Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
Thanks for your patience, folks. Phew -- what a week! At long last, here's this week's blog entry:
John 1:29-41 - link to NRSV text
John the Baptizer proclaims that Jesus is the "Lamb of God," and immediately two of John's disciples go to follow Jesus -- and not just to follow, but to remain with him (a very important word for the author of the Gospel According to John).
When we think about "lamb," we tend to think of kebabs. OK, maybe that's me, and the lesson learned here is that I shouldn't blog on an empty stomach. But seriously, if I asked you to complete the phrase "like a lamb ... ," I bet you'd be pretty likely to say, "to the slaughter." We think of lambs as meek and mild little creatures who go with docility to their fate (i.e., to become kebabs), mostly because they're a little dim.
That's how a lot of folks would have us read the "Lamb of God" language in this Sunday's gospel, as if people in John's time would say to themselves, "gosh, that fellow looks like someone who will trot happily off to get slaughtered ... hey, let's become his disciples!" Not so. I've talked quite a lot before about honor/shame cultures (Jesus' culture was one) and what they saw as masculine virtues, and being a doormat was most decidedly not seen as a virtue for men.
Furthermore, I've blogged before (here) about the nature of John the Baptizer's hopes for and the source of his disappointment in Jesus. We ought to be very careful before using Matthew's and Luke's presentations of John the Baptizer to interpret what we see in the Gospel According to John (among other things, that would be a clear violation of biblical scholarship's "Rule of Thumb #11," as presented in the totally wonderful book, What They Don't Tell You: A Survivor's Guide to Biblical Studies). It's possible for the gospels of Matthew and John to have entirely distinct ideas about John the Baptizer and his relationship to Jesus. But even if the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John don't share all their ideas about John the Baptizer, they do share the values of honor/shame cultures. Given that, it's safe to say that when John presents Jesus as the "Lamb of God" in this Sunday's gospel, John couldn't have meant it as a compliment if he was saying essentially that Jesus was someone who was going to go meekly to be slaughtered.
But then what does the phrase "Lamb of God" refer to? How did John the Baptizer understand it, and what was so appealing about it that, according to this Sunday's gospel, men like Andrew and his anonymous companion would immediately want to follow Jesus when they heard it?
What I have to say about this relies heavily on Bruce Malina's and Richard Rohrbaugh's Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, which I highly recommend as a supplement to any other commentaries on John you may use.
Bruce Malina is fond of pointing out that in the ancient world, watching the night sky was the closest equivalent to what watching television is to a lot of us. It was entertainment, and it was also news, as the stars were seen as having profound and divine influence over human affairs. And if we want to understand the significance of the term "Lamb of God," we too need to look to the night sky.
Specifically, we look to the constellation we (following the Romans) call Aries, which Jews of the Second Temple period (i.e., of Jesus' time) as well as Greeks saw as a male lamb. And across numerous traditions in the ancient world, it was a pretty kickass (can I say "kickass" in a biblical blog?) lamb at that. Ancient descriptions of Aries mirror that of the first-century astronomer Nigidius Figulus, who called Aries "the leader and prince of the constellations" (Malina and Rohrbaugh, pg. 51). Aries the divine Lamb was the ruler of the other constellations, and the starting point from which all other constellations were mapped.
But isn't this whole astronomy thing foreign to a biblical worldview? Not in the least -- depending, of course, on what you mean by "a biblical worldview." If you mean a worldview that we ought to hold in our own time and culture if we take the bible seriously, then no, astrology isn't part of a "biblical worldview." But a close and culturally sensitive reading of the bible, Old and New Testaments, shows at the very least that imagery drawn from astrology was of profound importance to a number of biblical writers. As we seek to understand the context in which the Gospel of John used the phrase, "Lamb of God," it's important to note how prominently it is tied to astrological imagery in the Revelation of Jesus to John, another work in the family of Johannine writings in which scholars place both Revelation and John. Can you imagine what the book of Revelation would look like if you blacked out every reference in your copy of it to the heavens and their stars?
And then there is the connection to Passover, the feast that observed in the first month of the year, when Aries the lamb rules the sky. It's the Israelite New Year's celebration, when the coming of spring reminds us of how God is at work to make all things new. That kind of imagery came into play as Jesus' followers imagined what the climax of God's redemptive work through Jesus would be like. Much as pagan and Israelite stories alike portrayed Aries, the Lamb, as ascendant at the moment of Creation, Hellenistic Christians used that imagery to talk about what the moment is like in which it can be truly said, "as it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end."
So when John the Baptizer says, "Look -- the Lamb of God," he is articulating a hope that spanned multiple cultures in the ancient world. He was saying that in Jesus there was power, power that would rise above the other powers in the sky, power present in the beginning, power to make all things new. When Andrew and his companion are drawn to Jesus in John's gospel by that vision of Jesus as the "Lamb of God," they are drawn by an understanding that here is power.
But John's gospel is also the one in which Jesus says, "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32). The author of the Gospel According to John understands something that his namesake the Baptizer does not; that the power of the "Lamb of God" is shown most fully not in his displaying power over others, but in his humble service to others, and in his willing submission for the sake of others to death on a cross. To understand the Baptizer's hope in proclaiming Jesus as "the Lamb of God," we must look to the night sky; to understand how Jesus redefined that hope in fulfilling it, we must seek Jesus' presence with the lowly, the suffering, the prisoners, those our culture pushes to the margins -- those whose lives are seen of being as of little account as Pontius Pilate saw Jesus'. Recognize the power of Jesus' kenosis (Philippians 2), and we will see the signs: all Creation is being made new.
Thanks be to God!
This is extremely good. Thanks! But I will still think first of kabobs and gyros when I think of lamb.
Posted by: Bill Uetricht | Jan 13, 2011 11:27:25 AM