From Sentence of Death to Androgynous Rebuttal—John 5:17-29

Studies in John’s Gospel—Bible study lesson 12

by Reta Halteman Finger

Woman Weaving in Palestine
Weaving is women’s work—one of the economic functions an ancient Palestinian woman would perform for her household.
Photos by Reta Finger, at Nazareth Village, Nazareth, Israel.

Our last lesson (5:1-18) takes place on the Sabbath. Jesus tells a crippled man to pick up his mat and walk. Big mistake. Jesus certainly understands the law against carrying anything heavier than a needle on the Sabbath, but how could he know that man would lug his dirty old mat around town while practicing high jumps in front of the Temple police? Or is it a deliberate set-up? Reread the story and see if you can figure it out.

In any case, the ancient Jewish equivalent to the NSA already has its sights on Jesus as a potential threat to its power. When they charge him with breaking the Sabbath, he actually ups the ante. “My Father is working, and I also am working” (5:17).

This is a loaded statement. Jews know that God works on the Sabbath by maintaining the natural order of things: the sun rises and sets, human and animal babies are born, and so on. These temple leaders now charge Jesus with two offenses. Beyond violating the Sabbath, he has now “made himself equal to God” (5:18). This is blasphemy and requires the sentence of death.

A bewildering discourse

What follows is a feature prominent in this Gospel: after a dramatic event, Jesus makes a speech, reflecting theologically on what has just happened, or defending his behavior as in a court of law. His discourse runs to verse 47, but here we will cover only 5:19-29.

I wonder how you read this passage. If you didn’t know the end of the story, or if you had never heard of Christianity, Jesus’ claims would strike you as astounding, crazy, and arrogant. What human being would ever propose to raise the dead (5:21, 25) or offer eternal life to those who believe he was sent by God? (5:24). This is the rambling of a megalomaniac. Even though I do know the end of the story, I can’t imagine Jesus saying this at this point in his mission. No doubt the final form of this passage was composed later, certainly after Jesus’ resurrection.

Nevertheless, it is far from bombastic. Read carefully: how does Jesus respond to the charge in 5:18 that “he was calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God”? He admits to calling God his Father, but he denies the second part about “making himself equal to God.” Jesus does not “make himself” anything. Indeed, he can do nothing on his own! (5:19). Does this mean he is a puppet, with God pulling the strings from heaven? Is he an oldest Son caught in the grip of an authoritarian Father?

Replica of House in Palestine
This replica of a landowner’s house in first-century Palestine represents the center of his wife’s world. She is responsible for what goes on inside these walls, and she runs the entire household when he is away.
Photos by Reta Finger, at Nazareth Village, Nazareth, Israel.

Wife and mother in a patriarchal household

Writing in Beyond Patriarchy: The Images of Family in Jesus, Diane Jacobs-Malina uses anthropology to probe the patriarchal structure of the social system of ancient Palestine, a system perpetuated today in many places in the Middle East and rural Greece. Here, men are superior to women; the father is the head of the household and alone provides the seed for his offspring, with the mother providing only a place for the seed’s growth. Men never do women’s work or act like a woman, or they lose honor in public. For this reason, male terms like “Father” and “Son” are used for God and Jesus.

However, when we examine Jesus’ actual roles throughout the Gospels, we find many of them are closer to the role of the idealized wife and mother in a patriarchal household rather than the role of the oldest son. Such a woman was expected to shape her whole life and personality around her husband and the private domain of the house. She socializes the children to conform to society’s values so that honor accrues to the father and thus to the entire household. She creates food from the animals and produce that enter the house. Food symbolizes relationships, both with the family and with outsiders who relate to the family. She is in charge of the economic functions of the household. (See the description of the good wife in Proverbs 31:10-31.)  In the world of men, the wife has no power. Her honor and power come from her subordination to her husband, to expend herself on behalf of those both above and below her in the social hierarchy. When her husband is absent, she is authorized by him to act in his name.

Jacobs-Malina says that “Jesus’ primary role was to create and maintain the household of God on earth.” In this way, he acts most like “the wife of the absent husband” (p 2). If we read John 5:19-29, this is exactly what we see. Using “Son” rather than “wife/mother” to this audience, Jesus insists that he can do nothing on his own except what he sees the Father doing. At the same time, the absent husband/father grants him enormous power, even raising the dead and judging all people.

In later lessons, we will find more examples of Mother Jesus in this Gospel. The masculine terms of Father and Son deflect us from seeing her in the guise of a Palestinian wife and mother caring for her household. Ironically, we also miss her because the feminist movement (in the West) has redefined roles for both women and men so that socially expected distinctions of the kind observed in the ancient Palestinian patriarchal family are not so clear-cut.  Let us not be deflected.

Questions for discussion and reflection:

1. Does Diane Jacobs-Malina’s proposal make sense to you?

2. List the powers given to Jesus by God in this text. Can this theory help you see Jesus’ claims as less arrogant?

3. Christian feminists insist on gender equality as God-given. Do you think Jesus’ androgynous roles support that equality?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.