A Little Exegesis, For All

Last Sunday’s lesson from the Gospels in most liturgical churches is a passage very familiar to people who are at all interested in the Bible – and one that has been prooftexted in a variety of causes.

I propose that the “mixed multitude” who care to participate attempt to figure out what exactly was being said in it.

Couple of basic assumptions: The content is meaningful; the speaker is not a raving lunatic who will next proclaim that he is the reincarnation of Elvis. This does not require that you think it’s a historical artifact; if you feel that it’s fictional, the work of “John the Elder” to advance his particular philosophy, that’s fine. If you are not convinced of the historicity of Jesus, that’s fine. But in such a case take it as though it were a work of fiction in which you were trying to get to the motivation of the Yoda-like character who seems to be speaking in metaphors. Christians, please leave out the baggage of who you believe Jesus to be to the extent possible – we’re looking at what he’s trying to convey in terms of his message to a bunch of his by-now-bewildered disciples by the words he’s speaking in the passage. It’s pretty clear he’s using metaphor, and his own pet name for God, “my Father” – which is affectionate, not a theological claim, in the assumption set we’re building here.

The scene is at a dinner table in an upstairs room set off from a house, somewhere in Jerusalem. Jesus is by now aware that there’s some sort of plot against him based on the fact that his teachings are stirring up the crowds against the religious establishment, and he fully expects to be arrested in the near future. He’s taking the opportunity for one last long talk with his closest followers in the context of a memorable Passover meal.

Here’s the passage, with a little background:

I find it hard to think of this passage in terms other than the traditional way in which I was taught it.

I suppose in some way it could be argued that Jesus was telling his disciples that he was about to demonstrate the ultimate example of giving oneself for another, so that they might emulate it. Note, I don’t mean emulate it in the sense of going and getting themselves murdered by the Romans too, I mean “giving their love away wastefully” as Spong has put it. I’m curious, where are you going with this Poly?

I’m not sure what you’re asking for, Poly, when you ask what He is saying, and I don’t know whether I can drop any baggage or not, but I’ll try. And I guess the best way I can answer you is to paraphrase the text in the manner that I hear it. Is that okay?

Jesus said, "I’ll be leaving you soon and you can’t come with me right now. But while I’m gone, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to love one another just as I’ve loved you. That’s how you’ll be recognized as my followers, by your love for each other.

“Trust me, and don’t be afraid. God’s home is large and there are many rooms, rooms that I’m going to prepare for you so you can come to be with me when the time is right. Then, you’ll always be with me. I’d tell you if it weren’t so. But you know where I’m going and how to get there.”

“Huh?” said Thomas, scratching his head. “We don’t know where the hell you’re going, so how can we know how to get there.”

“I am how to get there,” Jesus answered, “and I am everything that is true, and I am the light of heaven. There is no way into God’s home without going through me. If you had known me, you’d have known God also. But those who know me, know God.”

Philip said, “Master, show us God. That’s all we ask.”

Jesus answered him, "Philip, you mean after all this time, you don’t know who I am? Anyone seeing me is seeing God. Didn’t you know that I am one with God and God is one with me? Even the words I speak are his own words, and the work I do is his work because his spirit is my essence. Simply trust me when I tell you that God and I are one and the same. Or simply think back on all the things you’ve heard and seen and believe me.

“This is the absolute truth, that anyone who trusts me and clings to me can do everything I’ve done and more because I’ll be at home. Ask for anything using my authority and it will be done so that God can be glorified through me.”

If nothing else, Polycarp, your challenge has been an object lesson in how easy it is to assume that my own view is the clear and commonsensical one with which everybody else should fall into line.

I can’t wait to see where this thread goes next.

The power and necessity of faith?

Jesus is saying “You don’t really know who I am and you don’t know where I’m going. In short, you don’t know what the fuck is going on. You must look inside yourselves and…believe

Contrast Jesus’s quiet (almost cocky) certainty with “Doubting” Thomas’s confusion and disbelief.

Kind of like when Obi Wan tells Luke to forget his physical senses and “use the force”.

I too am struggling to look beyond what is familiar and “obvious” and see the alternatives…

Perhaps, having just told Peter that he is going to betray/deny him, Jesus wants to assure the others that in spite of the events of the next few days, there is still hope for them, that the work that he has been doing on earth is not in vain. He goes on to speak of the Holy Spirit as Counsellor (or “Comforter, Counselor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, Strengthener, and Standby” to quote the Amplified Bible) which lends credibility to the encouragement theme - he is prepering them, even now for his ultimate departure…

How’s that?


I think what he’s saying is “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”.

I’m still not sure I understand the exercise. I’m so dense about such things. Maybe Poly will return to the thread.

I’m distinctly unqualified to do this, but here’s how I parse what was said:

"Dear children, how brief are these moments before I must go away and leave you! Then, though you search for me, you cannot come to me – just as I told the Jewish leaders. So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples."

“Soon, leave you I will.” (Sorry; couldn’t help it!) *"When I go, you will not be able to follow me; just as I told the Jewish leaders they could not. So I’m telling you now that there is one thing you must do: Love each other just as I have loved each of you. This will show the world that you *are my followers."

"Don’t be troubled. You trust God, now trust in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s home, and I am going to prepare a place for you. If this were not so, I would tell you plainly. When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. And you know where I am going and how to get there."

“Don’t be disturbed by this. You must believe that there is a meaning here. There are many ways to be with God, and what I am about to do will clear those ways for you. If there were no way to be with God, I would tell you now. When each way is open, I will come to you and make it so that you will always be with me where I am. Each of you already knows where I am going, and how to be with me.”

**“No, we don’t know, Lord,” Thomas said. “We haven’t any idea where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. If you had known who I am, then you would have known who my Father is. From now on you know him and have seen him!”**

“I am your road map. As you have seen me be, so should you be, for living as I am is the true way of living. If you had lived as I am, then you would know who God is. From this time on, know that you have seen God, and that you can live as I am.”

**Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”

Jesus replied, “Philip, don’t you even yet know who I am, even after all the time I have been with you? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking to see him? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I say are not my own, but my Father who lives in me does his work through me. Just believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Or at least believe because of what you have seen me do.”**

“Philip, after all this time I have been with you, can you not believe that I am the way to God? You have seen me live, so you have seen God. Do you question this because you doubt that I am in God, and that God is in me? God is speaking to you now through me; because God lives in me, his work is done through me. Believe that God lives in me and I in him, at least because you have seen me live.”

"The truth is, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, because the work of the Son brings glory to the Father."

*"Here is the truth of what I am about to do: anyone who believes that I am the way to God will do as I have done, and even greater. You can desire anything from that belief, and *I *will do it, because it is God’s greatest wish that *you be as I am."

This is a profound final message from a man who knows he is about to be destroyed. I think it is no less profound for the atheist who opens his heart than it is to the devout theist, nor is the philosophy incompatible with materialistic beliefs.

Thank you for this exercise, Polycarp.

A little exi-Jesus? Sorry.

If I may: this is from John 13:33-35 and 14:1-14, the “snippage” being 13:36-38.

The snippage provides a clue to a possible meaning. Jesus says “Where I am going you cannot follow me.” He is not speaking merely of his crucifixion; he is speaking of fulfilling his mission, something only he can do. Misunderstanding, a disciple tells him “I will lay down my life for you.” No, says Jesus, you will deny me three times before the sun rises again. But Jesus is not asking his disciples to follow him into death: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (from the passage folowing Polycarp’s: 14:15). “Even after I am dead, do not be afraid to ask for my help, as it will provide me with an opportunity to glorify the Father” (paraphrase of 14:13-14).

In sum, also a pretty good synopsis of the entire Gospel of John.

Xeno. An astounding interpretation, greatly edifying. Thank you.

I’m also not quite sure what Polycarp intended with this, but I think that maybe a round-robing of paraphrasings and congratulations for paraphrasings is perhaps a little shy of the mark. I could very well be wrong.

It’s an interesting passage in that it contains one of the statements most likely to stick in a non-Christian’s craw: I am the way, the truth, and the light. No one comes to the father but through me.

Well, okay. I think we all know the most dogmatic literal interpretation of that particular nugget, as pulpit-pounded by the kind of evangelical messianic fundamentalism–that it means exactly what it says. You go through Jesus, or you don’t go at all, sinner. Burn in hell because you’re loved so much. It’s good shoulder-chip-building mortar for any critical atheist, and matters don’t tend to get much better for those of us with any sort of mystical experience outside of the Christian context–because have that, and the literal statement is personally falsified, only now with the lightning certainty of faith, not just intellectual repulsion.

But, but, but. When shoulder chip erodes into mere dandruff, a fellow (this fellow at least) comes to a grudging conclusion: Jesus was no fool. (I make no assumpiton on whether or not he was a §reincarnation of Elvis though, despite the OP’s wishes–if he wanted to be the King later on, that’s his call, not Poly’s, sorry.) So what’s left?

Poly requested that Christians coming to the table try to leave their religious baggage behind; I think that’s extremely difficult to do–treated as pure fiction, the story sure has a lot of Christ-symbolism after all. The character’s a pretty blatant Christ figure. So I think there’s at least a few carry-on bags laying about the table with cross stickers; given that, I’m comfortable arriving with a laptop case with a serenely smiling Buddha on it.
I am the way, etc. No one…except through me.” Rejecting the literal reading of that as a (perhaps personally useful–my baggage leans towards saying the Christ was all about expedient means) misinterpretation, this is a startling attack on ego–that strongest illusion, that unhealthy growth which wallows in arrogance, which takes umbrage at the slightest incidental brushes, which hates, which takes for itself and leaves another with less, which suffers and brings more suffering into being in reflexive reaction, which eats and excretes ignorance–which does everything but love. Expedient means (the laptop case has a special compartment especially for them): this Jesus character was speaking in a specific context to an audience primed and contextualized and ready to accept a messiah, so if being that for them will–for the love of all–get them to stop being such jerks all the time, great, he’ll be a messiah…and give them a on-the-surface salvationist statement that’s actually a sword (oh yes, he brought a sword) aimed at the heart of error. You are not the way, your self is not special, your self is not going to save you or anyone. Something other than that is needed. What that something other is…well, haven’t you been paying attention to me? I embody it, you don’t.

And if you haven’t seen it, then…well, all things take time. Just love, and the rest will come.

And that’s what I (of course I’m back to a much lesser I here) think the character was on about.

Drastic hit on my motivation, and parsed the message in much the same way as Jim, the priest at my church, did – that prooftext verse is not so much about “accepting Jesus” in an evangelistic sense as it is “living Jesus” in a moral-guidance-and-motivation sense. As Drastic said (though I know who Jesus is coming back as, and it wasn’t Elvis ;))

But I know how threads grow into something not contemplated by the OP and was hoping that I’d get a greater insight into what Jesus was talking about by throwing the message in that passage out for discussion, asking people not to bring their theology or lack of same to the table but just work with the passage as it exists, whatever they may think of it – and I was right. For which I thank you all.

Lib, you’ll understand me most precisely, as will those who know about his conversion experience, when I say that I got a major satori from one line in Xenophon’s paraphrase:

Remember, if you will, what God’s Name means. ZZZZapppp!!!

One of the bits of kabbalah that grabbed hold of something deep and shook it soundly for me was the revelation that the name “Eheieh”, commonly translated I AM, also translates just as well as: I WILL BE.

I got a kick out of that.

Yep, that’s also what hit me majorly from Xeno’s analysis. Drastic was also enlightening. I don’t believe, and never have, that when Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” that He meant that the ugly bag of mostly water standing in front of them was any of that. I believe that He meant Himself as the Son of Man and Son of God, the greater spirit Who is the Word, the same greater spirit that is embodied by all who love. Love is required to enter the kingdom, and He is the personification of love. But that doesn’t mean that no one else can be.

He doesn’t belong to Christians or any other political body, but to all who cherish love whether they be Wiccans, Satanists, Atheists, Christians, Buddhists, Moslems, or, yes, Jews. Grumbling about a man with a giant ego and people who think they’ve found the secret passageway to heaven is missing the point. It is entirely possible to reject the man but accept the love, just as it is possible to accept the man but reject the love.

I can recall that, when I was an atheist, there was an element of resentment in how I viewed passages like this. Why Him and not one of the other charlatans who roamed about mystifying people? I felt like a lot of the atheists here who said they’d be jealous and resentful of their brother, the Prodigal Son. Except that I felt it generally about Jesus. Why Him and not, say, Moses or something?

But I think it is easy to understand now. There is no Him. There is the Way. There is no man. There is the Truth. There is no person. There is the Life. And all who lay claim to those are likewise the same. Jesus is not the greatest among us, but the least — the least common denominator that holds us all together.

Yes, I know that in one sense (a trivial sense, to be sure) He was a man. He did live and breathe. Even Cecil himself has said that a man named Jesus likely lived, preached, and was crucified. And it’s easy to get caught up in a feud over heavenly territory and bragging rights.

But although we come to the Father through Him, that is not to say that He holds others in exclusion. In fact, He went out of His way to say that we are all a part of one whole, equal not only in stature but in ability. He is the Way, and if we love, then so are we. If a Wiccan loves as Jesus did, then that Wiccan is also the Way and will recognize Jesus as his kindred spirit.

I liked Drastic’s take very much, too.

At first, yes, especially since Jesus does not really explain, in this context, how one goes “through” him to God. But it’s not so troubling after one takes the equality “I AM WHO AM = Yahweh = God” into account. In this light the individual distinctions which Jesus seems to be making between himself and God actually dissolve, so that of course, logically, the way to God is through Jesus because the two “persons” are one and the same. This no explanation about how to go “through” Jesus is needed.

(Question for Biblical scholars: the Jews did not expect their Messiah to be God, correct?)

So to answer the OP: the speaker is telling his audience, “I am not just God’s representative, not exactly whom you expected [the Messiah whom you were told would come]; I am God. If you do as I do, and live as I live, then you can share in that divine spark as well.” He is challenging them to open their minds, drop their own baggage about who the Messiah would be and should do – as their questions demonstrate – and re-think their ideas about God and their connection to God. Interestingly, he invites them to do so without promulgating any dogma about the nature of God, the purpose of his (Jesus’s) own mission, or what one “should” believe – except to encourage them to love others as he loved them.
To my mind, this is not so very different from religions/faiths which teach that everything in the Universe is divine, and that we manifest our own divinity by living in a way which expresses our connection to and unity with rest of the Universe.

I hope this makes sense. I feel that I am teetering on the knife-edge between profundity and mental drooling.

I thought you made sense, Jerevan. And I agree with most of what you said. Welcome to Straight Dope Great Debates.

Inevitably, this reminds me of Lao Tsu. “The way that can be told is not the eternal Way.” Which works as an interpretation of the passages in Polycarp’s OP, to my mind. Here’s Jesus living the aforementioned Way, and Thomas and Philip asking him, even still, to explain the Way.

Jesus: “What the hell have I been doing all this time? Pay attention. I am the Way.”

Thanks, Lib. However, having just posted to the “Anonymous Posting” thread in this forum, I feel I should point out that I was previously known as MJH2. I set up a new account because, after a long absence, I had forgotten my password and because my original (work) email address no longer existed, the automated help system could not send me my password. I have alerted our gracious and ever-vigilant TubaDiva to this change; hopefully this will not be a problem.

So, I am not as new here as my post-count might suggest. I certainly remember you from a particular thread dealing with the question, “Is science too specialized?” sometime last year.

Lux Fiat, I agree. If “the Way” he speaks of could be explained as readily as Thomas and Philip want, then Jesus could have rendered what he said much like the Sermon on the Mount. In this passage I think the conversation with – and the bewilderment of – the disciples is as much a part of the point as what Jesus himself says.

Fiat lux, indeed. I come away from this thread with new clarity on this often sticky point.

Will it complicate things if I throw the words of Jesus as found in John 17 in here? I think there is a correlation of the exegesis offered here by Poly, Lib, Xeno & Drastic with the prayer of Jesus to have his disciples be one with God as he is one with God. Not one in the matter of diefication, but one in the matter of purpose of action.

In the verses sighted in the OP, Jesus is saying “Do as I say, but more importantly, do as I have done. If you do that, if you love each other as I have loved you, then things will work out great. I’ve shown you the way through my life, now it’s up to you to do even more.” He later goes on (in John 17) to ask God that this happen, that those who he taught through words and example have this overwhelming feeling of purpose of action just as Jesus had.