Studies in John’s Gospel, Bible study lesson 6
by Reta Halteman Finger
This short paragraph bridges the gap between Jesus’ dramatic public actions of chapter 2 and the private, reflective discourses of chapters 3 and 4. “Many believed in [Jesus’] name because they saw the signs that he was doing” (2:23). But Jesus knew “what was in everyone” (2:25) and thus he doubts the depth of their commitment.
Many conservative Christians reading verse 25 would say that Jesus knew everything about people because he was God. I think that’s a cop-out. Jesus and the Baptist were prophets in the tradition of Old Testament prophecy; it’s the job description of a prophet to understand people, both individually and collectively, and to foresee the unintended consequences of current socio-political practices. These insights are not zapped into prophets, but are the result of years of observation and interaction with people, coupled with a deep Spirit-guided concern for their welfare. Today we call some of them Spiritual Directors.
In the years before Jesus’ “hour” had come (2:4), his involvement in Galilean life, coupled with intense scripture study, would have taught him much about people. He might have been married, as Jewish boys were around age 18, and endured the grief of losing his wife, perhaps in childbirth. We cannot know this, but they were common experiences in first century Palestine. Jesus would have keenly observed behavioral differences between upper-class rich people and ordinary subsistence laborers like himself; between rigid, legalistic religious practices and the compassion of internalized love and justice.
Wealthy is as wealthy does
What Jesus learned from perceptive observation is now being studied scientifically at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. In America today, greater socio-economic inequality exists than at any time in the past 100 years (and is thus more like the first century Mediterranean world). A team of researchers at Berkeley compares behaviors of very wealthy people with the rest of us in lower classes.
PBS economics correspondent Paul Solman of the PBS Newshour’s “Making Sense of Money” highlighted some of their results in two episodes on June 20 and 21, 2013. Each varied experiment shows up rich people as less compassionate, less generous, more likely to lie and cheat, and no happier than ordinary folks—definitely not what the researchers expected to find.
For example, drivers of luxury cars like BMWs or Mercedes are four times more likely to break the law by not stopping at pedestrian crosswalks than drivers of lower-status cars. They are less able to read facial expressions, because wealth cushions them from needing friends, family, and community in order to survive. These examples and many more ring so true to the ironic, upside down wisdom of Jesus and the entire New Testament that I recommend all readers watch Paul Solman’s “Why Those Who Feel They Have Less Give More” episode and the “What Makes Us Happy” episode.
The ironic handicap of privilege
We don’t have to look far for the next biblical example of status inequality: John 3:1-21 (Nicodemus) and 4:1-42 (the Samaritan woman). In both cases, Jesus becomes their Spiritual Director. But what a contrast between these two persons! We have a male Pharisee, an upper-class “leader of the Jews” (3:1), and a lower-class woman from a despised ethnic group (4:7). Nicodemus visits “by night” (3:2), a time which in this Gospel represents fear, secrecy, and evil intent (13:30). The Samaritan woman meets Jesus in the blazing light of noon (4:6). In a society where men do not speak publicly to unrelated females, Jesus and an unmarried woman conduct an extensive theological conversation at the village well!
As we shall see in the lessons that follow, irony pervades these accounts. Theologian Nicodemus never understands Jesus. Before long, dialogue vanishes into a monologue by Jesus as his client creeps away under cover of darkness.
But the nameless woman is the real theologian, conversing longer with Jesus than anyone else in this Gospel. In the end she introduces this “Messiah” (4:25-26, 29) to her entire village.
Verbal and dramatic irony
Verbal irony is not hard to see, especially if it is contained within one text or story. It uses “sarcasm, double entendre, and ambiguity,” says David Barr, “when the real meaning of the words contrasts with their literal meaning” (New Testament Story, 4th ed., p 399). We understand the double meaning of “temple” in 2:19, for example. But because most Bible study involves a short text lifted out of its larger context, we often miss the dramatic irony shaping narrative plots.
A few years ago, Zach, an intense, Calvinist college student whom I had previously “won over,” took my course on Women in the New Testament at Messiah College. His research paper compared Nicodemus with the Samaritan woman. He marveled how, with all his former Bible study, he had never seen John’s deliberate contrast between a man who didn’t “get it,” and a woman who did!
In the next two lessons we will deal separately with Jesus’ encounters with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. We shall encounter many examples of both verbal and dramatic irony as the plot of this Gospel unfolds. Keep your eyes open and fill in the details I overlook.
Questions for reflection:
1. What ironies around socio-economic status, or religious/ethical (or unethical) behavior have you observed or experienced?
2. Is it true that servants, employees, and those in lower classes “read” people better than upper-class people because they have to in order to survive?
3. Do you know people who, like Jesus, seem to “know what is in everyone”? Have you had experience with spiritual direction?