Truth in the dock, the Spirit at the bar: John’s distinctive themes

This post is in the series Rite Reading. (2 of 2 posts on John)

In the first of these two posts on John’s gospel, I looked at some of the ways he differed from the other gospels. We saw how much he organised his writing around Jewish festivals in Jerusalem, and also took a look at the problems his language created for Christian attitudes to the Jewish people. Today I want to go on to explore, especially, two key themes that are have a significant impact in the life of the church and are well reflected in the lectionary’s choices.

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Retelling the Jesus story after long meditation: John’s gospel

This post is in the series Rite Reading. (1 of 2 posts on John)

I expect this to be the first of two posts on John’s gospel as I resume this series after Christmas. But anyone coming to this version of the story after reading the other three immediately sees significant differences in both style and content. Short pithy sayings are out, and long meditations are in. There are no exorcism stories from Jesus’s ministry, but the cross is portrayed as a casting out of Satan, described as “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31). Disciples who occur as significant characters in the synoptic gospels, like James and John the sons of Zebedee, don’t get a mention, while others like Philip and Thomas, who only appear as names in the first three gospels, get speaking parts in John.

St John: one of four paintings of the evangelists in Venice’s San Sebastiano church by Paolo Veronese. Via Wikimedia Commons.
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To infinity and beyond! (journeying via Jerusalem) – Luke’s journey structure

This post is in the series Rite Reading. The third of three posts on Luke.

In my first post on Luke, I noted how important Jerusalem was for the way he tells his story. The story begins in Jerusalem with Zechariah’s temple service, and ends there too with the disciples in the temple praising God. From the time of the transfiguration, Luke talks of Jesus journeying to Jerusalem, arriving there on that first Palm Sunday. And in his second volume, Luke tells the story of how the good news is carried from Jerusalem at the beginning of the story, to Rome, the heart of the empire, at the end.

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When repentance is more God’s work than ours: Luke’s strange stress on divine mercy

This post is in the series Rite Reading. The second of three posts on Luke.

The comedian Emo Philips used to have a great one-liner:

When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised that the Lord doesn’t work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.

St Luke has more about repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’ ministry than the other gospels, and in a way his take on it is as strange as Emo’s. Luke’s Jesus is very much the friend of sinners.

Detail from an icon of St Luke in Great Lavra monastery on Mt Athos; via Wikipedia

It should be said straight away that Judaism was very much in favour of repentance, and was always happy to see sinners engage in it. It’s just that some of those who clashed with Jesus didn’t recognise people’s responses to Jesus as repentance. Repentance was laid out clearly in the law. It involved making sacrifices and reparation, and amendment of life. Partying with Jesus didn’t look much like that kind of serious acknowledgement of sin.

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A gospel rich in stories: Luke

This post is in the series Rite Reading. The first of three posts on Luke.

If (as I noted yesterday) Mark feels rushed, Luke feels well-paced. Unlike Matthew he does not collect Jesus’ teaching into long sections, but intersperses it with stories. He describes his work as an “orderly account” and implies that he knows of others which aren’t! Perhaps because he is such an accomplished story-teller himself, he makes a point of including more parables than the other gospels, including two which usually number among people’s favourites: the Good Samaritan, and the parable often referred to as the Prodigal Son.

Luke includes quite a wide range of material, and seems to be aiming for a rounded picture. Perhaps sometimes he includes a story because he thinks it’s too good to leave out. But this wealth of Jesus-tradition means that it is sometimes harder to detect his key themes than it is with Matthew and Mark. Because of this wealth of material, I’m going to break this section on Luke into three blog posts, over three days.

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Riddle me this: Jesus as a misunderstood puzzle. Mark’s story

17th century icon of St Mark via Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Matthew’s carefully introduced and triumphantly concluded story, Mark begins fairly abruptly and ends even more suddenly than it begins. That beginning reflects a sense of pace that Mark injects into his gospel; Jesus is constantly on the move, and his mission is presented with a sense of urgency fitting to a figure who is announcing that the kingdom of God has come close.

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Anti-semitic? The Pharisees and the Jewish people in Matthew’s gospel

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

In yesterday’s post on Matthew, I looked at some of his key themes. Today I want to develop that further, by looking at what seems to be a fairly complicated relationship between what we would nowadays call Christians and Jews. In Matthew’s context, both communities are made up of Jews, one a community that believes in Jesus as the Messiah, and one that doesn’t. Matthew’s group of Jesus-believing Jews may include some non-Jews, but his book seems mainly directed to Jewish believers in Jesus.

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