From the Gospel of John:
[Jesus said,] “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 5:46-47 (NRSV) – January 30, 2014.)
Is it just me, or does this speech of Jesus (the verses are part of a long, long address to “the Jews”) just drip with frustration? And it makes me wonder – did Jesus really express such frustration? Or is it John who is frustrated and does his frustration color the way he presents the gospel story?
I’ll admit it . . . I have a problem with the Gospel according to John. I view it with suspicion. Its Jesus is at one and the same time too holy, too divine, but also too combative, too confrontational, and too given to these frustrated and frustrating condemnations of those whom he has not persuaded.
It’s not that I don’t think Jesus was divine; I believe that whole-heartedly. I am convinced that he was and is the incarnation of God. And it’s not that I don’t think the human Jesus had his moments (as the Rolling Stones’ devil put it) of doubt and pain, moments of sheer human frustration and anger. I’m certain that he did. It’s just that the way Jesus is presented by John is hard to understand.
He’s almost too hard to accept; he’s confusing and frustrating. I get as frustrated trying to understand this Jesus as he seems to get with his audiences. John’s Jesus is sublimely holy — the Logos of God (1:14) — who is also presented as just plain rude to his mother — “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” (2:4) He is compassionate to a woman caught in adultery — “I do not condemn you” (8:11) — yet dismissive, even condemnatory, of others — “There is no place in you for my word.” (8:37) He heals a stranger he happens upon in Jerusalem — the man at the pool of Beth-zaida (5:9) — but declines to help Lazarus whom he is said to love until after he’s gone through the pain of death just to make an example of him — “I am glad I was not there.” (11:15)
David Hayward, who blogs and draws church cartoons under the name “the naked pastor,” has done a drawing of Jesus attempting to herd cats (an expression which was a favorite of my late grandfather) with the caption “the church today.” In one simple picture, Hayward captures the frustrations of the modern pastor, but it seems to me he also depicts the difficulty I have of getting a handle on John’s Jesus! John’s Jesus is not one of the “cats” and he knows it; he can do and does things no “cat” could ever. He says as much at one point, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” (8:23) And sometimes he seems not to like the cats very much!
John’s Jesus is holy, rude, compassionate, condemnatory, dwelling in the world, not of the world, loving to strangers, using his friends . . . he’s confusing, contradictory, complex, and incredibly frustrating!
Trying to understand John’s Jesus, in all his contradictory complexity, is definitely like herding cats!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.