Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Jesus in Samaria (Notes on John 4:27-42)

Continuing on from the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman:
[27] And upon this came his disciples, and marvelled that he talked with the woman: yet no man said, What seekest thou? or, Why talkest thou with her?
Since none of the disciples witnessed Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, the account in the Gospel must be based on information from either Jesus or the woman, or else on hearsay. Since the disciples were astonished to see Jesus conversing with a Samaritan, we can assume that they themselves would never do such a thing, and that the Gospel account is therefore not based on a direct interview with the woman. We are also told here that the disciples didn't ask Jesus any questions about his conversation with the woman. It's possible that Jesus later told them the whole story, but it seems more likely that the account we have is hearsay, based on rumors circulating in Samaria about how he "told her everything that ever she did." Some of the more sensational details, then, such as the five husbands, may be nothing more than rumor, but I would assume that the author of the Gospel, who knew Jesus and his ideas well, would have captured the latter fairly accurately in his record. Whether or not the actual conversation was much like the Gospel account, I think we can be fairly confident that the statements about living water, Mt. Gerizim and Jerusalem, etc. represent actual teachings of Jesus.

[28] The woman then left her waterpot, and went her way into the city, and saith to the men, [29] Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ? 
[30] Then they went out of the city, and came unto him.
Remember that the Samaritans acknowledged no prophets other than Moses and the Messiah (Taheb), and many held that even the Messiah would not be a second prophet but would be the second coming of Moses himself. From the Samaritan point of view, if Jesus was a prophet -- as his paranormal knowledge of the woman's life would suggest -- he could only be the prophet, the Messiah himself.

I have discussed elsewhere the Samaritan expectation that the Messiah would "tell us all things" -- which apparently derives from an alternative reading of Deuteronomy 18:18.

[31] In the mean while his disciples prayed him, saying, Master, eat.
[32] But he said unto them, I have meat to eat that ye know not of.
[33] Therefore said the disciples one to another, Hath any man brought him ought to eat?
[34] Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.
"Meat" here just means food, with no connotation of animal flesh.

Was Jesus really like this in conversation? It seems like it would have been rather maddening! I guess the justification for this mode of discourse -- deliberately confusing his interlocutors, letting them talk among themselves for a minute trying to figure out what he mean, and then explaining -- is that it would have engaged the disciples' attention more fully and made the final epigram more memorable.

The characterization of the Father as "he that sent me" is distinctively Johannine. The string "sent me" occurs 34 times in the Fourth Gospel and only 7 times in the other three Gospels combined.

Finishing God's work sounds like a once-and-for-all thing -- but Jesus calls it his food. Eating food is not the grand culmination of one's life's work; it is something we have to do again and again, day after day, for as long as we live. It is interesting to juxtapose this saying with the prayer, attributed to Jesus in the Synoptics, "Give us this day our daily bread"; also with the line from Deuteronomy supposedly quoted by Jesus when tempted by Satan, "man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live."

Elsewhere in the Gospel it is suggested that God's work can be "finished" more than once. Shortly before his execution (apparently at the "Last Supper") Jesus says "I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do" (John 17:4), even though few would be willing to say Jesus had already finished his work before his death. Later, on the cross, his last words are "It is finished" (19:30), but I think it's safe to say his work wasn't really finished until the resurrection -- or, for those who expect a Second Coming, not until then. Come to think of it, if we believe Moses, God's work had already been pronounced "finished" long before the time of Jesus: "the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work" (Genesis 2:1-2). The belief that, pace Moses, God's work wasn't really finished until the resurrection is probably what underlies the longstanding Christian custom of keeping Sabbath on Sunday rather than on the seventh day.

Is the work of God ever really finished? The Book of Mormon prophet Nephi criticizes those who would say, "behold there is no God today, for the Lord and the Redeemer hath done his work" (2 Nephi 28:5). "There is no God today" is rather a striking way of putting it -- Joseph Smith anticipated Nietzsche's famous statement "God is dead" by some 50 years -- but isn't a God who is done, who is never going to do anything ever again, world without end, the functional equivalent of one who no longer exists?

If the work of God can ever be completely finished, what then? An eternity of nothing to do, of hanging around, of resting on laurels? But on the other hand, supposing the work of God can't ever be finished, doesn't that reduce everything to a sort of Sisyphean futility? The only solution that works for me comes from combining the Book of Mormon with Spinoza: "Men are that they might have joy" (2 Nephi 2:25), and "Joy is man's passage from a lesser to a greater perfection" (Ethics, 3, defs. 2 & 3). There is no endpoint of absolute perfection such as the Classical Theist imagines God to enjoy, but the lack of a finish line does not make the race an exercise in futility, since the joy in the passage to a greater perfection, not in the static enjoyment of absolute perfection. Another way of expressing the same point is to say that God's definitive role is not "Supreme Being" but rather Creator -- characterized not by static perfection but by continuous making-things-better. "The knowledge and power of God are expanding," says a Mormon hymn to which many a Christian might object. But of course they are; otherwise, how could he have joy?

[35] Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest. [36] And he that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life eternal: that both he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together. [37] And herein is that saying true, One soweth, and another reapeth. [38] I sent you to reap that whereon ye bestowed no labour: other men laboured, and ye are entered into their labours.
The harvest of wheat and barley (the crops being alluded to by "the fields are white") was typically in April or May, so this episode apparently took place four months earlier, in December or January.

This was a favorite passage of Joseph Smith's, alluded to again and again in the Doctrine & Covenants, apparently with reference to the work of proclaiming the gospel and "harvesting" converts. It's hard to be sure whether or not that was also the meaning originally intended by Jesus.

[39] And many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him for the saying of the woman, which testified, He told me all that ever I did. [40] So when the Samaritans were come unto him, they besought him that he would tarry with them: and he abode there two days.
[41] And many more believed because of his own word; [42] And said unto the woman, Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.
This is one of only two places in the Bible where the title "Saviour of the world" is used; the other is in the anonymous First Epistle of John (4:14) -- called "of John" because it is almost certainly by the author of the Fourth Gospel, for whom the name John has become conventional. It seems highly likely that the author is here putting his own ideas in the mouths of the Samaritans. Neither the Jews nor the Samaritans were anticipating a savior of the world; the Taheb and the Messiah were only expected to save Israel.

The feeding of the five thousand echoes one of Elisha's miracles

I just listened to this story in 2 Kings (4:38, 42-44). And Elisha came again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land; . . .  And ther...