Gospel of John Current Hot-Button Issues And Cultural Debates In Practice
Getting Biblical in Daily Life
You might think that Jesus is too interested in using brilliant pastoral metaphors and healing people to bother much with our twenty-first century cultural dilemmas. But think again.
The death penalty is used throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament and no one seems to bat an eye. People are routinely stoned, beheaded, or crucified. It was not a super friendly time. In John's gospel, two people are sentenced to death. The first is the woman caught committing adultery who the religious authorities want to execute by stoning. The other, of course, is Jesus who is crucified by order of the Roman Empire.
Opponents of capital punishment bring up the story of the woman caught committing adultery (8:1-11) to argue that Jesus is anti-death penalty. After all, he convinces the religious authorities to spare the woman and then allows her to go free himself, showing a God full of mercy rather than harsh condemnation for the guilty. And then of course, there's Jesus, who many people would dub an innocent victim of capital punishment. Remember, Pilate didn't actually think he had committed a crime.
Of course, those who support the death penalty point out all the other instances where the Bible is perfectly okay with sentencing people to die (see Genesis 9:5 and Exodus 21:12 and Deuteronomy 13:5 and 22:23-24, Romans 13:1-7… we could do this all day). And, because Jesus himself did not ask for clemency and did not specifically speak out against the death penalty, many people say he implicitly supported its use.
Capital punishment was simply part of the landscape of the Bible and something 1st-century people would have been exposed to regularly. Today, our Constitution outlaws cruel and unusual punishments, and our trial and appeals process is a lot more extensive than Pilate's. Stoning and crucifixion are out, but hanging, electrocution, and lethal injection are in. You can bet that causes a lot of controversy.
People who study the Bible from a female-centered perspective love them some John because of all the stories of spiritual, strong women it has brought to the world. Unlike the other gospels, John's Gospel has lots of female characters who actually speak and interact with Jesus. The story also portrays women among the earliest disciples of Jesus. Check out this impressive list:
- Jesus's mom talks him into showing off his miracle working at the wedding in Cana. Hey, if your kid was the Messiah, you'd be bragging, too (2:1).
- The Samaritan woman totally understands Jesus and spreads the good word to others in her village (4:39).
- Martha of Bethany seeks Jesus's help for her brother Lazarus and has a very high profile talk with him about the resurrection of the dead (11:1-44).
- Mary of Bethany washes Jesus's feet with her hair to prepare him for his death (12:3). Now there's a forward-thinker.
- Four female followers stand at the foot of the cross to comfort Jesus in his hour of need (19:25).
- Mary Magdalene gets the honor of being the first disciple—male or female—to meet the Risen Christ (then she gets called a prostitute for her trouble…) (21:1-18).
If none of this seems like a very big deal, you have to remember the context—i.e., the rest of the male-centric New Testament.
Today, feminists look to the women in John's Gospel as evidence that ladies did hold positions of respect and authority in the church. The Catholic Church teaches that because women are not named among the "official" twelve disciples, they can't be ordained as priests or deacons. Sorry, ladies. Perhaps we could interest you in a nice habit?
But feminists only have to point to Mary Magdalene, who shared the truth of the resurrection to the male disciples, to demonstrate that women did preach and teach alongside Jesus. They also like to note that the list of "official" disciples contains one guy who turned Jesus in and one guy who denied he knew him. In that company, the women of John's Gospel start to look pretty stinkin' good.