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

September 13, 2010

Matthew’s gospel begins with Jesus’ genealogy and birth. Mark’s does not; in Mark’s gospel the stage is briefly set with some background about John the Baptist, then the curtain rises dramatically on Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and the Spirit of the Lord descending on him.  Mark’s gospel concerns itself exclusively with the living ministry of Jesus.  Of all the gospel writers, John was the one sharing a house with Jesus’ mother.  Yet it is Luke, not John, who provides an extended portrait, replete with emotional details, of Mary’s life before Jesus, up to and including his birth.  In John’s gospel Mary’s maternal role is confined to one short familiar sentence:

The word became flesh, and dwelt among us. (John 1:14)

Why?  When John of all people has access to Mary’s most inward and private thoughts, why does he fail to include her at the beginning of his story?

John illustrates Mary’s influence

An uncharitable suggestion might be made that John downplays Mary’s role in Jesus’ birth in favor of a sanitized Hellenism in which, in effect, the word made flesh springs fullgrown like Athena from the head of Zeus.  But the gently funny vignette of the miracle at the wedding in Cana contradicts this view.  Both the nature and the occasion of the miracle are distinctly earthy.  As with the story of the woman caught in adultery and the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, this story is found only in John’s gospel.  It is not hard to imagine Mary relating it personally to John:

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied, “My time has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:1-5)

Jesus does then instruct the servants to fill six stone water jars, and later to draw the water to bring to the master of the banquet, whereupon it is discovered to have turned into wine (and good wine too).

Of this event, John says: “This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.” (John 1:11)  In effect, John credits Mary with sensing the moment and the manner in which Jesus should reveal himself in public ministry– and also with encouraging him to seize it despite his own doubts.  If John did not hear this account from Mary, then at least it evidences his high regard for her.  Indeed he elevates her centrality to Jesus’ work and ministry by illustrating her influence at this stage in Jesus’ life rather than during his babyhood.

John dramatizes the revelation of Jesus’ divine parentage

Still the ellipsis of Mary from the account of Jesus’ entrance into the world bears mention, and points to a deeper thread that flavors the whole gospel.  In part John may omit mention of her out of delicacy.  Simultaneously more intimate and more reverent on the subject than the learned doctor, he may hesitate to paint the mysteries Luke’s cooler pen straightforwardly records.  But a larger part of Mary’s absence must be due to the fact that the preaching and proclamation of Jesus’ divine paternity forms a dramatic core for the events of John’s gospel, and so requires special emphasis at the beginning.   Indeed that drama of revelation has special personal weight for Mary.

In an age when reputation is everything, Luke’s gospel gives us some sense of the desperate situation Mary is in as soon as she finds herself to be unwed and pregnant.  Joseph’s decision to divorce her secretly is accounted to him for righteousness–his kindness in refraining from exposing her to public calumny and scorn reflects well upon him.  Clearly there is not even a dim expectation of him that he would forgive her and marry her anyway, not until the angel speaks to him.  The story in John’s gospel of the woman caught in adultery paints a vivid portrait of what Mary might have faced if she were exposed to public shame.  Indeed she may have feared such an outcome.

Yet after the speedy marriage and confusion of the early years in Egypt the mistiming of Jesus’ birth may have gone unremarked in the small town of Nazareth.  The family may have successfully avoided slander during Jesus’ childhood.  There is no suggestion that Joseph and Mary were looked down upon in Nazareth.  That all must have changed, however, when Jesus began to preach.

In John’s gospel, Jesus goes to Jerusalem immediately after the wedding at Cana, and makes an immediate ruckus by flogging the money changers in the temple courts.  Next he preaches to a Pharisee named Nicodemus that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, in order that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

In other words, he almost immediately announces to those living in Jerusalem that he is not Joseph’s son, but the son of God.

Mary’s courage in encouraging Jesus to begin his public ministry is more remarkable in retrospect.  As soon as he does begin she is exposed anew to possible rumors and slander.  In John 4, we find that John is aware that what Jesus does in Jerusalem will make its way back to Galilee sooner or later: “When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, for they also had been there.” (John 4:45). J

Jesus goes back and forth several more times between Galilee and Jerusalem before finally confronting a crowd at the Feast of the Tabernacles and accusing them of being children of Satan.  Each time he goes to Jerusalem he preaches about his divine parentage with increasing vehemency.

What effect must this have been having on Mary, as rumors filtered back to Galilee? Her life would no longer have been in danger but her reputation must have been.

John focusses on aspersions of illegitimacy

That rumors were flying (at least in Jerusalem) is clear from the text.  As the argument earlier cited in the 8th chapter of John escalates and Jesus accuses his listeners of being children of Satan, they finally fling back at him a revealing insult: “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”  Speculations about Jesus’ true parentage have apparently been circulating in the intervals between his lightning visits and shocking pronouncements.  Apparently the favored theory is that he is Samaritan, or in other words that Mary as a young woman had sexual relations with a Samaritan man.

This is the background of the argument, and the context for Jesus’ strong words.  He is intentionally provoking an escalation of rhetoric until the heart of his hearers is revealed.  John allows us to feel the full force of this insult and the pitch the conversation has reached at this juncture.  One imagines he feels the insult as keenly in retrospect as Jesus might have at the time:

“I am not possessed by a demon”, said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me” (John 8:49)

An earlier hint that this underlying speculation about Jesus’ parentage drives the argument throughout John 8 comes with Jesus’ first suggestion that his listeners are not true children of Abraham:

“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does.”

We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.” (John 8:49-42, emphasis added)

Is it impossible to find a hint of aspersion here? At this point the crowd is getting annoyed, but they are not hotly angry.  They think Jesus is a trickster with bad intent.  This is clear from the way the exchange begins earlier in the text:

Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, “He is a good man.” Others replied, “No, he deceives the people.” But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the Jews.

Not until halfway through the Feast did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having studied?”  Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own.(…)..Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”

“You are demon-possessed,” the crowd answered. “Who is trying to kill you?” (John 7:14-20)

They will end by trying to stone him, but at this point the question is genuine.  They are not yet trying to kill him, but they have prejudged him as a deceiver or a madman.  This dismissal Jesus considers a hardened and deadly (though unconscious) form of anger, as he describes elsewhere:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…(…)…anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

The crowd does not yet know that their prejudgement of Jesus (as of any man) covers a much hotter wrath, and continues to banter in a rather snide vein, as Jesus tells them “you will look for me, and you will die in your sin.  Where I go, you cannot follow”.  John then says:  “This made the Jews ask, “Will he kill himself?  Is that why he says, “Where I go, you cannot follow?”  (John 8: 21- 22)  This question has a definite tinge of malice but one assumes it was nevertheless spoken in a light tone.

At the point at which the crowd protests that the only Father they have is God himself, they are still just rousing out of this dismissive mode. It is not until Jesus tells them directly “you do not belong to God” that his interlocutors finally accuse him directly of what they have been holding in their hearts all along: “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” At this moment the hardened anger of automatic dismissal melts and becomes the hot anger of direct confrontation.

Jesus appears to be goading the gathered Jerusalemites throughout the exchange for no reason whatsoever, calling them spiritually illegitimate, and children of Satan, which seems completely outrageous…until it finally becomes clear, towards the end of the discussion, that they also believe him to be legally illegitimate, and a liar, and have believed it all along.  Jesus pushes them to accuse him of this openly, then defends himself and continues to claim divine authority for his revelations in the strongest possible terms.  At that point the conversation quickly escalates until Jesus claims to have existed before Abraham and at that point the crowd loses patience and tries to stone him.

John zealously defends Jesus and Mary from dishonor

Seen from this view, Jesus’ apparently insane provocation of the Jews takes on a logic that is particular to John. The central issue of evangelism, in John, is confidence in Jesus’ rightful authority: this is why he stresses Jesus’ prerogative to make decisions only he himself fully understands.  In so doing John does not ask the prospective follower of Christ to check his brain at the door; rather he asks him to imitate his own mien as a trusty servant and one who loves his master first and best.  John’s is a calling that begins in loyalty.  He defends Jesus as the true king at every possible opportunity so as to inspire the devotion that a true king deserves and desires.

Doubt of Jesus’ parentage, which is also and perhaps above all a doubt of Mary’s probity, is in John’s view a poisonous doubt that must be flushed into the open and dispatched.  No true devotion can flower where such a doubt grows.  The particular zeal he brings to this project does not emanate from cool theological calculation, nor does it arise from anxiety and doubt over Jesus’ return.  It is a natural consequence of his genuine devotion; his honor can allow such a stain neither upon his king nor upon his mother.  He is moved helplessly to spend himself to erase it.

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