At Westminster Reads we are reading our way through the Gospel of John five chapters at a time. One of the advantages of reading the Bible several chapters at a time is that it becomes easier to see the links, connections and themes present in the text.
One thing I have noticed is, in John’s gospel people routinely misunderstand and misinterpret Jesus’ words. It happens over and over again. After a while I started to chuckle at the persistent miscommunication. It’s not Abbot and Costello’s’ “Whos on first“, but at the same time most of us tend to ignore the humor that is present in the Bible. The author of John is a skilled writer. The persistent word play and miscommunication John’s author uses to tell us about Jesus are no accident.
The word play begins in chapter one when John’s disciples leave John and follow Jesus. John points Jesus out to his disciples and two disciples immediately leave John and start following Jesus. Jesus turns around, sees these two following him and asks, “What do you want?”(1:38,NIV) They say they want to know where Jesus is staying. It’s an odd response, isn’t it? Jesus replies “Come and see” (1:39). Now the reader knows these two men will not only spend that night with Jesus but will spend the rest of their lives following him one way or another. Jesus response, “come and see” means more than the disciples suspect. The entire passage (1:35-51) is several conversations that function on multiple levels.
Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (3:1-21) is a well known example of Jesus saying one thing and his listener misunderstanding. Then in chapter four, Jesus talks about water metaphorically with the woman at the well who, initially at least, hears literally. Jesus asks the sick man at the pool, “Do you want to be made well?” and he and we are prompted to consider what it means to be made well (5:1-15). In chapter six, Jesus talks about bread and life and the people misunderstand. In chapter 7, where Jesus is from, his origin, is a source of confusion. The story of the man born blind and given sight by Jesus (chapter 9) is full of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. And we could list more example than these, but you’re getting the idea by now.
What is going on? People seem to be routinely confused by Jesus- by what he says, by what he does, by who he is. John’s gospel is full of soaring language, and extended theological discourses by Jesus. John tells the story of Jesus in a way that fully explores the theological dimensions of Jesus life, death and resurrection. And, oddly, John’s gospel is also full of verbal misdirection and word play. Why does John tell us about so many people, stranger and disciple, who misunderstand Jesus?
Part of what John wants to tell us is that Jesus is not who people think he is. He is unexpected and surprising. Jesus takes common images and re imagines them. Jesus takes common situations and transforms them. We as modern readers chuckle and shake our heads at the confused disciples but, we might want to stop and ponder our own ideas of who Jesus is. What do we misunderstand? What do we misinterpret? Are we missing Jesus’ re imaging our world? Are we missing transformation?
The running gag in the Gospel of John may be that we- for all our 2000 years of theological reflection and experience- are not much smarter than the disciples. Jesus is still surprising his followers.
I’d like to know, what do you think?