My Problem With John’s Gospel

John’s gospel has always given me a preaching problem because John is often the favorite of those in the pews.  It’s chock full of memorable sayings, and who hasn’t seen the John 3:16 banner hanging from stadium railings.  Nevertheless, I’ve found it equally full of contradictions, obfuscations, and its use of the phrase “the Jews” inspired centuries of Christian persecution of Jewish neighbors continuing into our own time and place.  Most of my sermons on John began by saying that it attempts to answer one question, and one question only: What does it mean to say Jesus is the Son of God?  Of that it does a terrific job. 

John, written late, had no need to retell what the synoptics already had, and it didn’t try.  If they emphasized Jesus as messiah, John emphasized Jesus as the Word of God made flesh.  In John, Jesus always knew what everyone was thinking.  He was always in control of every situation.  His divinity was never without question.  Yet John also revealed Jesus in his most human moments: when tired and hungry he sought respite at a Samaritan well; when he diddled in the dirt while self righteous men confronted him with a woman caught in adultery; when he wept at Lazarus’ tomb.  Often, when asked a direct question, Jesus went off on obscure tangents and the question never got answered. I found myself teaching John saying “yes, but” as I walked readers through the mystical maze that is John’s gospel.  One of my favorite parishioners complained that he wanted me to use only one hand because he got tired of me saying “on the one hand this, but on the other hand that.”

I had a couple of insights the other day that made John less problematic for me.  It came in the ecumenical clergy group I meet with each week.  We were talking about John 12 where Philip and Andrew came to Jesus to tell him there were a couple of Greeks who would like to meet him.  As usual, Jesus ignored them, and went off on a tangent about how his hour had come, grains of wheat, loving and hating life, his troubled soul,  and glorification.  Then he went off to a secret place to pray.  What about Philip and Andrew?  They never got an answer to their question.  What about the two Greeks?  Did they ever get to meet Jesus? 

The first insight was to think of Jesus’ non-answer tangents in John’s gospel as moments when the action stops, everyone frozen in their places, while Jesus turns to the reading audience to share his private thoughts.  They’re dramatic asides where the audience is expected to understand that only they are privy to what Jesus was thinking.  It is, in a sense, the Word of God made flesh speaking directly to the reader.  These asides bring Jesus into the present tense as he speaks directly to each reader in their own time and place. 

The second insight was given by a Methodist colleague.  Jesus had just made his Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem and knew what lay in store.  Philip and Andrew’s request that he grant an interview with a couple of visiting Greeks was met, my friend said, with an implied, ‘I don’t have time for autograph seekers. The moment has come for me to devote everything to what must be accomplished, so go away.’  His long dramatic aside followed, explaining to the reader what the disciples couldn’t understand.

If that makes sense to you, I’ll leave it for you to decide whether there are other dramatic asides in John’s gospel, and whether that helps clarify some of John’s narrative.

2 thoughts on “My Problem With John’s Gospel”

  1. This is fascinating, Steve, since with the sole exception of the “diddling in the dirt” episode, I have most often found myself put off by John than invited in. But that notion of John narratively enacting an “aside” on Jesus’ part that itself *shows* the Word being addressed directly to you the reader—now *that* may well change how I listen as I read, or now, reread John with a different ear.



  2. I’ve mulled over your 2 “insights” on John’s Gospel. I’ve discerned that I’ve actually known the insights you shared. But, moving forward, in this time and place, i.e. Lent and Holy Week 2021, it is apparent to me Jesus “shared his private thoughts” to prepare us for those very public moments of faith that tug and pull at our heretofore private and intimate sensibilities, about faith and life and our imperfections and veritable mortality. Further, the same “tug and pull” demands, almost exclusively, our focus, attention and accomplishment, on nothing else but our imperfections and now obvious mortality, sometimes to the detriment to all those we hold dear and love inexorably.
    I pray I’m up to the task, even as a priest!

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