Holy Week 2: ascending to Jerusalem (Psalms 122-124)

During Holy Week, it is Christian tradition to trace the pathway which Jesus took towards Jerusalem, sometimes following the stories recounted in Mark 11-14. In the city of Jerusalem, Jesus was arrested, crucified and died; in this city, for untold years, pilgrims had gathered in festive celebration, to remember, to retell the stories, to nurture their faith, to seek the Lord.

In Jewish tradition, the pilgrims travelling towards the city would join in songs—some of which are included within the book of Psalms in Hebrew Scripture and Christian Bibles. On their journey towards the city, according to this tradition, the pilgrims would sing Psalms 120—134. These are known as The Songs of Ascent, for they were sung as the pilgrims climbed higher towards the city, and then higher still towards the Temple at the highest point in the city.

This series of blogs use these ancient songs as the focus for reflecting, to envisage what that journey was like for Jesus and his followers, travelling as pilgrims to the city to celebrate Passover.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration, meeting up after months or years in our own villages. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city, climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival.

Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer to the heart of our faith. Each step along the way was a step that brought us higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place. We stepped inside the gates; our songs grew stronger.

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”
Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May they prosper who love you. (122)
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 122

Inside the city, the city of shalom, Jeru-shalom, we seek this shalom, this peace, in our lives.

And our prayers intensify:
To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God, until he has mercy upon us. (123)
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 123

And we continued in prayer:
Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth. (124)
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 124

A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city, climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival.

Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer to the heart of our faith. Each step along the way was a step that brought us higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place. So we stepped out, full of faith, on our journey to Jerusalem.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/28/holy-week-1-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-120-121/

Holy Week 1: ascending to Jerusalem (Psalms 120-121)

During Holy Week, it is Christian tradition to trace the pathway which Jesus took towards Jerusalem, sometimes following the stories recounted in Mark 11-14. In the city of Jerusalem, Jesus was arrested, crucified and died; in this city, for untold years, pilgrims had gathered in festive celebration, to remember, to retell the stories, to nurture their faith, to seek the Lord.

In Jewish tradition, the pilgrims travelling towards the city would join in songs—some of which are included within the book of Psalms in Hebrew Scripture and Christian Bibles. On their journey towards the city, according to this tradition, the pilgrims would sing Psalms 120—134. These are known as The Songs of Ascent, for they were sung as the pilgrims climbed higher towards the city, and then higher still towards the Temple at the highest point in the city.

This series of blogs use these ancient songs as the focus for reflecting, to envisage what that journey was like for Jesus and his followers, travelling as pilgrims to the city to celebrate Passover.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration, meeting up again after months or years in our own villages. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city, climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival.

Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer to the heart of our faith. Each step along the way was a step that brought us higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place.

So we sang, together: In my distress I cry to the LORD,
that he may answer me: “Deliver me, O LORD”. (120)
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 120

That is how it started, far from the city. A prayer seeking deliverance; a cry reaching out for saving mercies. Then, as we turned the corner, we saw the hill, far away, yet drawing close.

I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. (121)
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 121

And we held out our hands as we sent forth our prayers. The Lord, our God, would be our help. The Lord would save us. Yes, he would save us.

Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer, closer to the heart of our faith. Each step along the way was a step that brought us higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place. So we stepped out, full of faith, on our journey to Jerusalem.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/29/holy-week-2-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-122-124/

Lent

A guest blog … a poem for the season, by the Rev. Jean Shannon, Uniting Church Minister serving on the Sapphire Coast in southern NSW.

(The scene from my front door in Canberra)

The sun warms my knees
while puffs of cool air 
tell me winter is
waiting in the wings. 
Holding her breath: 
a sharp intake of awe 
to the turning leaves – foreign but loving…
and the eucalypt speak suddenly silver or 
more blue than green.

The trees whisper softly of what will come. 
There is a smell that is cleanly autumn: 
of soil and nutmeg and some grounded spice. 
The air moves differently and tells a story – 
that leaves will fall and icy wind invade. 
Earth’s almanac predicting death and resurrection. 

How much life must die, 
turn cold
and pull the earth over them like linen.
Who will love them deep in their graves
and who will wait for emergence…so very far away? 
The earth cries for our patience. 
God’s time is so different from mine. 

But how I love the autumn with its golden light
slanted across long afternoons,
scented in the air,
expectant of the night. 
These days betray nature’s secret
a ritual of discovery and revival.  

Would I change a thing?

Jean Shannon, Lent 2021

1: Where has Mark gone ?

This year in the calendar of the church is what is called Year B. That means that, for the most part, the Gospel reading will be drawn from the earliest, and shortest, account of the life of Jesus that we have in our Bibles: the work that starts, the beginning of the good news of Jesus, which we call, by tradition, the Gospel according to Mark. (In Year A, we have passages from Matthew; in Year C, selections from Luke.)

Except that, with one notable exception, Sunday readings from some weeks ago, right through until Pentecost (this year, falling on 23 May) are not drawn from Mark! Where has Mark gone?

We are in the midst of readings, during Lent, from John (7—28 March); then there will be readings, during Holy Week, once again from John (29 March to 2 April). We will hear an excerpt from Matthew on Holy Saturday (3 April); stories from John and Luke on Easter Sunday (4 April); and then another string of passages from John during the season of Easter (11 April to 16 May).

Pentecost Sunday designates part of John 15, and then Trinity Sunday offers John 3. Stories from Mark are nowhere to be seen. Where has Mark gone?

(To be fair: the lectionary has to do this, if it is to provide a good selection from the Gospel according to John, as that Gospel doesn’t have it’s own year. So its passages are spliced throughout Lent and Easter in all three years.)

The one exception to this Mark-drought is Sunday 28 March. If you celebrate this as Palm Sunday, then a passage from Mark is offered (Mark 11:1-11)—although an alternative from John is provided! If you celebrate this as Passion Sunday, then the whole passion narrative in Mark’s Gospel is offered (Mark 14:1—15:47)—with an alternative being a shorter excerpt from that extended narrative (Mark 15:1-39, with 40-47 as an option).

So it will not be until June before we return to the weekly diet of stories from the beginning of the good news—6 June, to be precise, where we pick up the narrative with Jesus in his home town, surrounded (as is usual in this Gospel) by a crowd, being criticised by his family and accused by some Jerusalem scribes (Mark 3:20-35). Hardly a propitious place to rejoin this early Gospel story.

(And even then, there is a five-week interruption in August, when we hear all bar a handful of the 71 verses in John 6 !)

So: I plan on offering a series of blogs leading up to Passion Sunday (28 March) which deals with elements in the story that Mark first told—at least in written form—about what transpired in Jerusalem, at Passover, during the governorship of Pontius Pilate.

But first, some general comments about this earliest and shortest Gospel.

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We know that Jesus did not write an account of his life; in fact, we know of nothing enduring that he wrote. In the New Testament, we have four accounts which relate how Jesus called followers to travelled with him around Galilee, and then to Jerusalem, where they witnessed his arrest, trials, crucifixion, and burial of their leader. Subsequently, they attested that he had been raised from the dead and had appeared to them to commission them for their ongoing task. We have four of these accounts. They each have their own distinctive features.

The story of Jesus is told, first, in the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one, the shortest account. We know this, because of Church tradition, as the gospel according to Mark. This work, it is clear, forms the primary source for two subsequent accounts of Jesus: the book of origins of Jesus, chosen one (the gospel according to Matthew) and an orderly account of the things fulfilled amongst us (the gospel according to Luke).

In this earliest written account of Jesus, we find stories told by Jesus, and stories told about Jesus, which had already been circulating in oral form for some decades. It is likely that some of these stories had already come together in short collections.

The distinctive contribution of this collated story was twofold. First, it places side-by-side a number of different traditions, or collections of stories, about Jesus. Second, these stories are arranged in a dramatic way, beginning with the stories about Jesus in his native area of Galilee, and culminating in the account of Jesus’ passion in Jerusalem.

This work thus provides a much fuller ‘story of Jesus’ than any of the individual oral stories about him. Isolated incidents are placed within a larger context. Individual sayings and deeds of Jesus are grouped together with similar sayings or deeds. Episodes are linked together to form a coherent account of who Jesus was and what it meant to follow his way.

There are two main parts this account of the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one: telling stories about Jesus in Galilee and on his journey to Jerusalem (Mark 1–10) and then telling what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem (Mark 11–16).

But this account of Jesus is more than just a compilation of existing stories. It is infused with vigour and intensity. The story moves from one incident to the next; yet the whole Gospel is a carefully-crafted piece of literature. A sense of drama runs through the Gospel. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a movie script!

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Central to this narrative is a story of conflict. Jesus is set into conflict with the authorities from early on. It is hinted at in the claim that Jesus speaks blasphemy (2:7), and then is revealed in full in the plot that is initiated (3:6). The shadow of destruction hangs over Jesus from the beginnings of his activity.

The tension mounts, from the early days in Galilee, towards the events that will take place in Jerusalem. His own family called him crazy (3:21), the people of his own town took offense at what he was preaching (6:3), and even his closest disciples seemed unable to grasp what he was teaching them (see 8:21; 9:33; 10:35–40).

The popularity of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem was fleeting, even though he acquitted himself so well in arguments with the leaders in Jerusalem (11:27–12:40). His actions in the Temple forecourt were controversial (11:15-17) and it is clear that this incident raised opposition to him to a high level (11:18). The final teachings he gave his disciples begin with a prediction of the destruction of the Temple before recounting the apocalyptic woes that are in store (13:3–37).

The plot hatched by the authorities (12:12; 14:1-2) led them to stir up the crowd to call for his death. Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest followers (14:10, 43-46), all knowledge of him was denied by another (14:30; 14:66-72), and all abandoned him at his point of need (14:50). The tragic climax of Jesus’ death is a scene of utter abandonment: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). Only some—a group of faithful women—watched from afar (15:40) before they came to provide an honourable burial for the man who was condemned and dishonoured (16:1)—but precisely there, a surprise awaits them (16:2-7).

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Yet the account found in the beginning of the good news is still more than a dramatic account of a tragic death; for this work appears to be a kind of political manifesto, advocating the way of Jesus in a situation of deep tension and widespread conflict. The whole Gospel conveys the significance of Jesus and his message about the kingdom: “the time is near!” (1:15).

This story reveals the key fact that faithful discipleship will mean enduring suffering, as Jesus did. He writes to help believers understand what it means to follow Jesus and to take up the cross (8:34). These were potent words in the Roman Empire; death by crucifixion was the fate in store for criminals, especially those engaged in any political activities which the Roman authorities perceived to be a threat to the peace of the Empire.

Jesus’ injunction to “take up your cross” was advice which was loaded with danger. Was he advocating resistance against an oppressive Roman rule? The story which is told in this Gospel addresses issues which were pressing on the lives of those who told it, read it, and heard it.

Almost all of this work, the beginning of the good news, appears in basically the same order, in the two following accounts—the orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us and the book of origins of Jesus, chosen one. (We know these works as the Gospel according to Luke, and the Gospel according to Matthew.)

Both of these accounts expand the story, incorporating additional material—some is found in both accounts, other stories are recounted in one or the other of the orderly account and the book of origins. So the contribution made by the beginning of the good news is significant, and enduring.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/20/2-mark-collector-of-stories-author-of-the-passion-narrative/

3 Mark: placing suffering and death at the heart of the Gospel

4 The structure of the passion narrative in Mark

The hour has come: glorify your Son (John 12; Lent 5B)

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). So Jesus says to Andrew and Philip, who come with a request from “some Greeks” who were in Jerusalem for the festival of Passover (12:20; see 12:1). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/15/we-wish-to-see-jesus-john-12-lent-5/

Two terms in this declaration by Jesus require exploration; two terms which are key ideas in this Gospel, the book of signs.

The story which John’s Gospel reports contains a contrast between the largely public activities of Jesus, and a secret element, described as “the hour”, which does not come until the climax of the story is reached. There are pointers to this contrast from the very first sign, at a wedding in Cana, when Jesus declares, “my hour has not yet come” (2:4).

What is this hour? The first part of the Gospel leaves it as a mystery, for the time being (see 7:30 and 8:20). Then, after the seventh sign, events in Jerusalem show that the hour has come (12:23, 27); the narrator explains that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from the world” (13:1).

Thus, at the beginning and at the end of the public activities of Jesus in this Gospel narrative, the focus is firmly on “the hour”.

Then, some time later on, at the end of his last meal with his followers, Jesus finally prays: “Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son” (17:1). In what will take place after this prayer—the arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (John 18–21)—this “hour” is realised.

The Johannine Jesus describes these events, the fulfilment of “the hour”, as the means by which God is glorified (11:16, 23–33; 13:31–32; 17:4).

The word “glory”, in Hebrew Scriptures, signals the divine presence (Exod 16:1–12; 24:15–18; 40:34–39; Lev 9:22–24; Num 14:10–12; 16:19; Deut 5:22–27; 1 Sam 4:19–22). In the book of signs, it is God’s glory which is now made manifest in Jesus (John 1:14; 2:11; 12:27–28; 17:5).

The language of “hour” and “glory” thus provides a framework for interpreting the events in chapters 2–12 as steps on the way towards a full understanding of Jesus, and the events of chapters 13–21 as the realisation of God’s presence in the world in all its fullness. This is the heart of the incarnational theology that is advocated by the writer of this Gospel.

The story of the Gospel fills out the details as to how it is that “the Word became flesh and lived among us”, which means that for human beings, “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

The passage offered in this Sunday’s lectionary readings provide part of the Johannine account of the final public moments of Jesus before his arrest (12:20–50). Here, Jesus speaks of this imminent glory (12:20–26), an angel testifies to God’s glory in the death of Jesus (12:27–33), Jesus explains that he comes as light into the world (12:34–36), the scriptures join as witnesses (12:37–43) and Jesus asserts that he speaks God’s commandment of eternal life (12:44–50).

This scene sums up what has come before and opens the door to the events which follow, culminating in the cry of the crucified Jesus, “it is fulfilled” (19:30; the NRSV translation, “it is finished”, downplays the sense of fulfilment in the verb used, teleō). The author of this Gospel thereby indicates that the deepest fulfilment of the hour of Jesus comes on the cross, as the glory of God is revealed in its entirety.

We wish to see Jesus (John 12; Lent 5B)

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’” (John 12:20-21).

The fourth Gospel, the book of signs, is distinctive in many ways. One way that it is different from the other three canonical Gospels (the Synoptic Gospels), is that it is the only work that refers specifically to Greeks coming into contact with Jesus.

Mark refers to Jesus coming into contact with a Gentile woman (Mark 7:26). Matthew reports Jesus pointing to the scripture that exclaims about the servant of the Lord, “in his name the Gentiles will hope”(Matt 12:21)—although this account includes the firm instructions of Jesus to “go nowhere among the Gentiles” (10:5), and delays right until the penultimate verse of the book any command to “make disciples of all Gentiles” (28:19).

Luke, of course, signals from the very start of the story that Jesus brings “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32), and from early days the crowds that gather to hear Jesus include people from the gentile regions (6:17). It is clear from the following volume that the intention was always for the good news to be shared with the Gentiles (Acts 10:45; 11:1,18; 13:46; 18:6; 28:28).

But Gentiles encompass far more than Greeks. And only the book of signs specifically names that Jesus comes into close contact with Greeks. Although, it could be argued that the way the text describes things, we are never told that the Greeks who have come to Jerusalem for the festival actually engage directly with Jesus. It is only through the intermediaries, Philip and Andrew, that communication with Jesus takes place.

Nevertheless, this (near) encounter appears to provide a resolution of a sort, to the question asked earlier on by the Pharisees: “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” (7:35). Although Jesus does not “go to the Dispersion”, he is engaged (at one remove) with people from the Dispersion who have come to Jerusalem.

At the minimum, this scene in Jerusalem indicates that the significance of Jesus spreads more widely than just amongst Jews. In fact this Gospel includes a number of pointers to the development of a faith community which looked beyond the parameters of Judaism as it was being shaped by the Pharisees, towards other forms of Jewish faith and life—and perhaps beyond. The Gospel is being painted on a wider canvas.

Now, all four Gospel accounts clearly locate Jesus as a Jew living in Israel. He is immersed in the context of Jewish society, culture, and religion. The book of signs makes this abundantly clear, over and over. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/

However, the early prominence accorded to John the baptiser, the fact that the first large–scale success enjoyed by Jesus was in Samaria, and the appearance of Greeks in Jerusalem, seeking Jesus, each point to a wider canvas. Sometimes this is defined as “heterodox Judaism”, in contrast to the dominant Pharisaic stream within “formative Judaism”.

Formative Judaism is one way to refer to the version of Judaism that developed in the decades and centuries after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. This was the historical precursor of current Rabbinic forms of Judaism. The separation of Christianity from that trajectory within Judaism goes back to the early followers of Jesus, interpreting his words and actions in a certain way.

The book of signs contains many indications of the growing tension between the Pharisees, the dominant party after 70:CE (when the book was written), and the developing Christian communities. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/03/raise-up-a-new-temple-jesus-and-the-jews-in-the-fourth-gospel-john-2-lent-3/

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John the baptiser is prominent at the start of each canonical gospel; scholars wonder if there was originally a link between the Jesus movement and the movement led by John the baptiser. Evidence for this link is also drawn from places such as Acts 19:1–7, and the Q passage in Luke 7 (par Matt 11).

It is John’s Gospel which provides the clearest evidence, when it recounts that the earliest followers of Jesus were drawn from the followers of John (1:35–42). John, in this gospel, does not call for repentance; rather, he bears witness to Jesus (1:6–8, 15; 1:29–36; 3:25–30; 10:41), testifying that Jesus is the light (1:7), of greater rank than John himself (1:15, 30), the Lamb of God (1:29, 36), the Son of God (1:34), the bridegroom (3:29), and, by implication, the Messiah (1:20; 3:28).

This emphatic depiction of John as deflecting attention from himself, to Jesus, indicates that there was, at an early stage, some competition between the two figures—or, at least, between their respective followers.

This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.

See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/

Thus, the reform movement within Second Temple Judaism headed by John is seen to have had some influence on the gospel, in its early stages, at least. John stands outside the Pharisaic–rabbinic stream of Judaism which would become dominant after 70 CE. This is the first indication of the influence of “heterodox Judaism” on this Gospel.

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Likewise, the prominence accorded to Samaria in John 4 can be seen as a significant indicator of an important influence shaping the gospel. This scene (like all others in this gospel) is not a straightforward historical narrative, but rather a remembering of an important part of the beliefs of the community, conveyed through the narration of a “typical” incident.

The encounter at the well (4:5–8) leads into a long scene where Jesus engages in deepening theological reflection with the Samaritan woman (4:9–28a), climaxing in the first successful missionary venture within the Jesus movement (4:28b–30, 39–42)—at least, as John recounts it. The first missionary is this anonymous Samaritan woman, and the first body of converts to Jesus are inhabitants of the Samaritan village. This story has a powerful function within this particular community’s traditions.

Samaritans are depicted as sharing a common Jewish ancestry (“our father Jacob”, 4:12) and holding an eschatological hope in the Messiah (“I know that Messiah is coming”, 4:25). They are not utterly different groups.

Yet embedded in the story are clear indications of the tensions between this northern form of Judaism and the dominant southern mode. Ordinary dealings between Jew and Samaritan are unusual (4:9), and liturgical–theological differences mark them off from one another (4:20–21). The success of Jesus’ message in this context indicates its attraction to those outside the “mainstream”.

See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/10/the-pharisee-of-jerusalem-and-the-woman-of-samaria-john-3-and-4/

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The words and ideas found in the Prologue to the gospel (1:1–18) have led to a further hypothesis that Hellenistic Judaism had been influential in the context in which the gospel was shaped. The role of the Logos is akin to the role of Wisdom within Hellenistic Jewish literature —both as the agent by which God created the world, and as the means by which God reveals knowledge and truth to the world.

See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/31/in-the-beginning-the-prologue-and-the-book-of-signs-john-1/

We know that Judaism had long been influenced by the Greek–speaking world. Hellenistic culture is reflected in numerous Jewish writings. In this gospel, the account of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus (12:20–22) is a clear indication of the interaction between the community of the gospel, and the wider hellenised world.

The issue is explicitly raised by the question of the Pharisees at 7:35; “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” The signs we have noted above point to this influence at various points throughout the gospel.

These elements need not necessarily be reflecting events in the ministry of Jesus himself, but more likely point to the context in which the Gospel was shaped, and the factors that influenced the way the story of Jesus was presented.

The community which received this Gospel indicates that the kind of Judaism which has influenced the gospel was not of the dominant, Pharisaic–rabbinic kind. It had become open to the wider world; perhaps the community which first received this Gospel had already become somewhat diversified in its composition.

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/16/the-hour-has-come-glorify-your-son-john-12-lent-5/

This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

Disturbance, disruption, and destabilising words (Mark 8; Lent 2B)

The Gospel passage that is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Mark 8:31-38) is filled with elements that disturb, disrupt, and destabilise.

Disturbance. The disturbing element comes in the words that Jesus speaks, about a crisis that he sees ahead for himself and his disciples. Jesus declares that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).

The crisis will plunge Jesus and his followers into the depths of death: first, a trial and a verdict; then, a crucifixion and a burial. Although he warns them of this (here, and twice more on later occasions), they seem not to be prepared for this sequence of events when it eventually transpires.

There is a curious end to the words Jesus spoke: “after three days, rise again”. How did the disciples understand this? Why did they not show any understanding of this, when Jesus was crucified and buried?

In my reading, this prophecy placed on the lips of Jesus is the work of the author who crafted this Gospel narrative. The author knows the end of the story. He seeds these words into the narrative to give greater authority to Jesus, portraying him as a person in tune with the way of God, knowing in advance the fate in store for him.

But the fact that when these things happen, the disciples fail to remember, let alone comprehend, what Jesus had said, makes me suspicious. Death by crucifixion was a fate reserved by the Romans for political rebels and criminals. How could the disciples not remember that Jesus was identifying himself with this marginalised, despised group?

Immediately after this passage, Mark narrates the Transfiguration (which was offered by the lectionary two weeks ago, on the Sunday at the end of Epiphany, the season of light). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/02/08/transfigured-lives-in-the-here-and-now-mark-9-and-1-kings-2/

And after that revelatory mountaintop event, the same prophecy of Jesus that he uttered (according to Mark) prior to the Transfiguration, is repeated and expanded, on two further occasions, in the narrative that follows. Mark asserts that Jesus persists with his prophecy.

Soon after the transfiguration, after returning to the level plain, Jesus repeats his words, that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (9:31), and then offers a variant of his central claim on his followers: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).

And for a third time, some time later on, Jesus declares, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:34-35).

This is followed, once more, by clear instructions to his followers: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44).

These three predictions, followed immediately by challenging teachings, form a central pivot point in the overall storyline of this Gospel. They pivot from the activities of Jesus in Galilee (chapters 1-8) and the fateful events that take place in Jerusalem (chapters 11-16). The pivot is emphasised by the bracketing, around this whole section, that is provided by two accounts of Jesus healing blind men: first in Bethsaida (8:22-26), then later in Jericho (10:46-52). These bracketing scenes cry out: do the followers of Jesus not see what he is saying?

This is a literary device, intentionally planted here by the author, to sharpen the focus on to the central characteristic of following Jesus. And that is what Jesus then elucidates, with piercing insight, for the first time, after the prophetic words of 8:31.

Disruption. The teaching which Jesus provides is destabilising for his followers. Jesus leads into this destabilising teaching with a dialogue that creates a clear disruption for the disciples. This disruption comes in the interchange between Jesus and Peter (8:32-33).

Peter, acting and speaking on behalf of the disciples (and perhaps on behalf of us as well?) is affronted by talk of suffering, rejection, and death—to say nothing of resurrection! His rebuke of Jesus (8:32) is quite understandable; after all, he was the one chosen by God to bring renewal to Israel. How could he do this, if he is to die as a criminal, hanging on a cross?

However, Jesus appears quite clear about what his fate will be: it is as if he has entered into a covenant with God which involves suffering, and leads to death. At his baptism, he was declared to be the beloved son with whom God was well pleased (1:12); then, at his transfiguration, he was reaffirmed as beloved by God, the to whom people should listen (9:7).

Those passages sound like Jesus will be accorded a prominent position, well on the pathway to glory. Perhaps that is how the disciples understood those words.

Jesus, however (at least, the Jesus whom Mark portrays to us) appears to know the inner dynamic involved in this divine recognition. He knows of the necessity of suffering and death. (The Greek uses the tiny word dei, signalling the inevitable fate, the inescapable future: the Son of Man must suffer.

This pathway is set to follow the way of the Servant of Israel, set out in the series of great poems reflecting on the fate of the servant (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; 52:13-53:13). For in each of these songs, the servant faces opposition, harassment, violence–and then, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity”, he encounters his fate: “he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases … he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed … by a perversion of justice he was taken away … he was cut off from the land of the living” (Isa 52:3-5, 8).

That Jesus saw the relevance of these songs to his mission is signalled in various places in Mark’s narrative–see, for instance, his words at 10:43-45, on being a servant, and especially 10:45 (“giving his life as a random for many”).

The disciples are focussed on the promises and possibilities in following Jesus; they can see only a wonderful glory. Jesus himself is portrayed as being aware of the very different dynamics he will face as he walks the pathway to a new future.

Destabilising words. So Jesus articulates what this pathway entails. What he says to his followers is thoroughly destabilising (8:34-38). Because in what he says, he turns things right upside down. (This might be behind the accusation raised against followers of Jesus in Thessaloniki, where they were known as people who have been “turning the world upside down”, Acts 17:6).

Jesus begins by relating discipleship to the fate that he has predicted is in store for himself, personally: it is a pathway to the cross. As he will be crucified, so his followers must “take up their cross” (8:34). Not only he, but also they, will be identified with the fate of hardened criminals and treasonous rebels.

In the Roman world, crucifixion was variously identified as a punishment for slaves (Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.168), bandits (Josephus, War 5.449-451), prisoners of war (Josephus, War 5.451), and political rebels (Josephus, Antiquities 17.295).

In the narratives that recount the crucifixion of Jesus, it is not so much the physical torment of Jesus which is highlighted (although, admittedly, a slow death by suffocation whilst hanging on a cross for hours, even days, was a terrible fate). Rather, it is the various ways in which Jesus was shamed: he was spat upon, physically struck on the face and the head, verbally ridiculed and insulted, and treated contemptuously.

This is the way of Jesus; and the way of his followers. Instead of saving their life, the followers of Jesus are instructed to lose their life.

Instead of aiming to “gain the whole world”, and thereby “forfeit their life”, a follower is, by implication, to let go of all hopes of “gaining the world” (8:35-37). To gain the world was presumably referring to occupying a position of power, prestige, and popularity–precisely the kind of issues that later writers, Matthew and Luke, reflected in their more detailed accounts of the testing of Jesus in the wilderness. (See https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/johntsquires.com/2019/03/05/a-testing-time-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-1/)

Jesus ends his words by referring to a central cultural element: that of shame. The ancient Mediterranean world was infused with a set of values and practices shaped by a clear and unambiguous honour—shame culture. Everyone had their place in that culture; to act inappropriately would mean that a person was seen to be out of their assigned place, disrespectful of the honour code, meriting the assessment of others, for them to be ashamed of that person.

The honour—shame culture runs through the Hebrew Scriptures. The ancient Hebrews affirmed that honour belongs primarily to God (1 Chron 16:27), so that God could bestow honour on those who were faithful to his ways (Ps 92:14-15). The same idea is expressed in the version of Isa 28:16 which is cited at 1 Pet 2:6, which modifies the ending to provide explicit reference to the claim that God will not shame believers.

God can thus honour human beings (Ps 8:5), even those regarded as shameful (Zeph 3:19)–and conversely, God could shame those accorded honour by humans (Isa 23:9). Paul later reflects this in one of his letters to Corinth (1 Cor 1:27).

Honour was likewise praised by Greek philosophers as “the greatest of all external goods” (Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 1), whilst Xenophon considered that honour was what differentiated humans from animals (Hiero 7.3).

Philo of Alexandria, bridging both Jewish and Hellenistic worlds, affirmed that “fame and honour are a most precarious possession, tossed about on the reckless tempers and flighty words of careless men” (Life of Abraham 264).

Of course, identification with the cross, in Jesus’ earlier saying (8:34), would be a cause of shame, not of honour (Heb 12:2). It would be seen by other humans as being shameful.

However, that’s not the case in God’s eyes, as Jesus articulates it; the cross would become the badge of honour for the followers of Jesus, not the mark of shame.

So the declaration of shame in this last verse (8:38) reflects the shame, in God’s eyes, of rejecting Jesus. This section ends with yet another paradox: to gain honour, a person must follow Jesus, take up the shameful instrument of punishment (the cross), lay aside all desire to gain prestigious and powerful positions of honour, give up any claim on life itself, and (as Jesus later asserts), live as a servant, being willing to be dishonoured for the sake of the shame of the Gospel.

And that’s the challenge that confronts us in this passage: disturbing, disrupting, destabilising as that may be.

Forty days, led by the Spirit: Jesus in the wilderness (Mark 1; Lent 1B)

This week we once more read and hear from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one, which we attribute to the evangelist Mark. We hear specifically this Sunday from the very beginning of the story that Mark tells, about the very early stages of the public activity of Jesus.

We have already read about John the baptiser during Advent (Advent 2), and heard Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus (Epiphany 1). Now, in this week’s Gospel reading (Lent 1), Jesus is baptised, plunged deep into the water, from which he emerges changed (1:9-11).

This scene is sometimes regarded as Jesus attesting in public to a deeply personal religious experience that he had in his encounter with John, who had been preaching his message of repentance with some vigour (1:4-11). His encounter with John deepens his faith and sharpens his commitment.

The relationship between Jesus and John is interesting. In the orderly account of things being fulfilled, which we attribute to Luke, it is clear from the start that John is related to Jesus (Luke 1:36). By tradition, they are considered to be cousins–although the biblical text does not anywhere expressly state this.

It seems also that some of the early followers of Jesus had previously been followers of John himself. This is evidenced in the book of signs, which we attribute to the evangelist John. Andrew, later to be listed among the earliest group of followers of Jesus, appears initially as one of two followers of John (John 1:35-40). They express interest in what John is teaching (John 1:39).

Andrew is the brother of Simon Peter, later acknowledged as the leader of the disciples of Jesus. He tells his brother about Jesus. It is Peter who comes to a clear and definitive understanding of the significance of Jesus, even at this very early stage: “we have found the Messiah” (John 1:41). Andrew and John are thenceforth committed disciples of Jesus.

Was Jesus engaging in “sheep-stealing”? Certainly, the dynamic in the narrative is of a movement shifting away from John the baptiser towards Jesus the Messiah; the juxtaposition of these two religious figures can be seen at a number of points (John 1:20, 29-34, 35-36; see also 3:22-30).

See further thoughts on John the baptiser in John’s Gospel at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/07/the-witness-of-john/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/

None of this is in view in the account we read in this Sunday’s Gospel. The rapid-fire movement in this opening chapter simply takes us from John, baptising in the Jordan, to Jesus at the Jordan and then in the wilderness, and on into Galilee, beside the lake and in Capernaum (Mark 1:1-45).

See my comments on the character of Mark 1 at https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/18/lets-get-down-to-business-beginning-the-story-of-jesus-mark-1/

Mark has no concern with exploring the relationship between Jesus and John. He wishes only to indicate that, at the critical moment of the beginning of the public activity of Jesus, it was through contact with John, his message and his actions, that Jesus was impelled into his mission.

*****

The Gospel account moves quickly on from the baptism, to a very different scene, set in the wilderness, where Jesus is tested, challenged about his call (1:12-15). The wilderness was the location of testing for Israel (Exod 17:1-7; Num 11:1-15; Deut 8:2). By the same token, the wilderness was also the place where “Israel tested God” (Num 14:20-23), when Israel grumbled and complained to God (see Exod 14-17, Num 11 and 14). Wilderness and testing go hand-in-hand.

The reference to Jesus being forty days in the wilderness evokes both the “forty years” of wilderness wandering for the people of Israel (Exod 16:35; Deut 2:7, 8:2, 29:5; Neh 9:21; Amos 2:10, 5:25), as well as the “forty days” that Moses spent fasting on Mount Sinai (Exod 34:28; Deut 9:9-11,18,25; 10:10).

Forty, however, should be regarded not as a strict chronological accounting, but as an expression indicating “an extended period of time”, whether that be in days or in years. It points to the symbolic nature of the account.

We see this usage of forty, for instance, in the comment in Judges, that “the land had rest forty years” (Judges 5:31, 8:28)–a statement that really means “for quite a long time”. Likewise, Israel was “given into the hands of the Philistines forty years” (Judges 13:1) and Eli the priest served for 40 years (1 Sam 4:18).

David the king reigned for 40 years (2 Sam 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11; 1 Chron 29:27), his son Solomon then reigned for another 40 years (1 Kings 11:42; 2 Chron 9:30), as also did Jehoash (2 Kings 12:1) and his son Jeroboam (2 Kings 14:23). If we take these as precise chronological periods, it is all very neat and tidy and orderly–and rather unbelievable!

Other instances of forty point to the same generalised sense of an extended time. Elijah journeyed from Mount Carmel to Mount Horeb “forty days and forty nights” (1 Kings 19:8), whilst the prophet Ezekiel’s announcement of punishments lasting forty years (Ezekiel 29:10-13) is intended to indicate “for a long time”, not for a precise chronological period. Jonah’s prophecy that there will be forty days until Nineveh is overthrown (Jonah 3:4) has the same force.

So the story of the testing of Jesus for “forty days in the wilderness” is not a precise accounting of exact days, but draws on a scriptural symbol for an extended, challenging period of time.

Details about the conversation that took place whilst Jesus was being tested in the wilderness are provided in the accounts in the Gospels attributed to Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13). This is not the case in Mark, where the much shorter account (1:12-13) focusses attention on the key elements of this experience: the wilderness, testing, wild beasts, angels–and the activity of the Spirit.

For more on Jesus in the wilderness, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/08/sacred-place-and-sacred-scripture-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/05/a-testing-time-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-1/

*****

The Markan account of this period of testing is typically concise and focussed. The constituent elements in the story continue the symbolic character of the narrative.

The note that “he was with the wild beasts” sounds like the wilderness experience was a rugged time of conflict and tension for Jesus. However, commentators note that the particular Greek construction employed here is found elsewhere in this Gospel to describe companionship and friendly association: Jesus appointed twelve apostles “to be with him” (3:14); the disciples “took him [Jesus] with them onto the boat” (4:36); the man previously possessed by demons begged Jesus “that he might be with him” (5:14); and a servant girl declares to Peter that she saw “you also were with Jesus” (14:67).

If this Greek construction bears any weight, then it is pointing to the companionable, friendly association of the wild beasts with Jesus—a prefiguring of the eschatological harmony envisaged at the end of time, when animals and humans all live in harmony (Isaiah 11:6-9; Hosea 2:18). The wilderness scene has a symbolic resonance, then, with this vision.

Alongside the wild beasts, angels are present—and their function is quite specifically identified as “waiting on him” (1:13). The Greek word used here is most certainly significant. The word diakonein has the basic level of “waiting at table”, but in Markan usage it is connected with service, as we see in the descriptions of Peter’s healed mother-in-law (1:31), the women who followed Jesus as disciples from Galilee to the cross (15:41), and most clearly in the saying of Jesus that he came “not to be served, but to serve” (10:45). The service of the angels symbolises the ultimate role that Jesus will undertake.

Finally, we note that the whole scene of the testing of Jesus takes place under the impetus of the Spirit, which “drove him out into the wilderness” (1:12). This was the place that Jesus just had to be; the action of the Spirit, so soon after descending on him like a dove (1:11), reinforces the importance and essential nature of the testing that was to take place in the wilderness.

And the action of driving out is expressed in a single word which contains strong elements of force—the word is used to describe the confrontational moment of exorcism (1:34, 39; 3:15, 22-23; 6:13; 9:18, 28, 38) and is also used with great force at 11:15. The testing in the wilderness becomes a moment when Jesus comes face to face with his adversary, Satan—and casts his power aside. The more developed dialogues in Matthew and Luke expand on this understanding of the encounter.

*****

Both of the key elements in this reading (baptism and testing) serve a key theological purpose in Mark’s narrative. They shape Jesus for what lies ahead. They signal that Jesus was dramatically commissioned by God, then rigorously equipped for the task he was then to undertake amongst his people. The two elements open the door to the activities of Jesus that follow in the ensuing 13 chapters, right up to the time when the long-planned plot against Jesus, initiated at 3:6, is put into action (14:1-2).

Of course, this story is offered in the lectionary each year on the first Sunday in the season of Lent. It serves as an introduction to the whole season. Jesus being tested in the wilderness points forward, to the series of events taking place in Jerusalem, that culminate in his crucifixion, death, and burial.

The narrative arc of Mark’s Gospel runs from the baptism and wilderness testing, through to death at Golgotha and burial in a tomb. The weekly pattern of Gospel readings during Lent follows a parallel path, from the wilderness testing of Lent 1, to the entry into Jerusalem on Lent 6, the farewell meal on Maundy Thursday, and the death and burial on Good Friday.

That is the path that Jesus trod. That is the way that he calls us to walk.

Holy Week: a week set apart, in a time set apart.

Today we begin Holy Week. This is the final part of a longer period leading up to Easter, called Lent. We do this every year, as part of the annual cycle. It is a familiar and comforting ritual for many people of Christian faith.

This year, however, will be different. In the middle of a viral pandemic, with restrictions prohibiting gathering for worship, Christian people will be walking through Holy Week in their own homes, not in gatherings at church. This is a week set apart, for people of faith, in a time set apart, for all of society.

We are not able to gather together. This year, people of faith are not gathering together. Instead, we are gathering-apart, through virtual worship, online. (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/)

Holy Week culminates the season of Lent, which is an ancient practice for a Christian people. It lasts for 40 days, serving as a time of preparation for Easter. But whereas Lent is an ancient tradition, Holy Week is a more recent development. Designating the week leading up to Easter as Holy Week most probably comes from the narration of chapters 11 and 12 of Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus is understood as being in Jerusalem from a Sunday until his last meal on a Thursday.

The week starts with Palm Sunday when Christians remember Jesus entering Jerusalem and the crowds waving palm leaves as he enters the city. Jesus stays near to the city for the remainder of the week. This year, we have not remembered that event with festive processions and cheerful hymns. Many of my colleagues have provided resources for Virtual Worship, Church At Home, Postcards for Reflection, and the like. People are gathering-apart.

On Maundy Thursday, Christians remember Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. His words are recorded in John 13:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” This gives rise to the name for the day. The Latin for “commandment” is mandatum—hence the name of the day, Maundy.

Some people believe that Lent officially ends at sundown on Maundy Thursday, so they celebrate that with Holy Communion, or with a meal known as an agapé or a “love feast”. It is a remembrance of the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers. Others maintain that Lent continues through into Easter Saturday, until the end of the day just before the empty tomb is discovered.

After Maundy Thursday comes Good Friday, remembering when Jesus was crucified. Why is this day called Good? It comes from the theological evaluation that, on this Friday, Jesus died on the cross “for our sins”, thereby securing our redemption. This is the basis for the “good news” which the Church has proclaimed for centuries.

Churches all around the world normally hold various rituals for people to attend. Roman Catholics have the Adoration of the Cross, the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified, the Stations of the Cross, and Evening Prayers. Anglicans have a three-hour service with reflections on the Last Words of Christ. Many people come for these times of gathering together. But not this year—we have to gather-apart.

The Stations of the Cross are focused around the events of Good Friday, recalling the various events which took place as Jesus made his way from his trial to his death on the cross. These Stations have been appropriated, in art or through personal creative responses, as ways of moving attention from the story as a singular ‘history’, to the significance of the story and the resonance of the events with universal human experiences.

This year, gathering together is not possible. As we gather-apart, there is the opportunity for personal reflection; perhaps, for instance, using this exhibition of contemporary art work that was specifically commissioned in 2015: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=UUDH-6NVr6aj6X6DAmzSKLvg

Next comes Holy Saturday or Easter Eve—a day of vigil, when believers watch, wait and pray. This is an in-between time, a day when time can be spent reflecting back on the traumatic events that have just taken place, and looking forward with hope to the new possibilities that might emerge from those event.

(I will make a post about Holy Saturday on that day.)

After Holy Saturday, the celebration of Easter Sunday bursts through the gloom and despair with a vibrant message: Jesus is risen, Jesus has conquered death. Counting inclusively, as was done at the time, beginning from Friday, means that Sunday is the third day. So the traditional affirmation is that Jesus rose “on the third day”. This leads into an expression of joy, that the trauma and grief, the uncertainty and fear, are now passed. Life is different; hope is renewed; the future, even if it looks different, will still be viable.

For the next period of time, the Church moves into a new season—the season of Easter, 40 days when the celebration of resurrection continues. And so the cycle continues, death turning into life, despair breaking out into hope, frustration moving into promise.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/03/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-acclaiming-the-king-anticipating-the-kingdom/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/it-was-on-that-night-that-everything-came-to-a-head-maundy-thursday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/sacrificial-death-to-give-his-life-good-friday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/liminal-space-waiting-and-not-knowing-holy-saturday-reflections/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/07/liberating-life-a-new-way-of-being-easter-sunday-reflections/

The Pharisee of Jerusalem and the woman of Samaria (John 3 and 4; Lent 2–3A)

The Gospel reading last Sunday (John 3) 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.

The Gospel reading this coming Sunday (John 4) is set in the blaze of light at midday in the open air, as an unnamed woman from a village in Samaria engages in conversation with the same teacher of Nazareth, also discussing faith and life.

The contrasts between the two scenes are regularly noted: different genders, different locations, different social status of the people involved, and so on. Often the importance of symbolism in this Gospel, the book of signs, is emphasised. All of this is important, not to be overlooked.

And because of the high-status position of the male, a prominent Pharisee in the capital city, the on-the-edge location of the woman and her uncertain marital status (4:16-18) is often used to push her into a position that the text does not actually state, as a pariah, an outcast on account of her (presumed) immorality. The Pharisee—pariah contrast is enticing. But that is not what I want to support or reinforce.

What I want to offer in this blog, is a reflection on the similarities between these two scenes. Both of the individuals who encounter Jesus engage with him in conversations that move through a series of phases, going deeper into the issues raised. Both conversations proceed 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).

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).

After this, the teacher launches into a longer explanation in response to the questions posed by the Pharisee—an explanation which continues on for some time, 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.

When we move on into the next extended story in the Gospel, the conversation between the woman of Samaria and the teacher from Nazareth, we find the same dynamic in play. This conversation also proceeds by means of question and answer.

That, in itself, is significant: the anonymous woman employs the same technique that was demonstrated by the named Pharisee—both of them are functioning as intelligent, thoughtful people of faith, using the regular methods employed by the teachers of the Law in ancient Israel. The woman is implicitly placed on the same level as the man. They are both engaging in the typical rabbinic-style of back-and-forth question-and-answer.

The conversation that the teacher from Nazareth has with the woman is reported in far more length than the earlier one with the Pharisee. The evangelist has maintained the role of the woman as an equal in the conversation. She asks a series of thoughtful questions which lead the conversation in the direction it takes.

The matter of water is the presenting issue. The Samaritan woman asks the man from Nazareth, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (4:9). The evangelist here intersperses an editorial comment about the tensions between Jews and Samaritans.

That question leads to a deeper level, reflecting on traditions about water. The woman observes, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep”, and then asks, “Where do you get that living water?” She cites traditions common both to Jews and Samaritans: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” (4:11-12)

After the man from Nazareth responds, the focus turns to the pastoral need, the matter of water quenching thirst. The woman asks the man to give him this water “so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (4:15). What then ensues is a deepening of the conversation once more, as the ensuing interchange (4:16-18) leads to a clear affirmation, by the woman, of the status of the man in society: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet” (4:19a).

It is the woman, through the process of question-and-answer, dialogue and discussion, who comes to this affirmation of faith in the man.

But this is not the end of the conversation, and the dialogue that ensues will delve into a significant theological issue, with a strong communal dimension—that of worship. This lifts the conversation out of the strictly interpersonal dimension of woman-to-man, into a broader realm of Samaritan-to-Jew. This next phase of discussion (4:19b-24) deepens the conversation considerably. And the woman, this anonymous person from the much-despised northern group of Samaritans, is holding her own,with the teacher from Nazareth.

To my mind, there are two critical affirmations in what is said to her here: “salvation is from the Jews”, and “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth”. The woman has drawn these statements froth from the teacher of Nazareth.

Yet there is a still-deeper level into which the conversation moves; one which culminates in a confession of faith, articulated with caution by the woman (“I know that Messiah is coming”), which is met by a clear affirmation by the man of Nazareth, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (4:25-26). This is the first of a number of key affirmations made in this Gospel, each of which is introduced by the key phrase, “I am”. (See the later declarations, “I am … bread, light, shepherd, door, resurrection, way, truth, life”—all highly significant affirmations.)

It is the woman of Samaria who has drawn forth this first signal affirmation by the teacher of Nazareth.

The conversation ends at this point; but the story continues, with a couple of additional scenes, involving, first, the disciples of the teacher from Nazareth, and then the people of the city where the woman of Samaria lives. What happens in that final scene is of critical importance in understanding the extended dialogue, the ever-deepening question-and-answer, between the woman and the man in John 4.

At this point, we need to consider how the key characters in each of these conversations with the teacher from Nazareth (John 3 and John 4) evolve. The two characters in these conversations demonstrate a movement from their starting point, through a process that, for each of them, leads to a clear statement of faith in that person. Both the Pharisee and the woman are, at the end, clearly depicted as disciples 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.

The woman of Samaria, we learn as we follow the intricacies of the discussion in just one chapter (John 4), moves from being a curious discussion partner, to someone who recognises something deeper about the teacher and prophet from Nazareth, to making a clear connection with the enduring Hebraic hope for a Messiah—and then, in the final scene, to be the first evangelist to bear witness to this belief (at least, according to this Gospel).

This woman goes back to her city, where she testifies to the one who she had encountered. Sadly, however, she remains without a name, at least as far as the biblical witness attests. She is always “the Samaritan woman”.

Yet this impressive woman leads the people of her city to make the highest confession of faith: “we know he is the Saviour of the world” (4:42).

This week, and this Sunday, let us give thanks for this woman: thoughtful, enquiring and questioning, engaging in conversation, deepening in understanding, growing in faith, practising her discipleship by testifying to Jesus, and standing as the first evangelist in this particular Gospel record.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/07/the-paraclete-in-john-15-exploring-the-array-of-translation-options/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/23/in-defence-of-thomas-a-doubting-sceptic-or-a-passionate-firebrand/