Progressive reflections on the lectionary #18

John 3:1-17 - Trinity Sunday

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #18

There’s an embarrassment of riches for anyone due to preach on this Trinity Sunday,

The readings offered from the Hebrew Scriptures are Isaiah 6:1-8 and Psalm 29 - each proposing dramatic visions of the divine, then Romans 8:12-17 speaks of the Spirit of God, while the gospel passage is ‘sonship’ focussed, telling the story of Jesus’ meeting with the pharisee Nicodemus and the subsequent confusion over being ‘born again.’

It’s the gospel passage I’m going to reflect on, briefly, here, partly because I’m a fan of the clever way that the book (John) is structured. For a lot of people the apparent antisemitic tone of John makes it the most problematic of the four gospels, but I think if one reads it in the context of early church isolation and perceived (or real) persecution it makes sense.

One of the literary devices that the writer ‘John’ uses to great effect is the setting up of a series of misunderstandings. There are several instances of misunderstandings in John, usually these are used to set up opportunities for Jesus to give some teaching.

Jesus meeting with Nicodemus is one of these ‘misunderstanding’ sequences, and it’s best seen in contrast with its paired story which also revolves around misunderstandings, and occurs in the next chapter of John’s gospel - the story of the woman at the well.

In both instances, the reader would begin with a set of cultural assumptions relating to righteousness, gender and status. The contrast is obvious, one character is a righteous high status man, the other is a ‘sinful’ low status woman. The problem for the high status man is that he endangers that status by being seen with Jesus, so John tells us that he comes to see him at night. The opposite happens with the woman at the well. Light and dark are used symbolically in ‘John’ - to indicate good and bad - already the writer is messing with his readers.

A further expectation is that the high status man would not only understand, but be able to challenge Jesus’ teaching. Instead, though, and corresponding with the way that John tries to encourage his down-pressed community, this confident, wealthy, high status individual is unable to respond to Jesus’ teaching. He lacks the imagination or the ability to get past his normative assumptions. Nicodemus’ silence then is code, here, for the stagnation of contemporary Judaism.

His foil, on the other hand, the Samaritan woman, not only meets Jesus in the day time, but has the daring and wit to dialogue with him. Unlike the Nicodemus encounter, this story is a slightly bawdy romp which parodies various betrothal sequences in the Hebrew tradition with double entendre employed around ‘living water’.

While she is a social pariah in terms of Judaism, and perhaps the new Christian sect can identify with her there - it is she, not the high ranking pharisee who makes progress with Jesus. Although he was the one with the multiple advantages of status and respectability, she was the one who came away with the prize.

Whether you were to take this text on its own, or in conjunction with others that speak of the broader nature of the Godhead, what the Nicodemus story sets up is the subversive message of Jesus - as the ‘inheritance’ (that which is the lawful property of) the Son is lavished not on those who would normally expect to be chosen or included, but on the excluded, marginalised and disenfranchised.

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Image: Photo of three windows. By Simon Berger on Unsplash


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