Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Mother Jesus

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Mother Jesus

Article excerpt

The roles that Jesus plays in John's gospel echo those of women in first-century Palestine.

"HAVE YOU BEEN born again? The image of a second birth to illustrate conversion is often used by fundamentalist and conserva- tive evangelical Christians. Yet in my experience such folks also tend to resist thinking of God as other than male. How can they overlook this very maternal activity of God's Spirit?

Even Nicodemus gets it, at least at the physical level. In John 3, this high-ranking Jewish leader pri- vately approaches Jesus to ask him where his charism comes from. In most famil- iar translations of the New Testament (such as King James and NIV), Jesus tells Nicodemus that he would understand if he were "born again" (3:3). But the Greek word andthen is deliberately ambiguous. Jesus' intended meaning is "born from above" (NRSV). "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit," says Jesus in verse 6. The Holy One is our birthing mother.

When the literal-minded Nicodemus asks how a person can go back into his mother's womb and be born again, we cannot be sure (in 3:9-10) whether Jesus gently chides or sarcastically puts him down: "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?"

Sadly, many "teachers" throughout Christian history have not understood these things. It is now 50 years since Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique opened the floodgates of second-wave feminist cultural analysis, thus preparing the ground for biblical scholars and theologians such as Letty Russell, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and many more. Some of us began to see that orthodox, "objective" methods of inter- pretation were instead often subjectively male-oriented. We began to ask, "Where is the fem- inine in our sacred texts? Were women there?"

I see five ways in which the gospel of John deconstructs, or at least unsettles, the rigid patterns of patriarchy in the family and society in which Jesus lived. The roles Jesus played during his life and ministry were so atypical that they color this entire narrative.

Who wrote this gospel?

First, let's consider authorship. All of the gospels were anonymous, with names of apostles or companions of apostles added in the second century to affirm their authority. By tradition, John the disciple of Jesus, son of Zebedee, a fisherman from Galilee (21:2; Matthew 4:21) authored this gospel-yet he is never named. The author calls him- self the "disciple whom Jesus loved" (13:23, 19:26,20:2, 21:7,20). He first appears reclin- ing next to Jesus at the Last Supper, then at the cross and tomb, and finally fishing with other disciples.

But this gospel does name three other persons whom Jesus loves: the siblings Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. When Lazarus falls ill, Martha and Mary send Jesus the mes- sage, "The one whom you love is ill" (11:3). But he waits two days, even "though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus" (11:5). Later (11:35), at the tomb ofhis dead friend, Jesus weeps, and the bystanders say, "See how he loved him!"

Though we can never know, I pro- pose that this gospel originated with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus within the Jesus-community that grew around their household. They lived in Bethany in Judea, two miles from Jerusalem, the setting for many stories and dialogues included only here. How could the Galilean fisherman John have known them in such detail? Possibly the three "beloved disciples" gath- ered and recorded these stories-and a final editor added chapter 21 after they were gone.

Irony piled on irony

My second point is not necessarily femi- nist. The ironic mode in which this author writes has the effect of shaking up conven- tions, showing things from different angles. The narrative contains both dramatic and verbal irony, providing a garden of delight to those who know how to read it. How could this Word "from the beginning" take on physical flesh and live in human culture? Why is Nicodemus-the teacher in Israel who does not "get it"-paired with an ostracized woman at a Samaritan well, who does? …

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