- 2 Samuel 18:5-9,15,31-33 & Psalm 130
- Ephesians 4:25-5:2
- John 6:35, 41-51
First Reading: The death of Absalom
The narrative in 2 Samuel has now advanced several years. David is now a much an older man and his several adult children are wreaking havoc within the dynasty and the nation in fulfillment of Nathan’s prophecy in 2 Sam 12:11-12. In particular, the prediction that David’s wives and concubines would be taken from him and publicly ravaged by another man, has been fulfilled in the rebellion led by his son, Absalom.
The RCL spares us the sordid story, and takes us into the climax of the struggle for control of the throne. In an ironic twist, David’s men go into battle against the army of Israel with high casualties on both sides. The army of Israel is defeated and Absalom himself is captured and (contrary to David’s explicit instructions) killed. David’s concern for his son, and his grief at Absalom’s demise, make a powerful scene in a classic literary narrative from the ancient world.
In preparing for this week’s services, it may be helpful to read the complete narrative:
- Amnon rapes Absalom’s sister, Tamar (2Sam 13:1-22)
- Absalom murders Amnon (2Sam 13:23-33)
- Absalom goes into exile (2Sam 13:34-39)
- Absalom returns to court (2Sam 14:1-33)
- Absalom cultivates popular support (2Sam 15:1-6)
- Absalom seizes power in a coup (2Sam 15:7-12)
- David flees and prepares to fight back (2Sam 15:13-17:29)
- Absalom’s forces defeated (2Sam 18:1-19:8a)
- David is restored to power (2Sam 19:8b-43)
- David suppresses northern resistance (2Sam 20:1-26)
This complex of stories makes up a considerable percentage of 2 Samuel and must therefore be assumed to have particular significance to the prophetic story-tellers who put together this “complex-chain narrative.” It is most likely that this sorry saga of failure and betrayal was seen as a paradigm of the nation as a whole, and functioned to explain theologically the demise of the nation in the face of Babylonian conquest.
In The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel (JSOTS 55. Sheffield, 1987) Thomas L. Thompson has established that ancient Hebrew story-tellers were adept at creating new stories of considerable length and complexity using traditional stories and motifs.
Second Reading: Holy living
This passage provides an excellent example of early Christian paraenesis, or moral instruction. Having surveyed several major theological themes in the earlier part of the letter, the author now turns to provide explicit practical instruction on holy living.
Gospel: Glimpses of a tradition developing over time
Jesus, son of Joseph
The GJohn is well-known for its complex and highly-developed theology. Less recognized is the same Gospel’s capacity to preserve historical nuggets that would otherwise be lost to us. One of those may be surfacing here in the reference to Jesus as the “son of Joseph” and the comfort with which the Johannine story-teller can describe Jesus’ opponents as saying they know his “father and mother.”
In chapters 6, 7 and 8 we find casual references to Jesus’ parentage or birth place that are at odds with the later Christian tradition:
son of Joseph, we know his father and mother …
They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” [John 6:42]
not born in Bethlehem
When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, “This is really the prophet.” Others said, “This is the Messiah.” But some asked, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” So there was a division in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. [John 7:40-44]
at least we know our father!
They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.” [John 8:39-41]
not yet 50 years of age
Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” [John 8:56-58]
It is not clear just what the tradition behind GJohn knew about Jesus’ family origins, but it is hard to imagine that a Christian author who was familiar with either Matthew or Luke could have written these words. It may simply be that we need to acknowledge that within the first 100 years there were Christians who had no trouble speaking of Joseph as Jesus’ biological father, and did not know (or did not accept) the tradition of Jesus being born at Bethlehem. In GJohn the most complex Christology and the simplest biology stand side by side.
Apart from our interest in recovering Jesus’ biological origins, this Johannine passage is also interesting in another way. The words attributed to the crowd (“Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”) seem remarkably close to the words of the crowd in Nazareth when Jesus is rejected by his own townsfolk:
“Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
“Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?”
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
It is possible that John 6:42 preserves another version of the tradition first seen in Mark 6.
Unless the Father draws them …
The Jesus portrayed by the author of GJohn speaks of those who will not come to him to receive the bread of life because the Father has not drawn them.
In some Christian circles, this has been interpreted as an expression of a divine decision to choose certain individuals (or even classes of people) for salvation, while intentionally consigning the remainder of humanity (and all of non-human creation) to destruction.
It may be helpful to place this text alongside some other statements of the Johannine Jesus:
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.
So there will be one flock, one shepherd. [GJohn 10:16]
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me. [GJohn 14:6]
How are these different voices to be heard?
It seems clear that we are dealing with a self-conscious Christian community that is deeply aware of its identity over and against the Torah observant synagogue communities (known as “the Jews” in GJohn), and also as different from (yet somehow connected to) the other Jesus communities, such as those associated with the Pauline mission, the Q community in Galilee, or even the Thomas Christians.
GJohn 6 certainly expresses an awareness that some people, and particularly many of the Jews, will simply not accept Jesus as the bread of life, the one sent from God. For these Johannine Christians, Jesus was the only pathway they could now acknowledge (as expressed in GJohn 14:6). Yet there was also a sense that Jesus had sheep in “other pens” (GJohn 10:16).
As disciples of Jesus in the 21C, we do not simply face the traditional questions of other Christian communities with different traditions than those we have practiced (ecumenism). Nor do we simply have to re-visit the age-old question of Jewish-Christian relationships as we acknowledge that Judaism is not fading away and that Jesus himself was never a Christian. We find ourselves pushed even further out into the deep waters. What about those other religions that simply were not known either to Jesus or to his earliest followers?
Can we interpret this harsh saying of Jesus not as a declaration of eternal predestination to salvation for a select few, but rather as a statement acknowledging that the Father does not draw every human person to Jesus? For them, we might imagine Jesus saying that God’s generous love provides other pathways to life.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.