Before getting too much deeper into the Gospel of John, some definition is in order. The translation that is used for these commentaries is The Complete Gospels, The Scholars Version, Fourth Edition (Polebridge Press, Salem Oregon, 2010). In a cameo essay (pp. 203-204), the scholars clarify the meaning of the Greek word Ioudaios, traditionally translated as “Jew.” That traditional meaning has led to centuries of abuse of Jews by Christians world-wide, because the Gospel of John seems to blame “the Jews” for the persecution and death of Jesus. The scholars spell out three uses for the Greek word in the current translation:
(1) A neutral sense, as when the customs, rites, and particularities of the people of Judea are described or referred to. Here “Judean(s)” is used.
(2) A sense that implies some ethnic interaction and competition. In some instances in which Ioudaios has this sense, the word carries hints of what later became the Jewish/Christian separation. Here SV uses the term “Jews” and “Jewish.”
(3) Ioudaios could be used to slur an opponent because rather than the primary indicator of social identity (such as “Israelite,” “descendant of Abraham,” “of the tribe of …”) it was a term that foreigners commonly applied to Israelites. In these cases Ioudaios is better translated as “Judean” to convey or suggest a demeaning intent. One could put down fellow Israelites using a term that does not convey the richness of identity and social pedigree. One’s opponent is thus diminished by being given a foreigner’s label.
After Jesus returned to Cana, Galilee, following his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, a “government official” from Capernaum “approached Jesus and pleaded with him to come down and cure his son, who was about to die.” The encounter is simple. The official asks Jesus to heal his son. Jesus seems exasperated. He says, “You people refuse to believe unless you see signs and omens.” The official insists that Jesus come before the child dies. Jesus says, “Go home, your son will live.” The official believes him, and on his way home learns that at the exact moment when Jesus said “Your son will live,” the fever broke and the child’s life was saved. John is careful to point out that this was the second sign Jesus performed “after he had returned from Judea to Galilee.” Remember, those people who lived in Judea, where Jesus was born, had no respect for him (confirmed in Mark 6:4, Matthew 13:57, Luke 4:24, and Thomas 31).
Next, “on the occasion of a Jewish festival, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” Now comes the well-known miracle of the disabled man who was never able to get into the Bethesda pool in time to be healed. This is a favorite of Christian worship leaders and Sunday School teachers. Most often, we learn that Jesus first asks the man if he wants to get well. We assume the man says “yes,” because after the man explains that “while I’m trying to get in someone else beats me to it,” Jesus tells him to pick up his mat and walk. There is some interplay between the Judeans and the man – who has no clue who Jesus was. Once he figures it out, he tells the Judeans. Good little boys and girls used to learn fairly quickly that “therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day” (KJV).
John follows this miracle with an extensive defense of Jesus by Jesus, which contains what became the “dogma” that Jesus is God: “Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:21-23, NRSV); “How can you believe when you accept the glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?” (John 5:44, NRSV).
Before any of this can speak to 21st century post-modern, post-enlightenment, post-Christian minds (if it can), first remember that John’s Gospel is an extended proof – an argument. It is possibly a last-ditch effort to avoid a schism in John’s synagogue. So it is no mistake that the first miracle in this section of the gospel happened to a foreigner – or possibly a collaborator. This foreigner/collaborator “government official” came to Jesus asking for healing. The second miracle concerned a man “crippled for thirty-eight years.” But in this case Jesus came to him and asked him if he wanted to get well. The man never says yes. He just complains that he has no one to put him into the pool, and when he does try to get in on his own, somebody else gets in first.
Enter “the Judeans.” Here, John uses the term as a put-down – equating local Jewish religious leaders with foreigners. Remember that we just encountered a “foreigner” (or a collaborator with foreigners) who believed in and accepted Jesus because of the miracle. But these religious “foreigners” object to the formerly disabled man carrying his mat around on the Sabbath. The man has no clue who cured him, but he is quick to claim that the one who cured him told him to break the law. Then the man points out Jesus to the Judeans. Jesus then claims that “My Father never stops working, and I work as well.” This adds insult (claiming to be equal with God) to injury (healing on the Sabbath, or causing people to carry their mats on the Sabbath, thereby “working” on the Sabbath). Jesus then launches into his defense. The defense ends with the charge that the Judeans don’t believe their own tradition. By now it’s strike two against the religious leaders: Nicodemus’ spiritual ignorance was strike one.
In an interesting detail, before the formerly disabled man identifies him, Jesus finds the man in the temple area, and warns him: “Don’t sin anymore, or something worse could happen to you.” A non-sequitur, which either points to Jesus as Judge in the following defense, or indicates that Jesus knew it was a sin that disabled the man in the first place (as he knew the Samaritan woman had six husbands), or that the sin was that the man was quite comfortable in his role as victim. He never says “yes,” when asked if he wants to get well. He blames others for his plight. Then when Jesus the “do-gooder” offers healing, the man gets into trouble with the law. The man can’t get a break. Jesus then delivers his warning about sin, and the man decides, “Screw this!” and denounces Jesus to the religious authorities.
Certainly plenty of fodder for sermons can be found in the contrast between the government official (collaborator, foreigner) who trusts Jesus (and by metaphorical inference “life”) and the complacent victim who seems comfortable blaming others for his condition. But the underlying twist in the plot is that the government official, the possible collaborator with Roman occupiers, the outsider, would not be expected to trust Jesus’ power, yet he did. The disabled victim at the water’s edge, presumably an insider, a member of the Jewish community, betrayed the one who offered healing and wholeness.
John’s first lengthy defense of Jesus contains little that makes sense for progressive Christians, let alone contemporary religious skeptics. Perhaps the only relevant verses for the 21st century are 5:39-40. John’s Jesus says, “You pore over the scriptures because you imagine that in them there’s unending life to be had. They do indeed give evidence on my behalf, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
Presbyterians and other “insiders” continue to quarrel about inerrantcy of scripture, while denying human and civil rights to GLBT members of our communities. Entities associated with the Southern Baptist Convention even pulled Bibles off the shelves at Walmart when they discovered the proceeds went to Planned Parenthood. Better total scriptural ignorance of the so-called “savior of the world” than allow women access to life-saving medical care. Catholic institutions have been put to a true test of morality because the Affordable Care Act requires coverage for birth control for non-Catholic employees, whether they are believing insiders or not.
John’s Jesus says, “Don’t suppose that I’ll be your accuser before the Father. You have an accuser, and it’s Moses – the one you were relying on.” Moses brought God’s law to the people: “Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This, Jesus reminded the people, is the first and most important of God’s laws. The second is,“You are to love your neighbor as yourself” (see Mark 12:28-31). John’s Jesus confronts establishment hypocrisy head-on: “since you don’t really believe what [Moses] wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”