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Jesus and John and Harold Bloom: John (Part 2 of 3)

September 13, 2010

During the last supper, Jesus predicts that one of his own will betray him and general consternation follows.  A particularly intimate relationship between Jesus and one of his disciples emerges as the rest seek his help in approaching Jesus at this awkward moment:

His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant.  One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.”  Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” (John 13:22-25)

The posture of this disciple–leaning back confidently at a moment where most are confused and stunned–indicates not only intimacy, but also a high degree of mutual trust.  Whoever Jesus is talking about, the beloved disciple knows it isn’t him.  His loyalty is not, and never could be in question.

John is the trusty servant

The disciple so favored with easy familiarity and closeness with Jesus is often found close to Simon Peter, who is ever zealous in service to Jesus (but perhaps less aware of what pleases him).  During Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance by the Lake of Galilee, the beloved disciple recognizes Jesus first, and yet it is Simon Peter who leaps into the water and swims out to him:

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.  He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”…  …Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. (John 21: 4-7)

It is Peter whom Jesus queries, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” (John 21: 15) and it is Peter he directs to “Feed my sheep” and upon whom he founds the church.  He predicts Peter’s death, and then directs him once more to “Follow me!”   Peter clearly has a lifetime ahead in which to learn what this means.  The beloved disciple has perhaps a clearer idea of what it means already.

The traditional interpretation that John is in fact both the one whom Jesus especially loved and the author of the gospel is due to the following passage, in which Peter asks Jesus about him:

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”  This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.

Bloom sees the hostility that John evidences towards the Jews as a consequence of his anxiety over Jesus’ delayed return, and the postponement of his messianic hopes.  He sees defensiveness in the author’s attempt to explain away the  “rumor” of John’s deathlessness that spread among the brethren.  This defensiveness however is not directed at misprision of John himself, but at misprision of Jesus.  It is Jesus’ reputation he leaps to defend.  Bloom suspects that John is too zealous to defend Jesus’ reputation, in order to protect himself from his own growing doubts.

But Jesus also swiftly defends his right to preserve John from harm, and even from death, if he wishes.  It’s as if Jesus admits an unusual closeness and rapport with John, and ability and license to deploy him as needed, just as simultaneously John affirms Jesus’ absolute right to command his destiny in whatever way he finds useful. For the purposes of argument we may imagine Jesus as a king of the ordinary earthly sort.  Jesus has this exchange with Peter after being plunged by the betrayal of one of his own and abandonment of all his friends into loneliness and torment.  Against all odds he has returned in triumph, having vanquished all his foes.  Now he reminds Peter of his right to direct his servants as he chooses, without having to explain those choices.

Whether John’s fierce loyalty is a consequence or cause of Jesus’ special tenderness for him is less an issue than the special relationship which results, a mingling of warm fealty on John’s part and kingly love on Jesus’s. Jesus argues for such a natural mix on the point of his own authority: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”   A king naturally has the right to choose which servants remain at home to serve him on his return and which must accompany him to battle. But whether he does so in order to protect his trusty servant from harm or because he desires to have his affairs managed well in his absence is unclear and need not be explained; this is the sense of John’s defense.  What cannot be doubted is that John is structurally in the position of the trusty servant.  Even if John is disappointed himself not to see Jesus returning, he stoutly affirms Jesus’ right to order his own purposes.

It’s no surprise then that Jesus addresses the two living people whom he apparently loves most at the hour of his death and directs them from henceforth to take care of one another:

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:25-27)

John is the son of Mary before he ever writes the gospel

John is a grown man, and so is Jesus.  Naturally he is not so much asking Mary to mother John as he is asking John to take care of Mary.   Still we must imagine what respect and veneration such a trusty and trusted follower must have had for the mother of his lord.  She comes into John’s home and presumably he immediately provides for her material needs.  What is left to our imagination is how much they must have talked with one another about Jesus, and how deeply John must have adopted Mary’s causes as his own, both by direct influence and by the action of warm loyalty upon the heart.

My contention is that John’s special relationship with, and special chivalry toward Mary, provide the emotional bedrock for an understanding of many particulars of his gospel.

to be continued

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