Friday, June 22, 2012

The Subversive Wisdom of John

For the past couple of weeks we have held meetings in our home to discuss the "subversive wisdom" of John's Gospel. Homeland security, take note!

The leader of this study has been Bert Newton, a Mennonite community advocate and organizer of the Palm Sunday Peace Parade (where Jill and I met). Bert has just published a book with the provocative title: Subversive Wisdom: Sociopolitical Dimensions of John's Gospel, which has received accolades from two people I deeply respect. Ched Myers, the author of Building the Strong Man: A Political Rading of Mark's Story of Jesus, writes:

"This study of John's story of Jesus exhibits remarkable brevity and depth, passion and thoughtfulness. The often perplexing Fourth Gospel comes alive, both in its context and ours."

Jill Shook (my wife) writes enthusiastically:

"Subversive Wisdom provides a deeply biblical rationale for hope and courage to live Jesus' radical message, even when it seems all hope is lost. I recommend that every pastor and leader not only read this book but also teach it and allow it to transform their understanding of John's Gospel."

For the past couple of weeks, the Gospel of John has come alive in our home. We began by showing the film "The Gospel of John," narrated by Christopher Plummer--a powerful, word-by-word dramatization of this story. Around a dozen people attended. I'll say more about my response to this film in another post.

Bert began the first session of our study of John’s gospel by inviting us to role play.

“Who would like to meet the Jesus of John’s gospel?”

When a woman volunteered, Bert shook her hand and asked, “What’s your name?”


“Well, I am the light of the world,” responded Bert. “No one comes to the Father except through me. I’m telling you the truth. If you don’t believe in me, your Father is the devil.”

Then he asked, “How did my words make you feel?”

“Awful,” Cathy replied. “I felt manipulated.”

Bert went on to say that many pious readers of John’s Gospel don’t ask themselves why Jesus speaks in such a bold and seemingly offensive way. This isn’t how Jesus talks in the synoptic Gospels. In these Gospels Jesus is usually self-effacing about his role as the Messiah. He speaks in parables that refer to the Kingdom of God, not so much about himself.

Bert’s explanation for the boldness of John’s Jesus is fascinating and compelling: Jesus is “impersonating” Lady Wisdom of Proverbs who also speaks boldly, proclaiming herself to be the source of all that is true and good. Like Lady Wisdom, Jesus cries out on the street and claims that he offers the bread and wine of true life.

As we explored the parallels between the words of Jesus in John and Lady Wisdom in Proverbs, it became clear that the authors of John were drawing this comparison for important political as well as theological reasons.

“John’s Gospel turns the traditional patriarchal male stereotypes upside down,” said Bert.
Jesus validates the woman who washes his feet with her hair and with fine perfume. He not only lifts her up as an example to follow, he himself washes the feet of his disciples to remind them that his followers must be like her—humble and lovingly devoted to others. This is a far cry from the role that male leaders traditionally assume.

(Footwashing was also practiced as a form of hospitality among Jews. According to a Jewish wesbite, "The ritual washing of hands and feet has been an important Jewish symbol for generations. In Genesis, Abraham washed the feet of the three angels who visited him at his tent both as an act of welcome and as a token of his esteem." The Bible says that Abraham ordered water to be brought for footwashing, not that he did it himself. But the tradition is one that Jesus no doubt knew and was following.)

As we explored the text more deeply, it became clear that Jesus was affirming the aspects of God we traditionally associate with females and servants. He not only washes his disciples’ feet, he also feeds them breakfast when he makes his last appearance on the shores of the sea of Galilee. This is very different from the dramatic ascension to heaven in other Gospels. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ final message isn’t “proclaim my Gospel” but “feed my sheep.”

Bert’s reading of John opened up new perspectives for us and helped us to see the Jesus of John’s Gospel in a new light.

This week we explored the concept of the “Son of God” in relation to Old Testament teachings as well as the claims of the Roman empire. More will be said about this session in my next posting.


  1. I find this a very interesting perspective and will follow it up in my biblical reading. However, I have one query which perhaps you could clarify or seek clarification on my behalf. It relates to this: “Jesus assumes the role of a servant and washes his disciples’ feet, a task usually given to a woman slave.”

    I thought that in Judaism men and women did not touch. I have noted in the gospels that, by and large, Jesus obeyed the touch prohibitions (including leprosy). So I just query and wish to have clarified whether a female slave would actually touch a man, even his feet.

    1. I think you're right, Brigid. Anthony did an awesome of job summarizing the teaching, but I didn't say that Jesus did the job of a woman slave; he followed the example of the woman who washed his feet and promoted what might have been thought of in that culture as a female honor code, but you're right, normally men and women did not touch. When Mary washed Jesus' feet, that was probably thought of as somewhat scandalous.

      I have to repeat, though, that Anthony's synopsis of our Bible Study is otherwise outstanding! Great synthesis!


  2. Brigid, I am grateful that you pointed out that women were not supposed to touch men and vice versa in Judaism, unless they are married, blood relatives, etc. (Islam has the same prohibition.) What I learned when I did more research is that footwashing is an ancient Jewish ritual, going back to the time of Abraham who supposedly washed the feet of his angelic guests. What Jesus did was take this old ritual and give it new meaning by washing the feet of his disciples, thereby inverting the master/disciple relationship. This shocked his disciples. This ritual is also placed in a new context because of the story of the woman who washed Jesus' feet. John thereby associates Jesus with this "fallen" woman and shows his love for all, esp. the marginalized and despised. --Anthony

  3. Thx to both of you for enlarging on that aspect. Most useful.

    1. When Bert came to our home for this study, I was especially stuck by the parallels he drew between the rather brash Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8-9 and how John portrays Jesus. Lady Wisdom would stand on busy street corners and shout out the entrapping consequences of seeking wealth, and she would set the boundaries for the oceans and dance among the mountain tops, and declare that by seeking her you would find life. This reminds of John the Baptist's powerful message of repentance and pointing us to Jesus. Reading John with an overlay, a lens of Lady Wisdom helps me to appreciate the bold proclamation of Jesus as the Bread of Life, the Way and Truth and Life.... powerful insight. Thank you Bert!! Jill Shook, Anthony's wife