in “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 1:3), tells the Galatians that “through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly waits for the hope of righteousness” (Gal 5:5), and reminds the Corinthians that “faith, hope and love abide” (1 Cor 13:13). In a subsequent letter to believers in Corinth, he asserts that “he who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to secure us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again” (2 Cor 1:10)

Paul reports to the Romans that “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Rom 4:2) and that it is “in hope that we were saved” (Rom 8:24). He affirms that it is “by steadfastness and the encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope” (Rom 15:4), notes that scripture promises that “the root of Jesses shall come … in him the Gentiles shall hope” (Rom 15:12), and so characterises God as “the God of hope” (Rom 15:13). He shares in that strong hope which is sung by the psalmist and spoken by the prophet, and which is acted out in the Gospel reading for this Sunday.

Perception is everything: a sermon on John 9 (Lent 4A)

This sermon was written and preached by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine at the Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 19 March (the Fourth Sunday in Lent).

*****

The story in John this week reminded me of the play, The One Day of the Year. I don’t know if you know it, but it is about different perceptions of Anzac Day. For Hughie Cook, the son, Anzac Day appeared to be just an excuse for “one long grog-up”. For his father Alf, an ex-servicemen, it was a day to be with your mates. For Wacka, his mate, it was a day when we as a nation reflected on those who had paid with the sacrifice of their lives.

At one point during a heated debate between father and son, Alf points out that Wacka was there at Gallipoli and knew what Anzac was all about. Hughie puts the counter argument that soldiers who took part in the campaign at Gallipoli couldn’t know the full story of the disaster that was Anzac Cove because they only saw part of the whole picture, the part they were involved in. He sees himself as having a full overview, having studied history.

But Hughie’s view that Anzac Day was just “one long grog-up” is also flawed, as this is the only part of the picture Hughie can currently see. He doesn’t see the mateship, or the skill and resourcefulness, or the sense of pride that Alf and Wacka see in the ex-servicemen who ‘hung in there’ on Anzac Cove. And Hughie fails to recognise that the freedom that gives him the right to speak his opinion was a freedom in part won by soldiers like his father, fighting in the jungles of Asia.

These different viewpoints in the play all contributed to the whole picture of what Anzac day is, but none of the parts on their own are the full story. The story today of the healing of the blind man is very similar in its construction.

How often do we fail to grasp the whole picture? Let us do a simple exercise. Look around you. What do you see? Now, look around again, more carefully. What do you now see that you didn’t notice the first time? If I asked to describe the church, the answer would vary depending on whether you were looking at the front or the back, or even relying on your memory. The whole picture can be hard to take in.

We view the world through the lens of our own experience and perceptions. Like Alf and Hughie in the play, we concentrate on some things and take them in, but filter out others that we deem as unimportant or that perhaps we don’t understand or don’t like. We regularly interpret the information we receive, and we each choose different ways to respond to it. The writer Anais Nin was right when she said, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” In effect, often we see only what we choose to see.

We see this happening in the gospel story. As the disciples walk down a village street with Jesus, they saw what they had been taught to see – a man who was being punished by God. They knew something of his story. He had always been blind. Which raised a tough question for them. Did the birth defect mean that he had somehow sinned in the womb, or was he the victim of his parents’ transgression? For the disciples, this was simply an interesting theological question to raise with their teacher, Jesus, but for the man concerned it was a painful reality that he lived every day, and that, it seems, had left him destitute.

We know that his parents were still alive because later in the story they get called in by the religious authorities to testify at the investigation into his healing. But, probably out of fear, they refuse to be drawn in, and simply point out their son is now a grown adult and can answer for himself.

Their presence at this point in the story raises some questions though. If they were alive, and close enough to be called in for questioning, why was this man a beggar? why was he left pleading for the pity of strangers in order to survive? why was he not cared for by his parents?

*****

How then did this man see himself? After a life of being outcast, perhaps from his parents, from his neighbours, from the Temple, how could he have felt anything but shame and despair? how could he possibly even think that he might see something different in himself from what everyone else saw? how could he not accept the wisdom of the crowds and judge himself accordingly?

And he remains this way until someone came along who could see the whole situation, and see it differently. Jesus did not accept the dominant paradigm of his times, that illness and disability was a punishment from God. Perhaps for the first time, the blind man felt the gaze of someone who did not pity him or wonder what sin he had committed. For the first time the blind man knew what it was to be valued, to be accepted and to be made whole.

And then, as if this wasn’t enough, he discovered what it was like to really see, to accept light into his eyes and have it transformed into colours and textures, depth and movement. But if he thought this healing would make everything right he was mistaken. He may have had his eyes opened, but there were other, more powerful people who were not interested in having theirs opened. They were convinced that they knew how the world worked, and they weren’t about to change their perceptions.

*****

It can’t have been easy for the Pharisees in this story, for Jesus had a tendency to complicate things. When religious custom dictates that blindness is God’s judgement for sin, it’s easy to know what to do and what to think. But, when blind people get miraculously healed in God’s name, it all gets messy. If sin didn’t cause the problem, then where did it come from? And what about all those other beggars? Would they now be expected to be treated as equals? And if a healing really had happened, then they had another problem. None of them had done it, Jesus had done it. For them, it was best not to see the whole picture and just stick with what they knew.

What to do? The Pharisees try and extract a confession from the blind man. Perhaps he wasn’t really blind – it had been a lifelong hoax and the community had fallen for it. Or maybe he’d found a body-double who was now pretending to be healed to get him a few minutes of fame. Then they resorted to questioning his parents. Again, the result was unsatisfactory.

*****

Finally, there was no other option but to throw him out of the synagogue. Though the blind man could see, the Pharisees refused to see. The religious leaders had decided that Jesus was a fraud, so that’s all they could see. They decided the blind man was a sinner, so that’s all they could see. And they had decided that God could no more use Jesus to heal than that God would heal a person God had afflicted with blindness in the first place. Because that’s what they believed, that’s what they saw.

Perception is everything. It’s not just what we see or don’t see, but how we interpret what we see that determines our actions, our responses and our beliefs. We can look at the poor and see unfortunate victims of circumstance, or lazy people who refuse to work, or dignified human beings making the most of a tough situation. We can look at climate science and see a natural cycle which has just happened to hit us now, or human actions putting our planet under pressure.

Ultimately, how we determine what we see and what it means must flow from Jesus’ example. How did Jesus address poverty? How did Jesus view the natural world, power, violence, sickness, and human dignity? If we are to follow Jesus into a world of justice, we will have to wrestle with these questions and not see them as outside of the realm of faith. And once we have seen the problems, we also have the task of helping others – our leaders, our neighbours, our children – to see as well.

In our daily lives we all make choices (consciously or subconsciously) about what we will see and what we won’t. It’s tempting to choose not to see the suffering and injustice in our world – to switch off the news, and to ignore reports of grief, warand trauma. It’s tempting to avoid seeing certain people and to allow them to just blend in with the landscape, removing their need and struggle from our vision.

It’s tempting to avoid seeing God’s truth and grace in those with whom we disagree, and whom we would rather see as “all bad”. It’s tempting to avoid seeing the brokenness in those we support and with whom we agree and to see them as “all good”. It’s tempting to avoid seeing the resources, the opportunities and the capacity we have for making a difference, and to believe we can do nothing.

But, if we have really seen Jesus, and if we have truly seen God’s reign proclaimed and manifest in him, then we have to confront how we see things, and allow God’s grace and mercy, God’s truth and justice to change our seeing and shed light on our world, our relationships and our neighbourhoods.

And, once again, our seeing must be informed by God’s different perspective where the greatest are the least, and where everyone – even a young shepherd boy, or a carpenter from the countryside – can make significant differences in the world.

We do not know how it is that he now sees (John 9; Lent 4A)

The lectionary offers us stories, during Lent, of encounters that Jesus had with a range of people. We have already heard of his conversation with a Pharisee in Jerusalem and a woman beside a well in Samaria. This week, he is in Jerusalem, where one of the people he encounters is a man who was born blind (John 9:1–41).

Of course, each of these scenes is a narrative which has been shaped and formed by the author, more in the nature of a developed literary creation than a verbatim account of an historical event. It may be that each extended scene is based on a report of an encounter that took place decades before the Gospel was written, but most certainly it has been elaborated and developed over a period of time, worked into a narrative that catches attention, invites reflection, and has a life all of its own.

“John” wrote his Gospel some 50 to 80 years after the lifetime of Jesus. The account of each of these conversations—at night with Nicodemus, at noon with the woman, in Jerusalem with the authorities, and then the encounter in Bethany and the council meeting in Jerusalem—are thus far removed from each of these events. (And how could we possibly claim to know verbatim what was said in a Sanhedrin meeting in the early 30s CE? — especially since the High Priest articulates a central tenet of later Christian doctrine! ).

But removing certainty with regard to the historical accuracy of the encounter does not in any way impair the power of the story to connect with us as we read and hear it, many centuries later, in a very different context—we still have stories from the 1st century, valued and passed on and collected in scripture, that speak to our own journeys of faith development in the 21st century.

The scene—or rather, the series of scenes—that we are offers this coming Sunday occur within a context that has set up antagonism and tension in the relationship that Jesus has with the authorities in Jerusalem. In John’s narrative, he has set things off in an interesting way: violence in the courtyard of the Temple (2:13–22) is his first action in the capital city.

Then follows the secret meeting with Nicodemus, “a leader of the Jews” in which Jesus appears to accuse Nicodemus and his ilk of misunderstanding what Jesus teaches about “heavenly things” (3:11–12), and the public noontime meeting with a Samaritan woman by the well, in which he contests the northern penchant for worship “on this mountain” (4:19–24).

However, the antagonism in these encounters pales into insignificance when compared with what follows. After he has healed an official’s son in Galilee (4:46–54) and a man challenged by his poor mobility (5:2–9), Jesus enters into debate with “the Judeans”—most likely the scribal and priestly authorities in Jerusalem—which has already stirred them up, as “they were seeking all the more to kill him” (5:18).

For my views on why references to “the Jews” in this Gospel should be translated as “the Judean authorities”, see

Then a long session of exposition with his disciples by the lake in Galilee (6:22–71) sees not only Judeans stirred by his words (6:52), but his own disciples resistant (6:60) and some, indeed, leaving his company of followers (6:66). We don’t hear much, usually, about Jesus’ failures!!

After a debate about whether Jesus and his followers should go south to Jerusalem (7:1–9), Jesus went, “not publicly but as it were in secret” (7:10), engaging in yet more discussion with “the Judeans” (7:15–62), in the course of which, the accusation is shouted by the crowd, “you have a demon!” (7:20). That languages comes back in the subsequent scene, an extended section in which Jesus remains in Jerusalem (8:12–10:21).

The claim that Jesus makes, “I am the light of the world” (8:12), introduces a section where accusation and counter-accusation intensify. “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires”, Jesus declares, continuing with the accusation that “he was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him” (8:44). In response, “the Judeans” ask, “are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (8:48), and then “they picked up stones to throw at him” (8:59). Jesus escapes by leaving the temple.

This polemic continues in chapter 10, when many of “the Judeans” were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” (10:20), whilst others were saying, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (10:21). The long scene ends with the narrator reporting, “they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands” (10:39).

The antagonism will continue, nevertheless, for after Jesus has moved to Bethany, encountered a grieving family, and raised Lazarus back to life (11:1–44), the Jewish authorities decide to make their move. Worried that, “if we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (11:48), Caiaphas leads with these prophetic words: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (11:50). And so, “from that day on they planned to put him to death” (11:53).

*****

The extended narrative revolving around the man born blind, whom Jesus heals, and the associated controversy, is thus set at the heart of this extended sequence of conflict scenes. It is different, in character, from the earlier scenes of encounter, where the focus is on Jesus and the person with whom he is talking—Nicodemus, and the Samaritan woman in particular. This particular scene of encounter has quite a cast of characters—Jesus, his disciples, the blind man, his parents, the Pharisees, and a crowd of people in Jerusalem.

In fact, this encounter leads to a sequence that feels more like a dramatic portrayal of a court scenario, than a religious story. There are seven scenes in all. The first scene is narrated in the opening verses (9:1–7), telling of Jesus healing the man. The question from the disciples (9:2) allows Jesus to give an explanation about the purpose of “his work” (9:3–5) which culminates in a reprise of his earlier claim, “I am the light of the world” (9:5; see 8:12, as well as the initial reference at 1:5).

Jesus heals the man by forming mud with his own saliva (9:6)—something jarring to modern sensibilities, but a common practice amongst ancient miracle-workers and healers. For my reflections on the distinctive way that Jesus heals this blind man, see

The second scene involves the neighbours of the healed man debating with him about what has happened (9:8–12); “how were your eyes opened?”, they ask him (9:10), incredulous at the change that has taken place. This scene is something of “set-up”, to lead into the third scene, in which the complexities of the situation begin to be unravelled.

The third scene sees the healed man brought before the Pharisees (9:13–17); what ensues feels like it is setting up to be a cross-examination, since the healing took place on a sabbath (9:14) and thus the event comes under Torah prescriptions (cf. Mark 2:23–28; 3:1–6; Luke 13:10–17; 14:1–6; and John 7:19–24). In fact, the Pharisees accuse Jesus, “this man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath” (9:16), while the healed man, pressed hard, declares, “he is a prophet” (9:17).

A prophet: is the same affirmation made by the Samaritan woman (4:19), a crowd in Galilee after a miracle (6:14), and a crowd in Jerusalem (7:40)—and, by implication, perhaps some in the Sanhedrin, led by Nicodemus, say that also (7:52)?

Does the author want his hearers and readers to understand each of these affirmations in terms of the central one: “this is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14), presumably along the lines of the earlier statement of Moses, “the Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet … I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command” (Deut 18:15, 18). Certainly, this is the text on the basis of which Samaritans were anticipating the return of Moses as their Taheb, their Restorer.

We resume the extended narrative of John 9 with the fourth scene, involving the parents of the man, whom the Pharisees summonses and proceed to question (9:18–23). They ask, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” (9:19). The key element in this scene is the narrative comment—reflecting the experience of the followers of Jesus many decades after the setting of this scene, in Jerusalem in the early 30s—that “the [Judean authorities] had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (9:22).

John’s Gospel indicates, three times, that followers of Jesus were expelled from the synagogue (9:22; 12:42; 16:1–2). That’s quite a schism! This indicates that the negative portrayals of people from years back may well have as much to do with what has transpired in those intervening years, as with the actual event—probably, I think, much more to do with those intervening years than with the conversations and encounters as reported in the book of signs.

The whole Gospel reflects a situation much developed from the time in which the story is set, when Jesus was a Galilean man preaching and teaching in Israel in the 30s CE. American scholar Raymond Brown developed a complex hypothesis about multiple stages of development of this Gospel, with the figure of the Beloved Disciple providing a focal point of leadership and identity—and perhaps also serving as the earliest source for the distinctive Johannine traditions?

Brown developed this hypothesis as he worked on a marvellous two-volume commentary on John’s Gospel (Anchor Bible, Yale Uni Press, 1966) and then published a clear analysis of this in his book The Community of the Beloved Disciple (Paulist Press, 1978).

Much had transpired in the decades between the time of Jesus and the finalisation of the Gospel—including an intensification of the antagonism between the followers of Jesus and the rabbinic leadership of Judaism. This antagonism is “written back” into the time of the story of Jesus through the verbal polemics that take place in chapters 5–12, between Jesus and the authorities in Jerusalem.

My own teacher, Wayne Meeks (in his classic article, “The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism”, JBL 91 (1972) 44–72), noted that the claims made about Jesus in the fourth Gospel function as reinforcements of the sectarian identity of the community. As this community had come into existence because of the claims that it had made about Jesus, so the reinforcement of the life of the new community took place, to a large degree, through the strengthening and refining of its initial claim concerning Jesus. The account of the interaction between Jesus, the man born blind, now healed, and the Pharisees and leadership in Jerusalem, reflects elements of that sectarian mindset.

This becomes clear in the fifth scene, in which the Pharisees recall the healed man to question him further (9:24–34). The Pharisees set the key issue: “as for this man, we do not know where he comes from” (9:29). The experience of the healed man, “you do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes”, leads him to testify, “never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (9:30–33). That clear affirmation of faith in Jesus, and recognition of his status, from one “on the inside”, brings the cross-examination to an abrupt close; incredulous, the Pharisees ask, “are you trying to teach us?”, and then drive him out from their gathering (9:34).

The issue at stake is the identity of Jesus and his status as prophet, teacher, “from God”. Of course, hearers and readers of the Gospel have known from the beginning that Jesus, the Word, “was with God, and … was God” (1:1), that this Word “became flesh and lived among us … full of grace and truth” (1:14), and that this Word was “the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). We have been let into the insiders’ world, with access to full knowledge. This is where the healed man is to be found; he recognises Jesus, not only as miracle worker, but as “from God” (9:33).

So the sixth scene (9:35–38) depicts Jesus interacting directly with the healed man once more—the last time he saw him was back in scene one, when he had spat onto the ground to make mud, rubbed it on the man’s eyes, and told him to “wash in the pool of Siloam” (9:6–7). Now, Jesus asks the leading question, “do you believe in the Son of Man?” (9:35), evoking the clear affirmation, “Lord, I believe” (9:38). That is the same affirmation of faith made by Simon Peter (6:69), Martha (11:27), and, by inference, Thomas (20:24–28). The identity of Jesus—Holy One of God, Messiah, Son of Man, Lord and God—is the critical issue which delineates insiders from outsiders.

For my reflections on the significance of this man’s confession of faith in the context of the book of signs as a whole, see

The seventh scene brings Jesus directly into contact with the Pharisees (9:39–41). Compared to the earlier extended debate of 8:31–59 and the less extensive debate which follows at 10:22–39, this is brief, succinct, and focussed on the theological issues of blindness and seeing, and sin. This links back to the opening question of the disciples about blindness and sin (9:2) and the consequent statement of Jesus, “as long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (9:5). This statement, of course, repeats the earlier declaration of Jesus (8:12) which has introduced the whole narrative context in which this encounter sits (8:12–10:21).

*****

So the whole scene (like the whole Gospel) is about the situation of a group of followers of Jesus towards the end of the first century CE, inheriting the richness of the Jewish faith, convinced that they have found The Teacher of the way that God requires, in Jesus of Nazareth. As a result, they have encountered opposition, argumentation, and expulsion from their familiar faith community, and through this they have engaged in verbal warfare with those who have pushed them out.

Retelling the story of that man in a way that validates their perspective as what God intends and desires, is what has led an unknown member of their community to construct this narrative, in which he reinforces the views that have been developed by the members of his community, even as he hopes that others might “come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [they] may have life in his name” (20:31).

Speaking out for equality: a sermon for Lent 3A

A sermon preached on Sunday 12 March 2023 (the third Sunday in Lent) in the Tuggeranong Uniting Church, by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine.

Last Thursday was International Women’s Day, and we are at the end of the week which has both celebrated women and called for true equality. We learnt that women still earn a million dollars less than men over their lifetime and retire with $136,000 less superannuation, according to research from the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work.

This research also noted that men still have higher average salaries than women in 95% of all occupations, even in female-dominated ones such as midwifery. Women also suffer more from gendered violence, with around 30% of women worldwide subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

All religions tend to subjugate women and view them as lesser mortals. Many forbid women to become leaders or to preach, and see women’s religious duties as almost domestic. This includes Christianity, with many denominations and churches not allowing women’s ordination or meaningful leadership. Look, they say as they point to 1 Timothy 2:12 “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”

This verse has taken on an authority and power that apparently trumps many a story of women leading, teaching, ministering and preaching in the Old and New Testaments. It has coloured the view of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions and many an evangelical church. And not only have women been seen as lesser in these traditions, they have also acquired reputations as sinners, temptresses and Jezebels, to be feared and not trusted.

In today’s bible reading, we meet such a woman. She has been frequently cast as an outsider, a prostitute, an adulteress, despite the text neither saying or even inferring she is any of these things. I find myself getting increasing annoyed at this view of the unnamed Samaritan woman. Many of these accepted views of her originate with male biblical scholars.

I think these views are usually quite moralistic and border on misogyny. They are also applied to other New Testament women, leaders of the early church who have been besmirched and relegated to an inferior status.

I invite you to join me in the redemption of the Samaritan and other NT women, and to explore their stories from a different perspective. I hope this will lead you to different conclusions.

*****

The Samaritan woman is the antithesis of Nicodemus, who we met last week seeking Jesus under the cover of night in a private location. She is not skulking about in the dark, she talks to Jesus in the full light of noon, in a public place. Further, her journey to belief doesn’t take the whole gospel as Nicodemus’ did, it takes one chapter, and she is well on the way in this encounter – so much so, that she convinces the people of her town to come and meet with Jesus as a potential messiah. Due to her missionary efforts, everyone ends up believing Jesus is the Saviour of the world.

This woman has frequently been called an outcast and a adulteress and occasionally a prostitute, due to her coming to the well at noon (an unusual time of the day) and the fact she has had 5 husbands and is currently with a 6th man who is not her husband. It is highly unlikely a serial adulteress would still be alive and not stoned, let alone find 5 men to marry her. Nor are 5 men likely to marry a prostitute. The 6th man may well be her protector or goel (a word we met in Ruth) as women could not manage alone in the ancient world. Whoever he is, Jesus offers no condemnation on the arrangement.

Further, an outcast would not have been listened to by the village folk in the way she is listened to and believed. Lastly, this is the gospel of John, where light and dark and day and night are highly symbolic. The author is deliberately contrasting her with Nicodemus and she is the one represented as grasping the truth and passing it on – in broad daylight.

*****

I also want to mention some other women who led in the bible, who have either been tarnished by the moral brush of sexist scholars or had their roles downplayed. To begin, the feminine is undergirded by the Old Testament view that all the characteristics of God are feminine – the Spirit, ruach, present at creation and in all creation, Wisdom, hochma, also present at creation and something to be highly desired, the shekinah, the glory of God, and finally, the voice of God, the bat kol. These feminine characteristics permeate the work of God and the very essence of God, undermining the idea that the being of God is male.

Next, we have the wonderful women of the Old Testament. Deborah the judge, leading Israel to victory in battle. Prophets Miriam and Huldah, the latter confirming that the book that had been found was indeed God’s law. Tamar, Sarah, Ruth and Naomi and the woman of Endor, all who changed their’s and Israel’s destiny by their resourcefulness and courage.

In the New Testament, we find Mary Magdelene (another women accused of being a prostitute without a shred of textual evidence), devoted follower of Jesus; Phoebe, a deacon highly commended by Paul; Priscilla, a co-worker of Paul and a teacher so famous she is mentioned in no less than four different books in the NT; and Lydia, a merchant in her own right who ran the house church in Philippi.

An important figure is Junia, imprisoned alongside Paul and called prominent among theapostles. Junia actually had her sex changed to male by later scribes who couldn’t countenance a female apostle. We also have Tabitha, called a disciple as she ministers to poor widows in Acts; and Martha, sister of Lazarus and faithful follower of Jesus, who like the Samaritan woman, confessed him as Messiah.

There are many others, including the women who ministered to Jesus and the disciples and who supported Jesus’ ministry with their resources, including Mary of Bethany who sat at Jesus’ feet as a male disciple would to learn from him. All were highly esteemed by Jesus, their peers, Paul and the writers of the gospels. All have been relegated to lesser roles by later male Christians, with a number standing accused of immoral behaviour or having their status relegated to cooks and assistants.

It is this sort of relegation that has led to the subjugation and poor treatment of women in many countries. Christianity has a lot to answer for in terms of its missionary and cultural heritage that taught girls were to be domesticated and boys educated. The notion that woman must subjugate herself to a husbandand unquestioningly obey a male leader has led to much violence and abuse, even in churches.

Recent research in Australia by Julia Baird found that domestic abuse in churches that taught male headship was prevalent in Australia churches and it is now widely accepted that gender inequality is a contributing factor to violence against women.

*****

The Australian Institute of Family Studies in a study concluded that in terms of violence against women “the vital element to consider is the gender norms and beliefs surrounding male dominance and male superiority, created by power hierarchies that accord men greater status.”

This is confirmed by global research. A study published in the Lancet in 2015 analysed data from 66 surveys across 44 countries, covered the experiences of almost half a million women. It found that the greatest predictor of partner violence was “environments that support male control”, especially “norms related to male authority over female behaviour”. Many of these unequal environments are supported by religions, including Christianity.

It does say something about such teachings and beliefs that the plight of abused women was acknowledged literally decades after many countries had established laws to prohibit the abuse of animals.

*****

In contrast to this narrow role-related view of women, we find that Jesus clearly elevated women to a position of equality with men in a way that must of astounded his audiences.

Jesus defied Jewish custom and spoke to women directly and in public, as we see in our story today. The Samaritan woman is the first person he reveals his messiahship too. He disclosed to her deep truths about his role in human history and salvation. She was not just a passive recipient of what Jesus offers to her. While aware of the potential barriers and boundaries created by her society, all of which make sure that she stays in her place, this does not stop her challenging Jesus’ authority and tradition: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” (4:12).

The concept of “living water” becomes intertwined with what Jesus knows about her; she herself becomes a vessel of living water because of the relationship she has formed with Jesus, and his insight into her identity gives her insight into his. As a result of this, she leaves behind her water jar, going into the city, and invites the people to encounter Jesus for themselves.

As her enthusiasm spills out, she enacts what Jesus says later in this Gospel, where he speaks about an overflowing of enthusiasm as he quotes Hebrew scripture: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (7:38). This living water is not simply a gift which Jesus offers to the woman; it became a gift to others who she encounters in her village. This first missionary is dynamic. Could a man have done a better job? I doubt it.

*****

This story, and indeed all the pages of Scripture, reveal women being used by God in practically every imaginable way – prophets, judges, negotiators,leaders, teachers and disciples. 

Phyllis and James Alsdurf in their paper, The Church and the Abuse of Women (from the Journal, The Priscilla Papers) say, “For Christians, the liberating message of the Gospel is that a redeemed social order is possible because in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). The good news the church is called to proclaim is that Christ’s transforming power ends injustice and oppression, and that within the Body of Christ discrimination and abuse based on sex, race, or class is no longer permitted.”

*****

Prayer

So let us pray that we continue to remember the women of silenced generations, whose names have been lost to time, and whose roles were lost to power.

Let us remember those who led churches, healed the sick and opened up their houses to the faithful, but who have been downgraded to helpers in historical patriarchal oppression.

Let us also speak out, leaving a legacy of equality for our grandchildren.

We will be the waves at their back, their encouragement and voices crying for true fairness. We will not lose hope.

May we support each other in our resilience, our strength, and our resistance.

May we recognize that we are all uniquely beautiful and powerful. May we honour each other, and challenge each other. Then together, we will recover the bones of justice from the archaeology of inequity.

Go forth, women of worth, and be your ancestors’ wildest dreams. Amen.

*****

The featured image is a depiction of Jesus and the Samaritan woman painted by Mackey Dickerson for the cover of What Jesus Learned from Women, by James McGrath (Cascade, 2021)

 

 

 

A well, two mountains, and five husbands (John 4; Lent 3A)

This is a post about a well, two mountains, and five husbands. We learn about each of these elements in a story told in the book of signs, which we know as the Gospel according to John. The story tells of an encounter between a teacher from Galilee and a woman from Samaria. That story is offered as the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, the Third Sunday in Lent (John 4:5–42).

The well is Jacob’s well (John 4:6). It is the location for the meeting of the teacher and the woman. This site is not explicitly named in Hebrew Scriptures, but it is thought that the account of Jacob buying land in Shechem in Gen 33 records the site, which Jacob, it is said, calls El-Elohe-Israel (Gen 33:18–20). The name signifies “the God of Israel”, which is the name that Jacob had adopted just before this, after wrestling all night with a man at Peniel (Gen 32:22–32).

In fact the narrative has earlier given a long account of how Jacob married the two daughters of Laban—Leah and Rachel—after he had met the younger daughter, Rachel, at a well in the land of (Gen 29:1–35). Laban lived in Paddan-aram, a tableland area in northern Mesopotamia (28:5); the well in this region was where Jacob first sighted Rachel (29:4–12).

Wells, of course, were vital parts of the infrastructure of ancient societies—as indeed they continue to be so for many people today. As well as water for washing, drinking, and cooking, people needed wells to provide water for their animals. We are told that the oldest servant of Abraham, whilst journeying to Nahor, a city in Paddan-aram, “made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water; it was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water” (24:11).

Not only was the well used to collect water for animals, however; it was a place where men could go to meet women—which is what the servant did, meeting Rebekah, Abraham’s niece by marriage (24:15–21), who would become the wife of Abraham’s son Isaac (24:67). So it was no surprise that Jesus would meet a woman beside the well identified as Jacob’s well.

What is a surprise is that he met her at noon (John 4:6). The clearest explanation for this is that it provides a striking juxtaposition to the story just told, of Nicodemus, who “came to Jesus by night” (3:2). It is one of the many literary devices so favoured by the author of the book of signs. We should not take this time reference as a direct historical fact in a story which the author of this Gospel has developed.

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The two mountains in this story (John 4:21) are Gerizim and Zion. We know about Mount Zion because the long historical narrative of Israel that exists in the Bible (from Deuteronomy through Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, Ezra and Nehemiah) was compiled by southern kingdom writers, using sources from both the north and the south. Zion was captured from the Jebusites by David’s army (2 Sam 5:6–10) and was honoured as the location for the Temple built under Solomon (1 Ki 8:1–13).

It was on Zion that the Lord God dwelt (Ps 9:11)—at least for southerners—and Zion was praised as “beautiful in elevation, the joy of all the earth” (Ps 48:2). Jesus reflects the southern view of life when he asserts to the Samaritan woman that “salvation is from the Judeans” (John 4:22).

Centuries before, people in the northern kingdom had built a rival temple on Mount Gerizim, one of the ancient holy sites in the northern kingdom (Deut 27:12; Josh 8:33–34; Judg 9:7). That temple survived beyond the invasion and resettlement of the north, continuing on until it was destroyed in 107BCE, when John Hyrcanus razed the temple and the capital city of Samaria.

The city of Samaria gave its name to the whole region, and the people were known as Samaritans. Southerners looked down on them as being the descendants of the people who committed idolatry after the Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom (2 Kings 17:5–6) and resettled the northern region with people from other locations in their empire (2 Kings 17:24), from “every nation [who] still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived” (2 Kings 17:29).

Flavius Josephus, a late 1st century CE historian, retells the sequence of events we read in 2 Kings, indicating that the Samaritans descended from this hybrid, unfaithful group of people (Antiquities 11.297–347). He also recounts an incident which entrenched the antagonism of southern Judeans towards the northern Samaritans (Antiquities 11.297–347).

The Samaritans attempted to undermine the returning exiled Judeans with their Persian rulers and slowed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple (Ezra 4:6–24). Josephus notes disagreement about which site should be the location for the temple (Josephus, Antiquities 12.9–10). This is the same issue that is reflected in words attributed to Jesus at John 4:20–22.

Josephus also recounts a later time when some Samaritans scattered bones of dead people in the in portico of the Jerusalem Temple, thus rendering it unclean (Antiquities 18.29–30), and he gives a graphic description of the time when Cumanus (governor of Judea 48–52 CE) was bribed by some Samaritans, leading some Judean brigands to mount an uprising. Cumanus ordered the Romans to join with the Samaritans in battling the Judeans; many were killed, many more taken captive (Antiquities 20.118–123).

References to the Samaritans in the 3rd century CE Mishnah may reflect views current at the time of Jesus: “Rabbi Eliezer used to say, ‘He that eats of the bread of Samaritans is as one who eats the flesh of swine’” (m. Seb. 8.10); “the daughters of Cutheans [Samaritans] are menstruants from their cradle” (m. Nid. 4.1). That undergirds the author’s comment in the Johannine narrative, that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” John 4:9). Jesus was stepping across the prescribed boundaries by asking for a drink from the woman (John 4:7–9).

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The five husbands have occasioned much debate amongst interpreters. One entirely predictable and utterly incorrect interpretation is that the woman was an outcast amongst her people, because she had been married five times. Adultery and promiscuity are assumed by the—always male—interpreters.

This line of interpretation has no justification at all in the text. No reason is given for the five husbands—neither adultery nor promiscuity are mentioned in John’s narrative. Perhaps it could have been an application of the Levirate law of marriage to the brother of a deceased husband (see Deut 25:5–10; also Ruth 3:1–4:13; Mark 12:18–23)?

And if the woman had been such an outcast amongst the people of her own village, why would they have listened to what she had to say about Jesus (John 4:39)? Although Jesus comments that “the man you have now is not your husband” (4:18), this does not indicate sexual irregularity; this man could well have been the protector of the woman, the man who heads the household in which she has been given shelter.

Certainly, the main rationale for this particular interpretation can only be the patriarchal bias of the interpreters. The fact that it is so often cited does not lend weight to it; it simply reflects the ubiquity of sexist patriarchal interpreters!

James McGrath has a chapter on what Jesus learnt from the woman of Samaria in his 2022 book, What Jesus Learned from Women (Cascade)

Other interpreters regard the “five husbands” as symbols for the five groups of people who were imported into the northern kingdom after it was conquered by the Assyrians. 2 Kings 17 does give an account of “the origins of the Samaritans”, in which it provides the claim that the Assyrians deported the Israelites living in the northern kingdom and imported people from five areas (people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim; see 2 Ki 17:24) into the region.

This accurately reflects what we know of the practice of the Assyrians—deporting locals and importing vassals from other conquered territories from elsewhere in their kingdom. This was a clever power play; there was not much chance of local resistance, once the men were deported elsewhere, and a strong chance that those imported from elsewhere into the territory would maintain the status quo and ensure “peace” in the newly-conquered territory.

However, we need to bear in mind that 2 Kings and other historical narratives (1–2 Samuel, 1 Kings, Ezra—Nehemiah) are compiled and written by people in the southern kingdom, some time after the events reported—indeed, quite some time later, centuries later. The southern author(s) seem to have had a consistent programme to depict the northern kingdom as resolutely and persistently evil.

Just look at how so many of the northern kings are described in this formulaic manner: Jeroboam, son of Solomon, at 1 Ki 14:1–20 (and have a look at verse 11 for a gory fate!), the first king of the northern kingdom; and then Nadab at 1 Ki 15:25–26; Baasha at 1 Ki 15:33–34; Zimri at 1 Ki 16:15–20; Omri at 1 Ki 16:25–28; Ahab at 1 Ki 16:29–30, 22:37–40; Ahaz at 1 Ki 22:51–53; Jehoram at 2 Ki 3:1–2; Ahaziah at 2 Ki 8:26–27; Jehoash at 2 Ki 13:10–13; Jeroboam II at 2 Ki 14:23–29; Zechariah at 2 Ki 15:8–12; Menahem at 2 Ki 15:17–22; Pekahaiah at 2 Ki 15:23–26; Pekah at 2 Ki 15:27–31; and Hoshea at 2 Ki 17:1–4. In other words, almost all of the kings of Israel!!!

So what we have in 1–2 Kings is southern propaganda about those evil northerners, right from the time of Solomon’s death, on through the centuries, until the fall of the north under Assyria—who then imported pagan foreigners, had them “pretend” to follow the Lord God; but they brought their own various pagan religious practices, even whilst giving a show of worshipping the Lord God as the ancestral god of the land (2 Ki 17:7–18). So they defiled the land even further!!

We can see how the rhetoric in 2 Kings piles up against the northerners, courtesy of the southerners, writing at a time when great antagonism had built up about them. So I take the claim that this narrative was “history” with a big, big pile of salt.

And then we still have the question, how do we say that the text of John 4 is pointing to the story (the propaganda) told in 2 Kings 17? I can’t see anything in the John text that does so, other than the (typically southern) criticism of the northerners’ worship “on this mountain” (John 4:20–22) that is placed on the lips of Jesus—who, curiously, was a northerner from Galilee, not a southerner from Bethlehem. So the reference must maintain something of a mystery.

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The understanding of John 4 that I have outlined above has been developed through many fruitful conversations over the years with my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine. My exploration of the “five husbands” has most recently been prompted by a question from Alison Campbell, a faithful reader of this blog.

“How can anyone be born after having grown old?” The questions of Nicodemus (John 3; Lent 2A)

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (John 3:1–17) is set in a house in the dark at night, as a prominent named male member of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin engages in conversation with a teacher from Nazareth, discussing faith and life. As Jesus engages with him, the conversation moves through a series of phases, going deeper into the issues raised. It’s a carefully-crafted literary piece—as, indeed, are all the encounters that Jesus has in the first half of John’s book of signs.

The conversation proceeds by means of a standard narrative technique: a question is posed, an answer is offered, leading to a further question, another response, and still further question-answer interchanges. This is an age-old technique used in teaching and in story-telling. It was also a standard aspect of the way that teachers of the Law operated in ancient Israel.

So the Pharisee of Jerusalem poses the question to the teacher from Nazareth: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” and follows this immediately with a second question, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (3:4). The reason for such a misunderstanding is that the Greek word used, anōthen, can be understood as “again” or “anew”, but can also be understood as “above”. In fact, “above” is by far the more common sense in which it was used. But the author has the teacher of Nazareth use this word, opening up a deliberate misunderstanding.

This misunderstanding, in turn, lead on to a response from the teacher (3:5) which digs deeper into the issues. Being born “from above” is akin to being born “of water and spirit”—or, it is possible to translate this, “of water and breath”. The Greek word placed on the lips of the teacher, pneuma, can refer to wind or breath—or spirit. Once again, a misunderstanding arises, giving opportunity for further exploration and instruction (3:5–8).

After the response from the teacher, the Pharisee asks a further question, “How can these things be?” (3:9)—to which the teacher from Nazareth responds, in the time honoured fashion (answer a question with another question), “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (3:9-10). Touché!!

After this, the teacher from Nazareth launches into a longer explanation in response to the questions posed by the Pharisee of Jerusalem—an explanation which continues on for some time (3:11–21), leaving many commentators to wonder, just where does the conversation with the Pharisee from Jerusalem end, and where does the interpretive narrative of the evangelist take over? The Pharisee of Jerusalem has managed to draw from the man from Nazareth a teaching of some substance and significance.

This extended final section of the scene (3:11–21) contains clear evidence of the literary craft of the person who is telling the story. There are typical dualisms included in what the teacher says; he contrasts “earthly things” with “heavenly things”, “ascending into heaven” with “descending from heaven”, “perish” with “eternal life”, “condemn” with “save”—and, once again, “light” and “darkness”, a duality first expressed in the opening verses of the Gospel (1:4–9).

It also sets these dualisms into a pattern of parallel clauses, some of which provide a synonymous parallelism—two similar ideas placed in parallel (3:14; 3:19–20), some of which have antithetical parallelism—two contrasting ideas placed in parallel (3:12; 3:16–17; 3:18; and 3:20–21). Notice that this means that the final three verse of this section have an interweaving of both synonymous and antithetical parallelism, bringing the whole speech to a tight conclusion. “Coming to the light” is what Jesus desires, rather than “loving darkness”.

This is in fact the trajectory that Nicodemus has begun in this passage—the trajectory will continue on beyond into later sections of the Gospel. He has moved from an initial enquiry, through to a deeper pondering about what Jesus is saying. So this conversation has demonstrated a movement from the starting point, through a process that will ultimately lead to a clear expression of faith in in Jesus. We are left wondering, here in chapter 3: has the Pharisee become a disciple of the teacher from Nazareth?

The Pharisee of Jerusalem, we are told later in this Gospel, followed through after his initial conversation with the teacher (John 3)—in fact, he supported him in a debate in the Jerusalem council (John 7), and after the teacher had died, he publicly joined in the task of anointing his body and laying it to rest (John 19). His belief in what this teacher had taught, was now clear for all to see.

The Pharisee of Jerusalem had taken risks, explored his faith, and made significant changes in his life. He is a named high-status follower of Jesus, at least according to this particular Gospel, and his name is remembered throughout Christian history, by believers across the world: Nicodemus.

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In the Synoptic Gospels, it is Joseph of Arimathea who requests the body of Jesus from Pilate, and secures a safe place as the resting place for the body. In John’s Gospel, he does this in company with Nicodemus (John 19:39).

Joseph was “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (Luke 23:51)—a phrase that recalls the discussion reported in John 3 (see verses 3 and 5). This “kingdom of God” was the very same phrase that is key to the preaching of Jesus in Mark and Luke. So Joseph was firmly aligned with Jesus and with his followers in Luke’s Gospel, whilst Matthew directly reports that he was “a disciple of Jesus” (Matt 27:57).

When Nicodemus first encounters Jesus, he had engaged in what might be characterised as an appreciative enquiry with Jesus, under the cover of night (3:2), presumably so that he didn’t “out” his interest in what Jesus was teaching. Some chapters later in John’s narrative, as Jesus experiences intensified opposition whilst in Jerusalem for the Festival of Booths (7:1–13), and the Pharisees and temple authorities join forces to send the temple police to arrest him (7:32), Nicodemus appears once more. The temple police return the temple, saying that they will not arrest him (7:45–46).

Nicodemus steps in; he is introduced as the one who “had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them”—that is to say, one of the disciples (7:50). He speaks boldly: “our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7:51). The dismissive reply of the Pharisees further aligns him with Jesus; “surely you are not also from Galilee, are you?” is their rejoinder (7:52). His allegiance is clear, at least in the minds of the Pharisees, if not also the narrator of the Gospel.

Nicodemus returns a third time, after the death of Jesus, when the body of Jesus is requested by Joseph of Arimathaea, who is here clearly identified as being “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews” (19:38). The fear of the Judean authorities has been a recurrent motif in John’s narrative (5:1; 7:13; 9:22; here, and 20:19). (The term I translate as “Judean authorities” is most commonly rendered as “Jews”, but this translation is too wide and does not accurately reflect the way the term is used in John’s Gospel.)

See further on “the Jews” at

Once again, Joseph is identified as a disciple of Jesus (John 19:38; so also Matt 27:57, and, as we have argued above, that is the implication in both Mark 15 and Luke 23). Both Joseph and Nicodemus, we might presume, were numbered among the “many, even of the authorities, [who] believed in him”, but who, “because of the Pharisees, did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue” (12:42).

The manner in which the body of Jesus is removed from the cross into the grave, anointed with an extravagantly large amount of spices, myrrh and aloes and wrapped in linen cloths “according to the burial custom of the Jews”, and placed in a previously unused tomb (19:38–40), reflects the tender, respectful approach of these two of Jesus’s disciples.

See more on Joseph at

So the Pharisee of Jerusalem is a character of some significance in John’s book of signs; he traces a pathway which the author hopes that those who hear his story or read his book will also follow, for “these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). It’s a most appropriate story, and relevant invitation, for the season of Lent.

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On what we know historically about the Pharisees, see