The Intimidating Task of Bible Study, Part 3

Third in a series of posts taken from Wes Howard-Brook’s introduction to his commentary on the Gospel of John, Becoming Children of God: Read the first post here.

Approaching the Gospels

One of the curiously powerful aspects of the gospels in general that stands out for readers familiar at all with other ancient literature is the social context in which their stories are told.  Whereas almost all other national epics and myths speak of the important events and struggles in the lives of gods, kings, or other nobles, the gospels’ concern is almost exclusively with the lives of the poor and marginalized.

stories of the unremarkable

Even literature after the New Testament, up until the Romantics’ discovery of the tragic narrative power of stories of street urchins and other outcasts, primarily focused on the trials and tribulations of people of wealth and authority.  Lives existing amidst material splendor and social power have always intrigued those who look longingly on what they imagine to be the “good life.”  In contrast, the lives of the poor have generally seemed banal and trivial, devoid of interest because of the supposed monochromatic pattern of hard work and routine demands.

If we have relatively lately learned to “enjoy” the stories of the poor and have come to accept the harsh beauty of emotions and minds living on the tense edge of daily despair, such a perspective would have been virtually unthinkable to those of biblical times.  The biblical patriarchs were wealthy herdsmen who, with their families, became landowners of distinction in their local communities.  If the exodus portrays the desperate struggle of an enslaved people, it is only to show that their imprisonment first in Egypt and then in the desert is but a temporary obstruction on their way to the Promised Land where they will eat their fill and gather abundant land and cattle.  The longest continuous biblical narrative is the saga of Israel’s poignantly ironic marriage to monarchy, in which the main characters literally stand head and shoulders above their peers (e.g. 1 Sam 10:23).  Even the prophetic promise/threat of exile was of concern primarily to Israel’s elite, as the majority of poor people remained in Palestine even after the Babylonian conquest.  And the postexilic narratives of rebuilding are the stories of priests and scribes, the intellectual and cultural leaders of the Persian colonial territory that had once been a great nation.

In this context of national journey from the perspective of the leaders and other powerful figures, the gospels sound a harshly discordant note.  Their tales of lepers, blind people, bleeding women, and landless peasants searching desperately for hope are a shocking contrast to their biblical predecessors.  For as we know, the New Testament was originally a collection of writings aimed at providing a message of divine love and healing for people who could not hear such a word in the established religious institutions.  Although the Christian “Way” amazingly quickly swept across social classes and national boundaries in its first centuries of proclamation, the stories themselves are most easily understood by people who have experienced for themselves the failure of governments and clergy to relieve either physical or spiritual hunger.

John’s gospel, in contrast with Mark and Luke in particular, has little to say about poverty and God’s promise to provide good things for those who have gone without because of injustice.  The fourth gospel proclaims not that the poor are “blessed” but that they are “always with you” (Jn 12:8) – although the Johannine perspective is not the cynical acceptance of the permanent presence of an underclass that it might seem to be when heard out of context.  In the fourth gospel, characterization and plot focus not so much on economic exclusion as on the social barriers of ethnicity, ritual impurity, and  lack of “proper” belief.  Those who have been denied privilege in the dominant culture because of their “wrong” birth (e.g., the Samaritan woman and the one born blind) are the ones upon whom Jesus’ compassion centers.  At the same time, those who are willing to be reborn, regardless of original birthplace (e.g., Nicodemus and the “Judeans”), are invited into the community to which the gospel calls its readers.

Beyond Reading

And this reality leads directly to the negative and positive poles of my own reading stance.  As a “white” male citizen of the United States at the end of the twentieth century, I must engage in strenuous acts of imaginative projection and concrete insertion in order to begin to hear the power of this gospel’s word to those on the margins.  It is a twofold task that cannot be done exclusively from the comforts of my warm home.

a context for reading

Each experience I have had in which I have, albeit hesitatingly and feebly, touched the actual lives of the poor in our culture has been a hermeneutical gift of immeasurable proportions.  An hour with street people in downtown Seattle metamorphoses the abstraction of “the homeless” into the broken yet still human lives of Junior, Charles, and Althea.  A few days in jail transforms one’s vague notion of “criminals” into a perception of ordinary people whose lives have either gone sour along the way or existed on a road of shattered glass from the moment of their births.  Many of us are, regardless of our good will, faith, or love, at a huge distance from those in our inner cities or in the Third World to whom the gospels speak clear and almost obvious truths.  Only by pushing out from our easy chairs and into the cold darkness of the streets, prisons, public hospitals, and other havens for outcasts can we begin to catch the radicality of the gospel’s word.

If this is true at the level of our personal zone of daily life, it is all the more the case with regard to our political and social privilege.  I come to recognize more and more each day how the wealth of our nation has been systemically taken from the mouths of others.  Indigenous peoples of North America, Africa, Latin America, and Asia all cry out as just prophets condemning our theft, indifference, and brutality as a nation.  The increasing clamor for immigration limits and border patrols bears powerful testimony against our claim of being a just and free land, open to accepting the world’s poor.  And, more to the point of the fourth gospel, we have again increased the sickening acceptance of racial and ethnic scapegoating, whether against poor African-Americans or wealthy Japanese and other Asians.

All this puts us as a people squarely on the opposite side from the Johannine Jesus and the community of the fourth gospel.  But this brings us to the positive pole in my own prerelationship with the text.  Despite my personal and national privilege and responsibility for massive injustice, I believe in a God who invites peoples such as myself to work and pray with others for the liberation of all peoples.  While acknowledging my participation in unjust structures and in enjoying the fruit of rotting trees, I trust in the God of all life, who constantly calls me to focus on God alone and the way of shalom.  Without attempting to express a complete personal philosophy in this space, it is important to proclaim my commitment to helping to shape a future in which all creation will sing joyously of the God of nonviolent and interdependent love.

Thus, I come to my own reading of John with a dual awareness.  My birthplace veils the gospel from me in certain ways, leading me to find new experiences that help penetrate into the place from which the text seems to speak.  At the same time, my commitment to a God who breaks down injustice and generates true love and freedom for all people opens me in other ways to hear the text speak its challenges to the status quo.

Stay tuned for Part 4! 


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