Posts Tagged ‘truth’

MARK 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

It’s time to ask about the dividing-line between what is essential and what is conditional or secondary in the religious life, according to the teachings of Jesus. Lest we deceive ourselves, we must not assume that for Jesus spirituality was merely a matter of what one feels inside, or how pure and noble one’s intentions might be. Jesus was intensely interested in the “fruit” of our lives, that is, in what is produced by the hands and the mouth in the form of ethical behavior. You can tell the tree by its fruit, he said on a number of occasions.

But Jesus also knew that fruit is only part of the tree, a trusty witness to the internal health of the tree, but it’s not everything. Moreover, you will frequently find when you bite into an apparently wholesome piece of fruit, that it’s mealy and rotten inside. Just so, good works may be more about the visual display than genuinely benevolent motives.

The heart, while maybe not the birthplace of our motives (that’s probably farther down), is where they gather emotional energy as attitudes and convictions. The heart is also the center of consciousness tuned into that most mysterious of all our human frequencies: love. On the continuum of human consciousness, the heart-center is situated midway between the mind-center above, which responds to the frequency of truth, and the belly-center below, where the survival concerns of life are dominant.

Between the life urgencies we carry in our bellies and the truth-claims we defend in our heads are the desires and aspirations we hold in our hearts. Our lives tend in the direction of what we love most. Is it God?

EPHESIANS 2:11-22

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

We have already commented on how the institutionalization of religion makes it into a ‘tower of privilege’, horizontally separating insiders from outsiders and then dividing insiders into vertical ranks of status and power. In first-century Judaism division was built into the very architecture of the temple in Jerusalem. Different ‘courts’ had been created like concentric circles arranged around the inner sanctum of the Holy of Holies, where the presence of God was believed to be most intensely real. The ‘court of the Gentiles’ was farther out from center than the ‘court of Israel’. Among this more privileged company only priests were allowed to minister at the altar, but only the High Priest could enter the holiest place, and then but once a year on the Day of Atonement.

Paul looked upon the dividing wall between Jews and non-Jews as representative of the basic fault-line that runs through the human family worldwide. The habit of dualistic thinking not only divides groups into bigoted and often violent opposing parties, but it alienates us all from the Truth we mistakenly think we possess. In Paul’s view, Christ Jesus broke down the dividing wall – not only the wall in the Jerusalem temple but the one that fractures in two the truth of what we are together, as children of  God.

MARK 6:1-13

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “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. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

We might expect that a return to his hometown in Nazareth would excite the neighbors and townspeople to throw a party and organize a parade in honor of what God had been able to accomplish through one of their own. The reputation of Jesus had preceded him, and we can imagine the throng coming out to meet his arrival. No such luck.

When Jesus began to teach in their synagogue, these Nazarenes were immediately impressed by the power and clarity of his wisdom. But instead of attributing that wisdom to the providence of God, and then giving praise for its revelation in their midst, these friends and neighbors of the Carpenter family passed him off as the little scrap they remembered from years ago. “Where did he get this stuff,” they asked. “Isn’t that the kid who used to sand cabinets and sell chairs with his father?” Sadly, what they remembered of Jesus back then was preventing them from perceiving the truth in Jesus now.

Which brings up an important observation regarding the dangers of religion as well. Our religious instruction and churchly upbringing can establish such a strong set of familiar assumptions in our minds, that we become nearly impervious to the Truth.

ACTS 10:34-43

34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Many evangelical explanations begin with the premise that all of humanity outside the small circle of believers who hold to the pure doctrine of Christian salvation are rejected by God and without hope of redemption. Jesus did what needed to be done, what no one before or after him could do, which means that God’s acceptance is made possible only through a personal and doctrinally sound belief in Jesus. This place Jesus not only  at the devotional center of the Christian religion, but at the exclusive center of the world’s religions as well.

A religion becomes dangerous when it presumes to capture and represent the mysteries of God, the soul, and salvation in propositions that are absolute and beyond question. Christianity itself has repeatedly fallen to the temptation of idolatry – of elevating some doctrine, symbol, office or individual to the place of final authority. In Peter’s sermon to the Gentiles he confesses his belief that God looks first upon the heart, and upon the life that bears it forth in word and act, without apparent regard for the purity of doctrine that occupies the mind. In every nation this is so; a wide field indeed!

MATTHEW 25:31-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

More kind and reasonable people these days are having difficulty with the classical doctrine of the Last Judgment, where the righteous are granted access to heaven and sinners are thrown into hell based on the moral record of their life on Earth. For some, it’s not so much the incentive system they have a problem with – though it does have a very juvenile feel to it. Instead it’s the idea that someone who sins, even 24/7 over an entire lifetime, might “justly” be punished forever as a consequence. That seems like a very unfair justice system.

Now add to this what we’re told in a prophetic parable put into the mouth of Jesus, where people will be punished for eternity in hell simply because they neglected (overlooked or ignored) the basic needs of others for food, water, clothing and human contact. By not doing something, you can wind up in merciless torment – forever. That’s not just unfair; it’s sick. Who can possibly get into heaven with such standards in place?

But let’s not stop there on our downward slide into the ridiculous and ethically offensive. Later Christians (including the majority today) would even go so far as to say that not holding the proper doctrine warrants everlasting suffering in hell. Conscious refusal to believe a statement of orthodoxy – but worse, not believing because you were never made aware of it in the first place – is apparently grounds for the cruelest punishment imaginable. This goes to show how “top heavy” and gnostic (primary value in head knowledge) Christianity has become – and how far from Jesus it has strayed.

A second look at the parable put in Jesus’ mouth – and there’s too much about it that sounds Matthean to confidently attribute it to Jesus himself – might help us get past the diabolical and twisted sense of justice it seems to be promoting. It’s very likely that Christianity already back then (in Matthew’s day) had started to forget the original company mission of Jesus, which had nothing to do with the arrangement of doctrines in your head, but rather with how far your compassion can reach into the needs of those around you.

Helping a person in need is serving Jesus. A proper Christian is one who loves others and does good in the world. We need to stop complicating things.

MATTHEW 23:1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

“Do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” Hypocrisy has been alive and well in every age. The active circuit from the doctrines espoused in our heads to the deeds performed by our hands is frequently broken at the fuse of our hearts. If the truth we claim to know is to empower how we live, it must be “taken to heart” – that is to say, it must be embraced and internalized in the values that inspire commitment-in-action. When this critical link is missing, our “talk” and our “walk” fall out of alignment and can even become blatantly contradictory.

The biggest gripe Jesus had with the Pharisees (teachers and upholders of Mosaic law) was not over their beliefs or puritanical religiosity, but their hypocrisy. With the Torah and prophets in their doctrinal library, they had access to a treasury of truth that ought to have been practically evident in their behavior. Loving God wholeheartedly and the neighbor as oneself, lifting the burden of poverty and extending hospitality to strangers, helping the hopeless and promoting community – such directives and aspirations were part of their Jewish heritage. But you wouldn’t know it by observing how they lived.

Hypocrisy is the death knell of any tradition, and is for the individual a kind of character suicide. When leaders of a tradition are unmistakable hypocrites, the consequences are not only devastating for those who look to them for guidance, but they often prove permanently fatal. The contradictions reach so deep into the identity of the tradition that it can no longer hold itself together. Sacred truths may be true again, but only someday, after sufficient time has passed and the canceling effect of hypocrisy has died with the phony leaders who misrepresented them.

JOHN 17:1-11

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

We know from early Christian history that the emerging religion took root in different geographical locations and among communities very divergent in matters of worldview, morality, and politics. Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus and Rome were not only city centers in the spread of Christianity, but to some extent competing voices in the struggle toward orthodoxy.

Scholars believe that the Gospel of John grew out of a Greek-Christian community in the region of Asia Minor, likely centered in the coastal city of Ephesus. In view of his audience, John downplays the identity of Jesus as the Jewish messiah, in favor of the more philosophical and universally appealing title of God’s personified wisdom (the incarnate Word or logos) whose manifested work is the cosmos itself. (As a point of clarification, the author of the fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse of John (Revelation) were not the same person.)

John’s Jesus isn’t driven by the same urgency as the Son of Man of the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke). Their apocalyptic expectation of a future judgment is entirely displaced by his more vertical (present-time) and mystical orientation. This alternation between end-time anticipation and present-time contemplation has defined Christianity through its adverse and stable periods, down to our day.

But with different traditions competing for the heritage of Jesus’ kingdom movement, the challenge facing the author of this Gospel is to give authority to his (John’s) particular angle. How did he do this? As in the other Gospels (and their background traditions) John scripted the authorization of his own tradition as coming directly out of the mouth of Jesus himself:

Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.

As we overhear Jesus speaking to God, he confirms the orthodoxy of John’s tradition/community over all others. God’s truth was given to Jesus, and Jesus gave it to us. To doubt our word is to deny Jesus, which is tantamount to rejecting God since Jesus came from God.

Once the scriptural canon was closed, Christian orthodoxy would use the same pressure-tactic in its doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Questioning church doctrine is disbelieving the Bible, and since the Bible is the infallible word of God, it’s the same as disobeying God himself – and THAT will get you in a lot of trouble!

LUKE 24:44-53

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The transition from the kingdom movement of Jesus to the religion of Christianity required some major shifts in accent.

  • From Jesus as messenger, spiritual travel guide and teacher, to Christ as the object of stationary worship.
  • From an accent on faith as full release to the present power of God, to beliefs as truth-statements necessary for salvation.
  • From promoting human liberation above every system, to a system of control ordained by god.
  • From an ethic of love and full inclusion, to a morality of judgment and separation.
  • From a revolution in human consciousness, to an institution of traditions and regulations.

The list could go on, but the point is made. Jesus’ gospel (good news) was simple and straightforward: You are already forgiven, and now the liberated life waits on you to let go of your neighbor’s guilt. Repentance for Jesus was not about confessing your sins, crawling shamefully back to God, and satisfying the conditions against his love and acceptance. God has no interest in punishing you, but only to be reconciled again. To that end, he has dropped the charges and is inviting you back. Repentance is the “turn-around” of surprise, joy, gratitude and love.

For obvious reasons, this is something that cannot be regulated. If the debt has been forgiven, the guilt released, and the past left in the past, then whatever leverage we might have had on each other is gone as well. How can we continue to segregate the sinners from the saints, if God’s preference for one over the other is no longer in play? What’s to become of the mechanism of retribution (payback) that informs so much of religion? How can we motivate contrition and obedience in new believers if the “wild card” of hell is off the table?

Early Christian mythographers rose to the challenge by reconstructing the backstory of salvation. Soon biographies of Jesus were showing up everywhere – not only our four canonical Gospels, but accounts that fit Jesus into a messianic, apocalyptic, gnostic, monastic, or charismatic framework of values and beliefs. He was made to say things and do things that “fulfilled” prophetic texts or popular expectations. The “thus it is written” in the above passage was put in the mouth of Jesus himself so as to remove any question of its authority.

Eventually (and it didn’t take long) his death was interpreted as the turning-point in human salvation, where the penalty for sin was paid and God’s need for vengeance satisfied. Or maybe God’s love was behind it, as the Gospel of John claims (Jn 3:16), though the prospect of perishing for doubt or disbelief still keeps control comfortably in the hands of church managers.

The purpose here is not to bash Christianity, but rather to suggest where it got off the path of the original Jesus – and why. Nothing is served by the exposé if the only reasonable outcome is total abandonment. The First Voice of Jesus is down there – somewhere. We need to dig beneath the accretions of church doctrine and sweep aside the corruptions of inferior motives, in order to hear again the good news.

 

JOHN 11:1-44

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Near the beginning of the Fourth Gospel, the author refers to Jesus’ miracle of changing water to wine as “the first of his signs” – thus tipping us off at the start that the miraculous deeds related in his Gospel are intended for the reader’s interpretation rather than astonishment. As examples of hagiography – stories told of a hero, saint, or savior by his or her disciples and followers – the New Testament Gospels are not concerned with reporting facts, so much as they are with representing what they understand as the “essence of Jesus” and persuading our belief in what he means.

We need to careful, then, not to diminish the Gospels – and the entire Bible for that matter – by reducing them to mere factual reports or even eye-witness accounts. We are dealing here with mythic literature, which means that much more is going on than what might be described on the page, miracle or not. Even a so-called miracle is merely a surface event intended by the storyteller not just to impress us but to open a view into deeper truth and, we might say, more reality.

Throughout the narrative of this Gospel, the author describes seven such “signs” that we are supposed to look through to grasp his meaning of Jesus. These seven signs are arranged in a very deliberate order, not according to their linear sequence but upon a narrative structure known as “chiastic” (often shaped like an ‘X’, the Greek letter Chi). In this case, the first sign makes a pair with the seventh sign, the second sign with the sixth one, and so on until the center is reached, which is where the “main point” of the structure is located.

The raising of Lazarus from the dead lines up with the sign where Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding party. In that miracle, Jesus orders six very large empty jars, the kind used to hold water for the rinsing and ritual washing of guests’ hands and feet upon entering a house, to be filled with water. He then tells the steward to ladle a cup of the water and bring it to the party host, by which time it has changed into wine. The opposition playing out here is between water and wine, social convention and spiritual transformation, ritual washing and internal change – what we might today name “religion” and “spirituality.” The Gospel writer’s message is that Jesus has freed us from conformity and obligation, bringing us joy and new life instead.

In the acrostic structure of the larger narrative, the raising of Lazarus stands as “complementary opposite” to this water-to-wine miracle. Again we have an outer-to-inner dynamic going on, as the dead body of Lazarus is filled with life again. The “bound” once-dead man is liberated from his bandages and given back his life.

As signs, these stories are pointing to the essence of Jesus (according to this author), which is his power to give joy, life, hope and new meaning to those who are empty and dead inside.