‘It’s What he Didn’t Say That’s Important’

Posted: May 6, 2020 in Uncategorized

John 14:1- 7

‘It’s What he Didn’t Say That’s Important’

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘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.’

One of the most pervasive and misconstrued texts in John’s Gospel is the suggested reply Jesus makes to Thomas’s questions about Jesus’s future. “We don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way?” And Jesus answers saying “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. The trouble is that it is almost certain that Jesus did not say that at all. It is on much scholastic work, agreed that the text is the author’s words seeking to argue that Jesus is ‘The Christ’.

One of the most horrible outcomes of this mis-construal is what we are seeing in the United States and in many places around the world today. Lack of tolerance with difference and the resurgence of racism, sexism, and an acceptance of belligerent bullying attitudes. Individualism gone mad perhaps.

Rev Hunt tells of what happened for him when he was a student at Melbourne Uni. In the mid to late 1960s. A member of EU (Evangelical Union), a religious group on campus, came up to his lunch table in the student union cafe of the university. ‘Do you believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life?’ asked a very intense, but earnest fellow student. Rex was a bit dumbstruck and didn’t quite know how to answer him. So, he just smiled politely folded his meat and salad sandwich in its waxed lunch wrap, and got up to leave.

‘He’s the way!  The only way to salvation!  Get on board before it’s too late!’

Here we have an inkling of what the power of a misconstrued text is. When read as justification for exclusivity ‘I am” ‘‘The only one” “believe or else” it creates an environment of, belligerence and intolerance and the escalation of disagreement.

Rex left the cafeteria, angry, embarrassed and frustrated. The desperation of the guy’s certainty both frightened and angered Rex. Years later the sureness of conviction, and the exclusivity of it, still makes me him feel uncomfortable.

Returning to our text we have to consider what John has Jesus say is bad advice. John Kirwan the former all black in promoting an honest engagement with men’s depression suggests that the ‘harden up mate’ and the ‘toughen up get over it’ response is bad advice

In our therapy-infused culture, this is considered horrible advice.  Feelings should not be “held in,” but expressed openly.  The author of John must have missed that lecture.  He gives a message not unlike the one that John Kirwan rubbishes.

“Do not let your heart be troubled.”  John has Jesus urging his disciples to move beyond their anxiety and to “trust into God and trust into me.”  (The word is pisteuein, more properly translated as “trust” or “faith” rather than “believe.”  Also, the preposition is eis, which means “into,” not “in.”)  John has Jesus asking his disciples to put their “troubles” in the proper perspective and to see them in light of God’s power.  This is not a lot different from “smile and get over it.”  See your pain, or your troubles, disappear by believing in what I say about this guy Jesus.

Another concern about misconstrued text is the fact that in the English language, the word “you” serves as both the second person singular and the second person plural.  Most other languages, however, have a distinct word for the second person plural.  Most people don’t realize that the vast majority of all uses of the word “you” in the Greek New Testament are plural.  To put it another way, if we read these texts as being individually addressed to us, we are mistaken.  They were not addressed to individuals, but rather to a community. When John has Jesus say, “Do not let your (pl.) heart be troubled.”  The disciples, collectively, have a “troubled heart.”  In Johns gospel, Jesus himself had also been “troubled” on three occasions.  He was “troubled” at the reaction to his raising of Lazarus (11:33), the approach of the cross (12:26), and Judas’ betrayal (13:21).  Now, this emotion is ascribed also to the community itself. “In the house of my Father, they are many habitations.”  The word translated as “habitations” is monai.  In the popular imagination, this is often taken to mean that the Presbyterians will have a room–indeed, a mansion–and so will the Catholics and the Baptists. 

Monai actually means a temporary resting place for a traveler.  It was associated with caravans.  In those days, there would be a contingent of folk who would go ahead of the caravan to “prepare a place” so that when the caravan arrived there, the camp ground had been prepared, the water supply located, and food prepared.  The travelers in the caravan would have a place of comfort to spend the night.

So, Monai is less about getting some fancy room in the hereafter, in a house separate from the people you can’t stand, and more about welcome, hospitality, and community for people traveling on a journey. This sentence is reminiscent of Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy 1:33 where he says that the Lord “goes before you in the way to choose a place.”  Just as Moses led the people into the Promised Land, so Jesus will lead his people to the place where he himself is going.  (“I come again and I will take you to myself so that, where I am, I and you might be.”)

Then we come to ‘The Way’:  “And you know the way–hodon–to the place where I am going.”  The concept of “the way” had been around awhile.  Moses had used the phrase “in the way” in the Deuteronomy passage.  Likewise, the Psalms refer to the Torah as “the way” (Ps 119: 29-34).  Moreover, according to the book of Acts, the Christian faith was first known as “the way.”  The word hodos, or “way,” is used over 100 times in the New Testament.  Its use here, however, is the only time it appears in the fourth gospel. 

Thomas is taken aback.  “We do not know the way,” he says.  When Jesus had announced, in chapter 11, that he was returning to the Jerusalem area, a place of danger, Thomas fatalistically declares that they might as well go with Jesus and “die with him” (11:16).  Thomas knew “the way” that led to death well enough, but not “the way” that leads to life.

Jesus spells it out.  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  Earlier in the fourth gospel, we were told that Jesus is truth (1:14), and “the resurrection and the life” (11:25).  Now, he is also “the way” itself. This is another ego eimi saying, which means that the most important words in this important sentence are the first two–“I am.”  Ego eimi is an emphatic way of saying YHWH, God’s own name, in the Greek language.  Lest anyone miss the point, the fourth gospel has Jesus also say, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”

Thomas had asked, “How can we know the way?”  Here, the fourth gospel uses the word oida for “know.”  Oida is the kind of knowledge that you get from first-hand, physical experience.  It is the kind of knowledge that is objective and demonstrable. 

Jesus responds, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”  In this sentence, Jesus uses ginosko, which is the kind of knowledge one gets through intimate experience.  This is a kind of “mystical knowing.”  Thomas’s “knowing” is of the everyday variety.  Jesus’ “knowing” is the kind that comes “from above” (3:3).  This is consistent with an over-all theme of the fourth gospel, which is intimate relationship and mutual indwelling between Jesus and his followers. 

8 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ 9Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

A translation of verses 8 through 14 is:  Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”  Jesus said to him, “I am with you a lengthy time and you do not know me, Philip?”  The one who has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not trust that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?  The words that I say to you I do not speak from myself, but the Father abiding in me does his works.  Trust me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.  But if not, trust the works themselves.

“Truly, Truly, I say to you, the one trusting into me, the works which I am doing, that one will do also, and that one will do greater than these, for I am going to the Father.  And whatever you might ask in my name, that I will do so that the Father might be glorified in the Son.  Whatever you might ask in my name, I will do. Do you see how the exclusivity and thus the fostering of belligerence and authoritarianism, is overcome by the inclusiveness of the plural you and the sharing of tasks or the glorification of the Father in the Son. It is the togetherness that the Author of John loses in modern use of the text.

Taking this plural, you further we see the concern for community when Philip says, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough–arkei–for us.”  Philip had earlier worried that they would not have “enough” (arkousin) food to feed the large crowd (6:7).  In his only two utterances in the fourth gospel, Philip is portrayed as fussing that what they have is not enough.  The food had not been enough, and now Jesus is not quite enough either.

John has Jesus responding with, “I am with you through a lengthy time–chronos–and you do not know–ginosko–me, Philip?”  The word chronos refers to earthly, chronological time.  It is distinct from kairos, which is “special time”–the in-breaking of God.  In ordinary experience, in ordinary “time,” one cannot “know” Jesus in an intimate, mystical way.

Jesus tells them that his words are the same as the “Father’s works.”  Then, he tells them that if they cannot believe his words, they should turn to his works.  What’s more, they will do even greater works than Jesus! 

A question this raises is “What could they possibly do that would be “greater” than what Jesus has already done in the fourth gospel?”  Jesus has healed the sick and raised the dead.  What can they do to top that?  Well maybe one thing remains:  They have not yet established an on-going community centered in Jesus, which follows him, and does his works.

Jesus assures the disciples that, even though “the way” may be difficult, they can call on him and he will do “whatever you ask in my name.”  This is not, of course, a flinging about of Jesus’ name as some kind of magic talisman in order to get what a person wants.  That is mere egocentricity.  It asks in our name, but not that of Jesus. 

To ask in Jesus’ name, as Ray Brown has said, means to be in union with Jesus.  To ask in Jesus name is, as Paul put it, having the same mind that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2).  What would Jesus ask?  What would Jesus think?  Indeed, what would Jesus do?

In summary then, ‘I am the way the truth and the life’ is not about believing Jesus as the only one, and more about the need to be collectively motivated, and empowered.

The Way is not about right behaviour and more about a journey one takes as one trusts and the personalization is less about the individual and more about the relational communal reality of human life. And this makes the understanding of salvation, evangelization and exclusive identity very different indeed.

While the John story seems to have been set within the context of a debate over differences, that debate seems to have been between those who were Jewish followers of the Galilean (called ‘revisionists’), and those who were Jewish followers of Jewish orthodoxy.

They viewed matters differently.  Perhaps profoundly so. But the story’s modern usage seems to have taken these differences to extremes. From all that we can read we have to have come the conclusion that during his life time, Jesus/Yeshua resisted questions about his personal identity. When pressed, he deflected them toward the central motif of his teaching…

  • the present-ness of a compassionate God, and
  • the radical or ‘counter culture’ demands he made on human living.

But it is also true that when the words ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’… have been used, they often make Jesus sound like a heavenly bouncer, keeping people away from God.  Especially from those without faith, those with not enough faith, and those who express their faith differently.

Religious authorities and groups of every age and creed have often exercised their religion in two ways: – as a weapon against others, and – by protecting God from others.

History seems full of such ‘weapon’ stories and events: The Crusades.  The Inquisition.  Sudan. Middle East.  Indonesia.  Northern Ireland. And the gospel stories are littered with ‘protecting’ stories: People who brought their children to Jesus, but… Women who touched, ate with, plead with Jesus, but…

One has to ask if ‘ethnic cleansing’ is just a more extreme form of this same motivation.

So, what can we do with these words: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’?

Well! Let’s not beat around the bush! Scholars tell us it is highly probable that Jesus never made this claim at all. The words were put into his mouth by the storyteller/mystic John! So, to hear them, we need to hear them differently. If these words can be read in terms of relationship with the God rather than describing a content of dogma to be believed, these words can be an invitation to us to be on the journey which Jesus chartered. We can be people of the Way!

The Jesus of the Way as sage, provides a way of passage from one place to another. Becoming and exploring and doubting, rather than condemning or belting us over the head.

So rather than bullying Jesus into what he is not.

• Jesus is not the way in the sense of a moral guide or a model of leadership. He is the pathway into the depths of the God-self-neighbour relationship. This is the way… into the mystery of our common existence.

• Jesus is the truth about that common existence. He uncovers what is hidden, and

brings to light the last dimension of human existence.

• Jesus is life because he is the way and truth by which God, self, and neighbour, break their isolation and flow into each other.

As storyteller John Shea puts it: “Jesus of Nazareth was the triggering centre of an event which restructured the God-self-neighbour relationship.  This event was not only healing and transforming but mysterious and overwhelming’ (Shea 1978:118).

It is in this context that the words of Jesus, as suggested by John, come. ‘I am the way, the truth the life…’  And as Jesus challenged the dominate system of his day, so these words contend with the powers and principalities of this day.

In this person, we see a concern for the marginalized and the vulnerable (which included both the poor and the wealthy), and a rejection of the belief that high-ranking people of power are the favoured ones of God.

The good news then in this statement is, not about Jesus, but about God and us in the spirit of Jesus. Or as Bill Loader puts it in his comments on this story: “Trust that God is the way Jesus told us and demonstrated to us.  That means two things: we can trust in the God of compassion in which there’s a place for us, and we can know that the meaning of life is to share that compassion in the world – there’s a place for all!

But then this important suggestion: “We can join that compassion wherever we recognise its ‘Jesus shape’, acknowledging it as life and truth and the only way” (WLoader 2005/www site).

Notes:

Shea, J. 1978.  Stories of God. An Unauthorized Biography. Chicago. The Thomas More Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

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