Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 5.1-9 (other option: John 14.23-29)
6th Sunday of Easter - Year B

Other texts: 


An optional reading for this day is John 14.23-29. Most of my "notes" on this text are quotes from other exegetes.

It is unfortunate that the reading doesn't continue through v. 18. The miracle story of vv. 1-9a becomes a conflict story in vv. 9b-18 which leads to "the Jews" seeking to kill Jesus. There are many parallels between this healing/conflict story and the healing/conflict in John 9. To list some: Both are during a feast; both are sabbath healings; both involve someone who has been infirmed for many years; in both stories there are comments about sin and sickness; both involve a pool (Beth-zatha & Siloam); both have a command and with obedience comes a cure; in both, Jesus is accused of violating the sabbath.

I offer some scattered quotes from O'Day (John, The Interpreter's Bible):

... Although life-saving healing would be permissible on the sabbath, the healing of a disease that had lasted thirty-eight years could surely wait until sundown. ... [p. 580]

In vv. 10-16, then, two conversations have been taking place simultaneously. The Jews have been doggedly pursuing a conversation about sabbath violation (vv. 10, 12, 16), while the healed man and Jesus have been discussing healing and being made well (vv. 11, 14-15). [p. 580]

The rejection of Jesus in this story, then, is a rejection of the possibility of new and unprecedented ways of knowing God and ordering the life of faith. It is no accident that the Fourth Evangelist uses a healing story as the catalyst for this rejection (see also John 9), because a healing miracle simultaneously challenges conventional understandings of how the world is ordered and gives concrete embodiment to the new possibilities. The double foci of the dialogue of 5:9b-18 reinforces the double aspect of the miracle. The "Jews" focus on the challenge to the conventional order, whereas the healed man and Jesus focus on the new possibilities, the man's new life. [p. 581]

... The contemporary reader is thus invited by this text to examine when and by whom in contemporary church life the knowledge of God brought by Jesus is rejected because it is too challenging to existing religious systems and structures. [p. 581]

This a delicate interpretive situation, because to engage in a battle of conflicting orthodoxies by pitting one "right" understanding of the good news against another is in reality a rejection of Jesus. Much damage and hurt have been done in the church by laity and clergy alike in the defense of the "right" position. Jesus' challenge, which the Jewish authorities rightly sensed and reacted against swiftly and intensely (5:18), is to the hegemony of any one group or position. Jesus brings God into human experience in ways that transcend and transform human definitions and categories. [p. 581]

To push the last quotes a little: When do the structures and rules of the Church help to keep people "sick" or "stuck in their condition" rather than offering new life through the power of God?

Note also that the word for "heal" (hygies, related to "hygene") is used five (or six) times in this section: vv. 4 (footnote), 6, 9, 11, 14, 15. It is also used in John 7:23 and five times in the rest of the NT. While this word can mean physical health, it is also used for soundness of teaching or speech (see Titus 2:8). Thus, it implies more a sense of being whole, of being right with the world.

Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John) note that the ancient Mediterranean society had a different view of sickness than Western society.

In non-Western medicine, the main problem with sickness is the experience of the sick person being dislodged from his/her social moorings and social standing. Social interaction with family members, friends, neighbors, and village mates comes to a halt. To be healed is to be restored to one's social network. In contemporary Western medicine, we view disease as a malfunction of some organism that can be remedied, assuming cause and cure are known, by proper biomedical treatment. We focus on restoring a sick person's ability to function, to do. Yet, often overlooked is the fact that health and sickness are always culturally defined and that in many societies the ability to function is not the heart of the matter. In the ancient Mediterranean world, one's state of being was more important than one's ability to act or function. Thus, the healers or that world focused on restoring a person to a valued state of being rather than to an ability to function.

Anthropologists therefore distinguish between disease (a biomedical malfunction afflicting an organism), and illness (a disvalued state of being in which a person's social networks have been disrupted and social significance lost.) [pp. 113-114]

The man in our text has no one to put him in the water when it is stirring. He has no friends. He has no family. There is no one to help him. It is also likely that he was lying by the side of the pool not just for healing, but also to beg. Malina and Rohrbough state, "It is difficult to imagine a beggar in that position [without family or friends] surviving for any length of time" [p. 111].

Related to this social aspect of illness, O'Day states: "First-century Judaism defined community identity around three practices: circumcision, food laws, and sabbath observance. In Jesus' time, a challenge to the sabbath meant a challenge to the definition of covenant membership" [p. 579]

A healing that would restore the ill man to society is done on the sabbath -- an act that they assumed removed him from the covenant community.

Robert Capon in Between Noon and Three, defends his writing of an offensive story/parable. He relates his deed to Jesus' actions in Matthew 12, but they relate just as well to the miracle in John 5. He writes:

...his breaking of the sabbath seems pointless and unnecessary. He is not performing a good deed that, if delayed, would become unperformable. This is not a man who needs immediate rescue, not a man laying unconscious in a burning house. This is not even a man whose case is like the one Jesus cites to justify the healing -- a sheep fallen into a pit who would drown if left till sundown. The Pharisees are reasonable men. of course they would pull out the sheep. If you care to make a rather Latin-style theological argument for them, you might have them reason that since the sabbath is the chief sacrament of the order of creation, it may lawfully be broken only if some significant individual instance of that order is in danger of imminent and irreversible disordering.

But that is not the case here. This man has had a withered hand for years [or being ill for 38 years]. Why in God's good name can't Jesus wait out the afternoon and cure him without flying in the face of the Torah? Why can't he sit with him till sunset and use the time to fix the man's mind on the graciousness of God? Why can't they search the Scriptures together and set the stage so that the healing will be seen in all its unquestionable rightness? What is the point of this unnecessary muddying of the water?

...

Whenever someone attempts to introduce a radically different insight to people whose minds have been formed by an old and well-worked-out way of thinking, he is up against an obstacle. Their taste, as Jesus said, for the old wine is so well established that they invariably prefer it to the new. More than that, the new wine, still fermenting, seems to them so obviously and dangerously full of power that they will not even consider putting it into their old and fragile wineskins.

But try to see the point of the biblical imagery of wine-making a little more abstractly. The new insight is always at odds with the old way of looking at things. Even if the teacher's audience were to try earnestly to take it in, the only intellectual devices they have to pick it up with are the categories of the old system with which it conflicts. Hence the teacher's problem: if he leaves in his teaching a single significant scrap of the old system, their minds, by their very effort to understand, will go to that scrap rather than to the point he is making and, having done that, will understand the new only insofar as it can be made to agree with the old -- which is not at all. [pp. 140-142]

Capon concludes that if Jesus had waited until sundown, his wonderful miracle would have supported the people's expectations of a victorious and immortal messiah -- one "who is coming to punch the enemies of the Lord in the nose."

Jesus constantly announces the coming kingdom in words and deeds that run counter to the people's expectations for the kingdom. He comes from Galilee, where no prophet comes from. He talks with a Samaritan woman, which no decent male Jew would do. He eats with tax collectors and sinners. He is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He dies as an accursed criminal on a cross.

We want to "see" Jesus through the lens of our own understanding of what a savior should be like. As long as we "see" in this way, we cannot see. Capon again:

He [Jesus] instructs them with a constant awareness that the one thing they must not do is see, because they would see wrong, nor understand, because they would only misunderstand. For he knows that the only thing that can save them -- himself, in the mystery of his death and resurrection -- is the one thing they cannot accept on their present view of salvation. Accordingly, he gives them not one scrap to confirm their present view -- or, more accurately, he always includes one solidly unacceptable scrap on which their minds will gag. [p. 143]

The real "crime" in this healing is Jesus' command, "Take your mat." It was the carrying of the mat on the sabbath -- an act that others could easily see -- that led to the controversy. Jeremiah had stated: "Thus says the LORD: For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the sabbath or do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your ancestors" (Jer. 17:21-22).

Jesus could have avoided the offensiveness of this healing by (1) waiting until after the sabbath; or (2) not commanding him to take his mat. Jesus did both. He seems to be purposely offensive.

Jesus also confronts an attitude held by some that God was still "resting" after finishing the work of creation (see Malina & Rohrbaugh, p. 112). Jesus declares that God is working (5:17), even on that sabbath day! And "like Father, like son -- the son is also working.

It has been suggested that most American Christians are "functional atheists". While they believe in God, they function as if God were still resting. We don't expect God to break into our lives. We don't expect God to be involved in our congregations.

One way of dealing with an unappetizing message, is to kill the messenger. That is what the Jewish leaders decide to do with Jesus (5:18).

To expand on a question I raised earlier, when may our church or religious rules keep people away from the saving/healing presence of Jesus? I remember a lady complaining about teenagers coming to church in blue jeans. She was especially upset when they went up for communion in unacceptable attire. They shouldn't be doing that. Would she rather have them in church in blue jeans, or have her rules keep them away?

What about rules for having women in the pulpit or children at communion or pounding drums at worship? Does obedience to these rules help or hinder the spread of the gospel? How often do we ask, "Are people being saved?" or "Are they hearing and experiencing the gospel of God?" My experience in congregations is that we are more likely to raise questions about whether or not some rule or tradition was broken.

Recently, in terms of worship styles, the question has been asked of long-time members: "What are you willing to give up so that a new generation (or more people) might hear the gospel?"

ADDITIONAL COMMENT

Although it is not part of the assigned lesson, it is important to look at verse 14. Here Jesus seems to contradict what he says in John 9:2 about the relationship between sin and suffering. Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John) write about this verse:

If we assume that Jesus' reference to something "worse" happening to the man is a reference to his illness, the puzzle is indeed present. Jesus seems to be threatening another disease if the man should sin again. But if we recognize that in Mediterranean societies "sin" is a breach of interpersonal relations, there ceases to be a problem. For if sin is whatever destroys one's relationship with the group, and if we note that this man was devoid of friends to put him in the pool, Jesus' comment makes perfect sense. As a friendless outcast, the man was indeed a "sinner," an outsider unattached to a group. He may have been sick, but he was also ill. Given his age and the short life expectancies in antiquity, should the man repeat whatever disrupted his relationship with the group, he would indeed risk the worst of all fates: having no one to bury and remember him. [p. 112]

When I reread that paragraph in preparation for these notes, the thought that came to my mind was that of trust. When I worked with couples and families at the alcoholic rehab hospital, a big, interpersonal issue was that of trust. Over and over again the alcoholic had betrayed the trust of the spouse or of parents. Often the statement was made, "I don't know if I can trust him/her again." If they make that leap of faith and trust the other and it is betrayed again, i.e., an act of sin, the relationship is worse than it was before. It becomes even more difficult, if not impossible, to restore the trusting relationship.

Perhaps our understanding of sin becomes closer to that of the first century if we think of it as actions that erode trust between people (or between a person and God).


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com