Saturday, October 30, 2004
Jesus as Friend in the Gospel of John
Gail R O'Day. Interpretation. Richmond: Apr 2004.Vol.58, Iss. 2; pg. 144, 14 pgs
Copyright Interpretation Apr 2004
In popular image, Jesus as friend is sentimentalized, but not so in the Fourth Gospel. Jesus gave his life in love for others and always spoke and acted boldly-marks of friendship in the cultural world of the New Testament.
Hannah is my best friend," says my seven-year-old neighbor about the eightyear-old girl who lives two doors down from her. I do not know how Solveig would define friendship. But I do know that Solveig expresses her friendship when she walks to school with Hannah, takes a special trip to the town library with her, and plays with her at least one weekend day. Their friendship is apparent when Hannah and Solveig fall into each other's arms almost every time they see one another.
Yet this friendship is much more than a sweet diversion or something about which the adults in their lives can wax sentimental. The formation of friendship bonds is among the first acts of socialization that a child makes outside the nuclear family. We choose our friends in ways that we do not and cannot choose our families. The ability and inclination to establish friendship bonds is therefore key to the formation of a social network later in life. Friendship moves a person from being a private individual to a member of a social group based on something beyond kinship. The popular television show "Friends" characterizes this social reality. Despite the absurdities of its plots and the economic ease with which its protagonists live in New York City, the show has created a world in which community is defined and built by the bonds of friendship, not family.
Friendship, then, is not simply about affection but also about social roles and responsibilities. Friendship is not defined exclusively by what the individual "feels" for another (although affection is definitely a part of friendship). Friendship is at least as much about the social responsibilities that accompany friendship as it is about how people choose their friends. Say, for example, on the morning of Hannah's birthday party, Solveig announces, "I don't want to go to Hannah's party. I don't like her-she wasn't nice to me yesterday." Solveig's mother then explains to her that she has to go to the party because she and Hannah are friends, regardless of Solveig's feelings of the moment. Acts of friendship must transcend the volatility of emotions. Even as seven and eight year olds, Hannah and Solveig learn about social expectations and obligations through their friendship and also learn how to put their feelings for one another (affection) into practice.
This combination of affection, social choice and obligation, and practice has made friendship a perennially intriguing topic as well as an important category of theological reflection, especially among feminist theologians who are drawn to the patterns of reciprocity found in friendship.1 God as friend and the Christian community as a community of friends are important themes that emerge. Friendship as a social and theological motif has been given considerable attention by New Testament scholars in recent years as well because it is a motif that the New Testament shares with the Greek and Roman cultures in which the early church took shape and the New Testament documents were written.2 Friendship was an especially popular topic in ancient Greece and Rome, as philosophers and storytellers attempted to define the social and moral virtues and the characteristics of a good society. When the New Testament speaks about friends (Greek, philoï), it is using a vocabulary current in its cultural context.
FRIENDSHIP IN GREEK AND ROMAN ANTIQUITY
Even though there is a consistency of vocabulary across the centuries used to discuss friendship in antiquity, there is no consistency of emphasis or definition.3 Friendship is a socially embedded phenomenon, and as the social fabric of a culture shifts, so does the understanding of the role and place of friendship in society. Each ancient writer, including the New Testament writers, developed the friendship traditions in different ways depending on his or her own community setting. The New Testament writers (and later Christians) helped shape the discussion of friendship in antiquity; they were not simply dependent on following its conventions.4
The social dimension of friendship has long been recognized by ancient writers, especially philosophers. The particular context in which that social dimension was enacted shifted, depending on the particular moment in history. For classical Greek philosophers in Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., for example, most notably Aristotle, "friend" or philos played a pivotal social role in the maintenance of the polis, the city-state. Aristotle devoted two out often books in the Nicomachean Ethics to friendship (Books 8 and 9), a considerable portion of this treatise. For Aristotle and the classical philosophers who followed him, friendship was not an incidental relationship. It exemplified, rather, the mutual social obligation on which the polis depended.5 In the democratic ideal of the Athenian polis, the relationship between friends, philoi, was a relationship between equals contributing together to the public ethos of citizenship. To be a good friend was by definition also to be a good citizen.6 To the philosophers, the success of the Athenian democracy depended on the enactment of friendship and the related virtues of courage and justice by its citizenry.7
The following quote from Aristotle illustrates this well:
But it is also true the virtuous man's conduct is often guided by the interests of his friends and of his country, and that he will if necessary lay down his life in their behalf.... And this is doubtless the case with those who give their lives for others; thus they choose great nobility for themselves.8
The ideal city-state, represented by Athens, vanished after Philip of Macedon's conquest of Greece in 338 B.C.E. and the empire-building of Alexander the Great that followed. With its much more diverse and complex population, Hellenism and the Hellenistic empire replaced the democratic ideal of the Athenian city-state as the social context for friendship. This shift continued when Rome overthrew the Hellenistic empire in the second century B.C.E. and established the Roman empire in 31 B.C.E. As the political and social landscape shifted, so also did philosophical reflections on the meaning and value of friendship.
Friendship remained a social virtue and moral value but was enacted in a different arena. For example, friendship was no longer viewed primarily through the lens of democratic citizenship. The classical perspectives remained touchstones for later philosophers, but Hellenistic philosophers took their reflections in new directions. In the Hellenistic period, the classical ideal of friendship met the realities of political pragmatism, and philosophical discussions of friendship reflected both realities.
In particular, a new sphere of friendship, patron-client relationships, entered the public arena. In the classical period, a false friend was one who was not available in a time of crisis, but Hellenistic discussions of false friends began to focus on those who have only their own betterment in view.9 Among Roman philosophers such as Plutarch and Cicero, friendship concerned not only what it meant to be a friend but how to distinguish between a true friend and its opposite, the flatterer (kolax).10 As Plutarch wrote:
[T]he friend is always found on the better side as counsel and advocate, trying, after the manner of a physician, to foster the growth of what is sound and to preserve it; but the flatterer takes his place on the side of the emotional and irrational."
Philosophers advised the patron on how to recognize social contacts who were not friends-those who had not the patron's interests at heart but their own. One of the distinguishing marks was the use of "frank speech" (parrêsia). "Frankness of speech, by common report and belief, is the language of friendship especially (as an animal has its peculiar cry), and on the other hand, that lack of frankness is unfriendly and ignoble ... "u Friendship was at least as much about one's private dealings as it was about public obligations.
Another Hellenistic social context in which discussions of friendship played a pivotal role was the philosophical school. In many ways, these schools reclaimed the classical ideal of a community of equals from the more pragmatic realities of patron-client relationships and the political expediency of "friends of the emperor."13 This is clearly the case with the Neopythagoreans, who shaped themselves around the values of harmony and friendship first articulated by Pythagoras of Samos in the sixth century B.C.E.14 The philosophical schools of the Epicureans and Stoics also gave a prominent role to friendship in their reflections on the meaning of the good life, the proper education and conduct of the good person, and the nature of community life.15 The language of friendship provided language for talking about the construction of a community of like-minded people informed by a particular set of teachings.
Early Christian understandings of friendship took shape in this diverse social context with its intentional reflection on friendship. Many different motifs from the Hellenistic conversations can be detected in the New Testament writings. For example, a well-known friendship maxim, attributed to Pythagoras and the Neopythagoreans, was that friends had all things in common.16 Since Luke portrays the early Christian community in Acts as living out this value (e.g., Acts 2:44-47), this maxim provides a starting point for a discussion of friendship and community in Acts.17 But not all New Testament writers are drawn to the same motifs. The Johannine discussion of friendship, for example, does not follow the Pythagorean maxim.
FRIENDSHIP IN JOHN
The Gospel of John is a pivotal text for the discussion of friendship in the New Testament. The vocabulary of friendship, especially the noun philos and the related verb phileo, is found at key moments in the narrative.18 As we will see below, friendship is one of the ways in which the revelation of God in Jesus is extended beyond the work of Jesus to the work of the disciples. One of the pivotal texts in Jesus' words of instruction and farewell to his disciples is John 15:12-17, in which Jesus calls the disciples "friends" and enjoins them to acts of friendship.
The word "friend" in John carried many associations for John's first readers. Modern readers cannot completely recapture those associations, but they can at least recognize that John did not create the theme of friendship out of whole cloth.19 Awareness of cultural embeddedness helps modern readers see that friendship is not a universal term for all times and cultures. Most contemporary friendship greeting cards, for example, adorned with roses, kittens, and butterflies, do not exhort the card's recipient to "lay down one's life for a friend." Jesus' words in John 15:13 seem unprecedented for a modern friend. As the above quotation from Aristotle shows, however, Jesus' saying has precedent as a model for the ultimate friend in antiquity. The point is not that more people laid down their lives for their friends in the first century than are inclined to do so today. Rather, the possibility of doing so belonged to the ancient rhetoric of friendship.
The echoes of Greco-Roman friendship motifs in John may be found among the attributes and virtues associated with friendship in the Hellenistic world, as well as the specific vocabulary of "friend" (philos and related terms). In the New Testament period, for example, the distinction between the friend who employs frank speech (parresia) and the flatterer (kolax) was prominent in discussions of friendship. While the word kolaxdoes not occur in John, its opposite, frankness or boldness (parresia, 7:4, 13, 26; 10:24; 11:14, 54: 16:25, 29; 18:20), suggests a possible connection with these friendship conventions.
One can also look for gospel stories where friendship and its values are enacted. In the philosophical treatises on friendship, the virtues of friendship were often illustrated by reference to traditional pairs of friends (e.g., Achilles and Patroclus). Friendship is not simply an abstract social and moral virtue; it achieves its real worth when it is modeled and embodied in practice. In addition, Hellenistic narratives often recounted tales of friends and acts of friendship.20 The most well-known of these may have been Lucian's Toxaris, in which two men tell each other competing stories about the practice of friendship to demonstrate the superiority of the people of their respective nations.21
Our study of John will begin with the character of Jesus and look for the vocabulary and attributes of friendship as well as stories in which Jesus embodies friendship. From there, we can consider whether Jesus as friend in John has implications for contemporary theology.
Two friendship motifs from the Greco-Roman world provide a promising framework for regarding Jesus as friend in John: Jesus' love for others that is embodied in his death and Jesus' boldness in speech and action.
FRIENDSHIP, LOVE, AND DEATH
The first motif, the offer of Jesus' life, receives the most attention in Johannine studies of friendship.22 It is widely recognized among Johannine scholars that the notion of laying down one's life for one's friends represents a classical motif of friendship.23 Plato's Symposium is cited as evidence of this aspect of friendship in antiquity ("Only those who love wish to die for others").24 Interestingly, it is not clear that this connection between friendship, love, and death in antiquity has had much influence on the way Christian theology and piety interpret the death of Jesus in John. Perhaps it is feared that any resonance somehow diminishes the significance of Jesus' teaching about his own death or routinizes the death itself.25
In fact, the opposite is more likely the case-the connection with a well-known convention enhances John's presentation of Jesus. For the first readers of John's gospel, the link with friendship motifs helped lay the groundwork for what John was teaching about Jesus' death. Since both classical and popular philosophy held up the noble death as the ultimate act of friendship,26 Jesus' teaching in John fits a recognizable pattern. Jesus' words in John 15:13, for example, could be a friendship maxim from any philosophical treatise on friendship, as there is nothing distinctly Christological in their formulation: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." In the teachings about laying down one's life for a friend, the gospel's first readers would recognize that Jesus is evoking a world in which the greatest moral good prevails.
What distinguishes John 15:13 from other teachings on friendship and death is that Jesus does not merely talk about laying down his life for his friends. His life is an incarnation of this teaching. Jesus did what the philosophers only talked about-he lay down his life for his friends. This makes all the difference in appropriating friendship as a theological category. The pattern of Jesus' own life and death moves the teaching of John 15:13 from the realm of abstraction to an embodied promise and gift.
John 10:11-18 illustrates well the transition from maxim to promise. In these verses (a central section of the Good Shepherd discourse), Jesus combines figurative and discursive language to evoke the type of friendship he offers the community. In 10: Ua, Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd," but he immediately moves away from first-person language to describe more generalized activities of the shepherd. The good shepherd "lays down his life for the sheep" (v.l Ib), as opposed to the hireling who would put the sheep at risk rather than risk his own life (w. 12-13). This mini-parable could be taken as an illustration of the classical distinction between the true and the false friend-the false friend will not be around in a time of crisis, but the true friend will be.27
The move from maxim to promise in Jesus' teaching is signaled by his return to firstperson language ("I lay down my life for the sheep," v. 15) and to direct speech about his own life and death: "For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own accord" (w. 17-18a). The first-person language clarifies that Jesus is not speaking generally about the gift of one's life for others but making a specific promise about his own life. Jesus has already pointed figuratively toward his death earlier in the gospel narrative (e.g., 3:14; 8:28). New here is his direct speech about his death and the element of volition he highlights. Jesus announces that he will choose to give his life for the sheep. His words are no longer generalized teachings about friendship; they are about the conduct of his own life.
The stories of Jesus' arrest and death show that his promises about the gift of his life can be trusted. The scene of the arrest in the garden contains interesting echoes of John 10 when Jesus leads his disciples into an enclosed garden, recalling the shepherd and the sheepfold of John 10:1-5. There is a thief in the garden (Judas, 18:2; described as kleptës in 12:7), like the bandit in the sheepfold (kleptës, 10:1). Against this backdrop, Jesus' act of volition, in which he steps forward to meet those who come to arrest him (18:4-6),28 can only be read as showing the truth of his announcement and promise in 10:17-18: he lays down his life of his own accord. At 18:11, Jesus states explicitly that he chooses the death that is before him ("the cup that the Father has given me"; cf. 12:27). Jesus' life is not taken from him; rather, he willingly chooses the ultimate act of friendship. Jesus also directly links the offer of his life to his care for his "sheep" (cf. 10:11-13) with the protective instruction to "let these men go."29
Jesus' free offer of his life for his friends is also illustrated in the quiet dignity of his death scene (19:28-30). Jesus announces the end of his own life and work: "It is finished." The description of Jesus' moment of dying positions him as the actor in laying down his life, not as one acted upon: "Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit."
The arrest and crucifixion narratives confirm that Jesus' words about laying down his life for others articulate much more than the ideal situation. In the life and death of Jesus, the friendship convention of loving another enough to give one's life moves from philosophical or moral possibility to incarnated actuality. Jesus' words about laying down his life articulate the very real choices that he makes for his own life and that guide his relationships in the world. What was familiar to at least some of John's readers as a standard part of philosophical rhetoric loses its conventional quality and becomes a distinctive description of who Jesus is. Jesus does not merely talk the language of friendship; he lives out his life and death as a friend.
Equally important, the convergence of Jesus' words with his actions shows that his words and promises can be trusted. There is complete unanimity between what Jesus says about laying down his life and what Jesus does. Because Jesus is the Word-made-flesh, speech and action are inextricably linked in John (e.g., 14:10). What he receives from God Jesus speaks in God's words and does in works (5:19-24; 10:38; 12:49-50; 17:7-8). Jesus' teaching about laying down one's life in John 10 is a reliable promise because his subsequent enactment of these words shows that Jesus' promises can be trusted.
The reliability of Jesus' promises and the integration of his speaking and acting set the context for his teachings about the disciple's own conduct as friends in John 15:12-17. Jesus' own life and death give the teaching of John 15:13 its meaning. The maxim of 15:13 is inseparable from the commandment that precedes it, "Love one another as I have loved you." The Fourth Evangelist has told the reader that Jesus loved his own "to the end" (eis to telos, 13:1), which may simultaneously mean "to the end of time" and "to the full extent of love." Both senses carry over into Jesus' commandment to his disciples. Jesus' incarnation of limitless love moves the teaching of John 15:13 from the realm of the general (e.g., "Only those who love wish to die for others") into the specific. Jesus' disciples are urged to live the same way Jesus has lived, to be the kind of friend that Jesus has been. he is not simply asking them to be good citizens or moral exemplars. he is commanding them to embody the very promises that he has embodied for them (15:14,17).
?Interestingly, the title "friend" is never used to describe Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. Throughout this gospel, Jesus has been the incarnation of friendship without the explicit appellation. However, in speaking of his disciples' future lives, Jesus makes the explicit connection between his life of love and the conduct of friends. Jesus calls the disciples his "friends" (philoi), if they enact his commandment (15:14)-to love one another as Jesus has loved them (v. 12), to lay down their lives for their friends (v. 13). Jesus' gift of his life for others embodies friendship's highest attribute and defines the meaning and extent of "love."
The title "friend" becomes something into which Jesus invites his disciples to grow. The name "friend," and with it the relationship of friendship, is a gift from Jesus to them,30 just as his life is a gift to them. The disciples begin with the explicit appellation, "friend," and the challenge for them is to enact and embody friendship as Jesus has done. The disciples know how Jesus has been a friend, and they are called to see what kind of friends they can become. Jesus' friendship is the model of friendship for the disciples, and it makes any subsequent acts of friendship by them possible because the disciples themselves are already the recipients of Jesus' acts of friendship.
FRIENDSHIP AS BOLDNESS OF SPEECH AND ACTION
As noted above, the theme of frankness or boldness of speech (parresia) emerged as an important friendship motif in the Hellenistic period." There were several social contexts in which this theme appeared. One was the patron-client/monarch-subject relationship, in which the benefactor needed to be on the lookout for whether "friends" were speaking honestly and openly, or whether they were engaging in flattery to further their own ends. Another context where parrêsia played a role was in the instruction of the philosophical schools, where frank speech was encouraged as a mark of honest instruction, dialogue, and training. To be someone's friend was to speak frankly and honestly to them and to hold nothing back. A third context, also associated with philosophical schools, used parrêsia to emphasize freedom of speech, even when using that freedom meant taking unpopular positions and speaking openly against the authorities.32
Perhaps because this friendship motif does not have the same emotional resonance associated with language about love and laying down one's life, most studies of friendship in John have not lingered on this topic.33 Given the importance of speech and speaking in the Gospel of John, however, a friendship motif that focuses on the nature of speaking seems worthy of study. Indeed, the word parrêsia occurs nine times in the Gospel of John, more often than in any other book of the New Testament (7:4,13, 26; 10:24; 11:14, 54; 16:25, 29; 18:20).
The first aspect of parresia, the distinction between flattery and direct speech, is not overt in the Johannine portrait of Jesus as friend. One wonders, however, if there are some resonances of this aspect. The preceding discussion about death, love, and friendship showed how Jesus gave his life openly for others, with no hesitation. Jesus' free gift of his life provides the context for Jesus' words in 12:27 ("And what should I say-'Father, save me from this hour?' No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name."). These words seem to be a play on the "agony" of the Gethsemane tradition from the synoptic gospels (e.g., Matt 26:39), in which Jesus asks that the cup pass from him, if that is God's will. John 12:27 acknowledges this piece of Jesus tradition, but transforms it to conform to the gospel's understanding of the death of Jesus.
Yet there may be another reason why John handles the Gethsemane tradition the way he does. The words of the synoptic tradition (e.g, "yet not what I want but what you want," Matt 26:39) could be understood as an attempt to curry favor with a "patron." In John, God and Jesus are true friends ("The Father loves [philei] the Son," 5:20); their relationship embodies full reciprocity and mutuality ("The Father and I are one," 10:30). The revisioning of the Gethsemane tradition makes clear that Jesus does not attempt to flatter God for his own purposes but seeks only God's glory.
A similar link to the flattery/direct speech contrast also may provide a context for Jesus' words in 11:41-42. ("Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me") This statement by Jesus prior to calling Lazarus from the tomb has always puzzled commentators because the words seem to interrupt the movement of the story and raise questions about the function of Jesus' prayer.34 Read in light of friendship conventions, however, it is possible that John includes Jesus' commentary on his own prayer here in order to highlight that Jesus is not currying favor with God at this critical moment. he is not attempting to please God with a prayer and positive words. Rather, Jesus turns what could appear as flattery into an instance of open testimony, so that the crowd can see God at work in what Jesus does.
The second motif of parresia as a direct and open speech plays a more explicit role in the image of Jesus as friend in John. Of the nine occurrences of parresia in John, three refer to his instruction of the disciples (11:14; 16:25, 29). The first, 11:14, seems relatively straightforward and, as such, its potential significance for understanding friendship is overlooked. Jesus tells his disciples that "our friend (ho philos hemon) Lazarus has fallen asleep (kekoimetai)" (11:11). "To fall asleep," in Greek as in English, can function as a euphemism for death. Jesus' disciples do not recognize Jesus' words as a euphemism, and so do not understand why Jesus should put himself at risk by returning to judea if Lazarus is only sleeping (v. 12). The narrator explains the euphemism to the gospel's readers by drawing attention to the disciples' lack of understanding (v. 13). Jesus explains to his disciples what he meant and explicitly names Lazarus's death (11:14). The narrator describes the speech act by which Jesus informs the disciples about the truth of Lazarus's situation as speaking parresia ("then Jesus told them plainly").
Perhaps this "plain speech" is only the decoding of a figurative expression with a literal one. Two aspects of the text argue against assigning this function to parresia, however. First, Jesus uses a conventional euphemism ("fall asleep"), so it is not even clear that he was trying to mask his meaning. second, unlike other sections of the Fourth Gospel where misunderstanding, irony, and metaphor are literary devices intended to move characters to deeper theological understanding (e.g., John 4),35 the misunderstanding here is corrected immediately.
The role of parresia in Hellenistic friendship conventions suggests another way of looking at the exchange between Jesus and his disciples (11:11-15). It seems fair to ask if Jesus' direct speech to his disciples might be an act of friendship, through which Jesus reveals the hard truth of their friend Lazarus's death and prepares them for the consequences. The disciples need to face squarely Lazarus's death in order to begin contemplating the significance of what is to come, and that is impossible unless they realize that Lazarus is dead, not merely ill and sleeping. Jesus himself links his "plain speaking" to the disciples' welfare ("For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe," v. 15). Jesus must speak frankly to the disciples about Lazarus's death in order to equip them for the role of disciple that the situation may demand of them, in this case, to see a revelation of God's glory in the raising of Lazarus and so come to believe (cf. 11:2 and 15). Jesus treats the disciples as equals by speaking plainly to them.
The importance of parrësia as a mode of speaking and instruction in John can also be seen in 16:25-33. This passage, set at the end of the Farewell Discourse and immediately preceding the Farewell Prayer (John 17), contains Jesus' last words of instruction to his disciples. Jesus contrasts his present speaking to his disciples, which has been "in figures of speech" (enparoimiais), with his eschatological teaching ("the hour is coming"), in which he "will tell you plainly (parresia) of the Father" (v. 25). The contrast between figurative and direct speech tends to shape the interpretation of these verses,36 but again one wonders if Hellenistic friendship conventions suggest another context in which to read Jesus' words here, especially since the vocabulary of friendship (phileo) occurs twice in w. 26-27. Here, Jesus links the effects of the eschatological teaching ("you will ask in my name") with the Father's love of the disciples (autos gar ho pater philei hymas) and the disciples' love of Jesus (hymeis erne pephilekate).
Love and friendship are the goal of Jesus' "plain speaking." Rather than simply initiating fresh comprehension on the disciples' part, Jesus leads them to trust the relationship of love and friendship that they have with God and Jesus and thus to speak to God on their own without the mediation of Jesus' speech on their behalf (v. 26). Jesus points the disciples to a different way of being with God and one another. This is why in w. 30-33 Jesus disputes the disciples' claim to comprehend his plain speaking and hence to believe (v. 29). Comprehension without enactment misses the point of speaking parresia. Plain speaking has its effect when the disciples act on God's love of them and their love of Jesus.
The combination of plain speaking and love is also found in Jesus' words to the disciples about friendship in 15:15. Although the word parresia does not occur, the sense of plain speaking does. Jesus gives the following rationale for calling the disciples friends: "I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known everything that I have heard from the Father." The disciples are Jesus' friends because he has spoken to them openly; he has made known to them everything (panto) that he has heard from the Father. As Schnackenburg has noted about 15:15, "Jesus enables his disciples to participate in the intimacy and trust of the Father, by means of which they acquire that Openness' (parresia) which is the privilege of a free man and a friend . . . ."37
In this verse, the two motifs of friendship, love and open speech, come together in Jesus' relationship with his disciples. They are his friends because he speaks plainly and openly to them and tells them everything about God (15:15; 16:25) and because he loves them and gives his life for them (13:1; 15:12-13). They will remain his friends if they keep his commandment and love one another as he has loved them (15:14, 17). They are empowered to keep his commandment because he has told them everything, and so they have their own new relationship with God who loves them (16:26-27).
The third context in Hellenistic friendship conventions in which parresia occurs is that of freedom of speech. This is related to the flattery/frank speech contrast: a friend is someone who, both in private and public, always speaks openly and honestly regardless of the cost. Two occurrences of parresia point to this context. In ch. 7, the crowd notes, "Is not this the man whom they are trying to kill? And here he is, speaking openly (parresia), but they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah?" (7:25-26). The crowd's words testify to Jesus' character as one who does not shirk from the exercise of free and frank speech. Despite the personal risk, Jesus speaks openly in the face of the authorities.
In the second occurrence, Jesus speaks to his own character and the open character of his ministry. In his trial before the high priest, in response to questions "about his disciples and his teaching" (18:19), Jesus answers, "I have spoken openly (parresia) to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret" (v. 20). In the light of Hellenistic friendship conventions, it is possible to read Jesus' words here as signifying more than just the distinction between public and private teachings. Rather, they show also that Jesus embodies the traits of open and direct speech, the hallmarks of friendship. At Jesus' trial, the moment of greatest public exposure, Jesus describes his ministry as having been characterized by freedom of speech throughout its duration. Jesus has not held anything back in his self-revelation but has spoken with the freedom that marks a true friend. His open and honest words are more important than any personal risk.
Here, too, in the exercise of free and frank speech, there is an important convergence between word and deed. As the incarnate Word, Jesus does not simply exercise freedom of speech; he embodies freedom of action. Jesus' entire life and ministry is an exercise of parrêsia. For example, his ministry is marked by repeated journeys to Jerusalem (2:13; 5:1; 7:10; 10:22; 12:1), the official seat of those in religious and political power. Even when the personal risk is quite apparent, Jesus chooses to live his life in boldness and openness. In one of the initial acts of his ministry, Jesus visits the Jerusalem temple and announces with both word and deed the truth that shapes his work in the world (2:13-22). This act sets the tone for what is to follow and demonstrates the truth of Jesus' statement in 18:20, "I have spoken openly to the world." His trial before Pilate also embodies open and frank speech, because Jesus does not hesitate to speak the truth to this figure of authority (see esp. 18:33-38).
Hellenistic friendship conventions assist us in understanding further the portrait of Jesus that the Fourth Evangelist has created with these bold words and actions. Such boldness resonates with what the Hellenistic philosophers taught about friendship. Jesus is a true friend not only because of the gift of his own life but also because throughout his life he has spoken openly.
These two friendship traits are connected: Jesus is willing to speak and act boldly throughout his life because he is willing to lay down his life. Jesus is the ultimate friend. Friendship in John is the enactment of the love of God that is incarnate in Jesus and that Jesus boldly makes available to the world.
[Sidebar] In the teachings about laying down one's life for a friend, the gospel's first readers would recognize that Jesus is evoking a world in which the greatest moral good prevails.
[Sidebar] Jesus does not merely talk the language of friendship; he lives out his life and death as a friend.
[Sidebar] Jesus did what the philosophers only talked about-he lay down his life for his friends. This makes all the difference in appropriating friendship as a theological category.
[Footnote] 1 See, e.g., S. McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982); E. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1994); C. M. LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1991); E. Moltmann-Wendel, Rediscovering Friendship, tr. J. Bowden (London: SCM, 2000). 2 See, e.g., the two collections of essays edited by J. T. Fitzgerald, Greco-Roman Perspectives on Friendship, SBLRBS 34 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997); and Friendship, Flattery, and Frankness of Speech, NovTSup 82 (Leiden: Brill, 1996). 3 For a discussion of the range of meaning of philos, see D. Konstan, "Greek Friendship," AJP 117 (1996) 71-94. 4 A. C. Mitchell, "'Greet the Friends by Name': New Testament Evidence for the Greco-Roman Topos on Friendship," in Greco-Roman Perspectives on Friendship, 225-62, esp. 261-62. see D. Konstan, "Problems in the History of Christan Friendship," JECS 4 (1996) 87-113, for the contributions of later Christian writers to the concept of friendship in antiquity. 5 F. M. Schroeder, "Friendship in Aristotle and Some Peripatetic Philosophers," in Greco-Roman Perspectives on Friendship, 36. 6 Konstan, "History of Christian Friendship," 90. 7 See, e.g., M. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Schroeder, "Friendship in Aristotle"; L. S. Pangle, Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). Athens was a small slice of the ancient world, even the Greek world, and the other city-states did not share the Athenians' enthusiasm for democracy. Sparta, for example, was more of a military state, whose military defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431-404B.C.E.). 8 Eth. nic. 9.8.9 [LCL translation]. 9 D. Konstan, "Friendship, Frankness and Flattery," in Friendship, Flattery, and Frankness of Speech, 8-12. 10 See, e.g., Plutarch, How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend (Adul. Amic.); Cicero, On Friendship (Laelius; de amicitia). 11 Plutarch, How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend, 61. 12 Ibid., 51. 13 See the use of this expression in John 19:12. 14 See Pythagorean sayings collections, e.g., H. Chadwick, The Sentences ofSextus: A Contribution to the History of Early Christian Ethics, Texts and Studies n.s. 5 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959); and J. C. Thorn, The Pythagorean Golden Verses: With Introduction and Commentary, Religion in the Greco-Roman World 123 (Leiden: Brill, 1995), and biographical traditions, Iamblichus: On the Pythagorean Way of Life, SBLTT 29 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991). 15 For a careful discussion of one Stoic perspective on friendship, see C. E. Glad, "Frank Speech, Flattery, and Friendship in Philodemus," in Friendship, Flattery, and Frankness of Speech, 21-60. 16 "Again, the proverb says, 'Friends' goods are common property,' and this is correct, since community is the essence of friendship" (Eth. nie. 8.9.2). 17 See A. C. Mitchell, "The Social Function of Friendship in Acts 2:44-47 and 4:32-47," JBL 111 (1992) 255-72. 18 See three recent book-length studies of friendship in John: E. Puthenkandathil, Philos: A Designation for the Jesus-Disciple Relationship. An Exegetico-Theological Investigation of the Term in the Fourth Gospel (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1993); J. M. Ford, Redeemer-Friend and Mother: Salvation in Antiquity and in the Gospel of John (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997); S. Ringe, Wisdom's Friends: Community and Christology in the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999). 19 Of the three recent books on friendship and John cited above, Ford and Ringe are attentive to the first-century social and rhetorical context. 20 See R. R Hock, "An Extraordinary Friend in Chariton's Callirhoe: The Importance of Friendship in the Greek Romances," in Greco-Roman Perspectives on Friendship, 145-162. 21 Even if, as R. Pervo suggests ("With Lucian: Who Needs Friends? Friendship in the Toxaris" in Greco-Roman Perspectives on Friendship, 163-80), Lucian intended this work as a parody of the friendship tales of romances, the friendship topoi embodied by these stories had to have been widely recognized for the parody to be effective. 22 E.g., both Ringe, Wisdom's Friends, and Ford, Redeemer-Friend and Mother, discuss this motif and its relationship to the love commandment (13:33-35 and 15:12), but neither even alludes to the motif of boldness. 23 E.g., R. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIIl-XXI, AB 29A (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970) 664. 24 Symp. 179B, also 208D. see also Aristotle, Eth. nie. 9.8.9; Lucian, Toxaris 36; Epictetus, Diss. 2.7.3; and Seneca, Ep. 9.10. In the New Testament, see Rom 5:6-8. 25 It is also the case that the distinctive soteriology of the Gospel of John is often subsumed under the models of vicarious suffering or Jesus' death as a ransom for sins. John does not subscribe to either of those dominant understandings, but those perspectives so dominate most Christian theology and piety that the Johannine voice is not heard. see G. R. O'Day, John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections, NIB 9 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995) 713-15. 26 For an excellent discussion of "noble death" and its connections to John, see J. Neyrey, "The 'Noble Shepherd' in John 10: Cultural and Rhetorical Background," JBL 120 (2001) 267-91. Oddly, Neyrey never explicitly links the noble death motif with the motif of friendship, even though both John and Greco-Roman philosophers do. 27 E.g., Lucian, Toxaris 36 ("Just so in calm weather a man cannot tell whether his sailing master is good; he will need a storm to determine that."). 28 Jesus does not wait for judas to identify him with a kiss in John, thereby robbing the "thief" of any access to the shepherd and his flock. 29 Neyrey, "Noble Shepherd," 291. 30 So R. Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John, 3 vols. (New York: Crossroad, 1982) 3.110. see also the language of election in 15:16, "You did not choose me but I chose you." 31 See the collection of essays, Friendship, Flattery, and Frankness of Speech. 32 See the essay by W. Klassen, "PARRESIA in the Johannine Corpus," in Friendship, Flattery, and Frankness of Speech, 227-54. This essay, while solidly grounded in the Hellenistic context, does not provide a very subtle reading of the Johannine material. 33 See n. 22 above. Klassen's essay studies parresia but does not link it with friendship. Schnackenburg, Sf. John, 3.111, alludes to the connection between parresia and friendship in John 15 (see discussion below) but does not develop it. 34 E.g., A. Loisy, Le Quatrieme Evangile (Paris: Alphonse Picard, 1903) 651. 35 For a discussion of this aspect of John, see R. A. Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983); and G. R. O'Day, Revelation in Fourth Gospel: Narrative Mode and Theological Claim (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986). 36 Interestingly, Schnackenburg, who noted the connection between parresia and friendship in connection with 15:15 (see n. 33), makes no connection between "speaking openly" and friendship here (St. John, 3.161-66). 37 St. John, 3.110. Ambrose, in De officiis ministrorum 3.22.135, sees in John 15:15 one of the core practices of Christian friendship: "Let us reveal our bosom to [a friend], and let him reveal his to us. Therefore, he said, I have called you friends, because all that 1 have heard from my Father, I have made known to you. Therefore a friend hides nothing, if he is true: he pours forth his mind, just as the Lord Jesus poured forth the mysteries of his Father." see Konstan, "History of Christian Friendship," 106-110.
[Author Affiliation] GAIL R. O'DAY Professor of New Testament Candler School of Theology
Thursday, October 14, 2004
"Follow Me" The Imperious Call of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels
F Scott Spencer. Interpretation. Richmond: Apr 2005.Vol.59, Iss. 2; pg. 142, 12 pgs
Copyright Interpretation Apr 2005
Jesus displays audacious personal authority in summoning his followers to join him in advancing the kingdom of God. He does not negotiate with disciples. Moreover, the content of his call implies an alternative political (imperial) as well as religious (spiritual) vocation.
The familiar evangelical chorus, "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus"-originating among new believers in the Garo tribe of India and now sung by Christians throughout the world-pithily captures the cost and commitment of discipleship demanded in the Gospels ("no turning back," cf. Luke 9:62).' For all its popularity and piety, however, this folk song also skews key dimensions of following Jesus depicted in the gospel narratives. In particular, the emphasis upon individual ("I") and volitional ("have decided") responses to Jesus overshadows the scriptural focus on social and imperial aspects of discipleship.
Canvassing the five main episodes in the Synoptic Gospels featuring a direct call to "come after" or to "follow" Jesus,2 we discover that the vocation of discipleship stems much more from an overwhelming political compulsion than a deliberate personal decision. The initiative and authority belong to Jesus.3 With breathtaking audacity and sovereignty, Jesus dares to break into the lives of two fraternal pairs of fishermen and a tax collector-without warning, during business hours-and order them to "come after/follow me." And without discussion, without deliberation, they "immediately" and mysteriously leave their jobs and follow Jesus. In the two scenes where would-be adherents approach Jesus first and an exchange ensues, Jesus promptly takes the reins, reorients the seekers' misguided preconceptions of discipleship, and insists that they follow him on his own terms-period. Jesus does not negotiate with disciples. He does not force anyone to follow, but those who do follow fall under the force of his call and agenda. Bluntly put, it is his way or the highway.
Such a pushy, peremptory Jesus is scarcely in vogue today. This image smacks too much of a high-handed despot, an absolute monarch, like Caesar or Herod in Jesus' day. An imperious Jesus-summoning people to drop everything and follow his way-seems too close for comfort to imperial oppressors in the first century (and our own). And, in fact, the fit between Jesus' domineering mien (which should not surprise us, given his basileia [kingdom/dominion] preoccupation and kyrios [lord/master] designation) and the conduct of Caesar and cohorts is not at all comfortable. The rule that Jesus promotes, while as totalitarian in scope as anything Caesar might imagine, runs directly counter to the tyrannical character of Caesar's regime. Jesus advances the basileia tou theou, the just and merciful empire of Israel's God,4 before whom no other gods or kings, deities or powers, are worthy of honor.
In this article concentrating on three of the five "follow me" scenes in the Synoptic Gospels, I begin to explore not only the persuasive imperious style of Jesus' calls to discipleship, but also their subversive imperial substance. Various activities linked with Jesus' "follow me" commissions-seemingly routine acts of fishing and eating, on the one hand, and the ritual, religious act of burying, on the other-pack more political punch than is often assumed, especially in the highly charged atmosphere of Roman-occupied Palestine. And it may be that Jesus and/or the synoptic evangelists intended that punch to level a knockout blow against exploitative Roman domination.5
Jesus' first public act of ministry in Matthew and Mark, under the general heading of "proclaiming the kingdom of heaven/God," occurs in transit near the seaside village of Capernaum (Matt 4:18-22//Mark 1:16-20). As he "walked by/passed along" the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he spies two fisher-brothers, Simon (Peter) and Andrew, in mid-cast and summons them to "follow me." No exchanging of greetings, no stopping to chat, no waiting for break time. And then just as abruptly, with no questions asked, the fishermen "immediately" forsake their nets and follow Jesus as he keeps moving ("as he went from there"/ "as he went a little farther") and recruits yet another pair of brother-fishermen, James and John, busy at work in the family boat with their father Zebedee. Without so much as a "hello" to Zebedee from Jesus or a "goodbye" to Zebedee from his sons (even the maverick Elijah permits Elisha to give his parents a farewell kiss),6 Jesus snags (hooks) two more followers on the fly.
Although providing no elaborate job description or plan of action, Jesus does issue a succinct "mission statement" for his new disciples: "I will make you fishers of people." The imperious thrust of Jesus' call continues not only in the brazen confidence of his claim ("I will make you what I want you to be"), but also in its vocational focus on fishing. Unfortunately, in the popular imagination, few biblical metaphors have been more misunderstood than this one.7 Among North American Christians at least, catching or fishing for people tends to conjure up quaint images of "picturesque peasants in rowboats" on a placid summer day at the lake,8 illustrating the evangelistic duty of every Christian to "win souls," one by one, to Jesus-to enlist others in our cozy fellowship, our fishing club for Christ. Wholly missing in this idyllic portrait are the harsh physical, political, and economic realities of the Galilean fishing industry in Jesus' day.
Although some fishers in first-century Palestine angled with hook and line (no rod and reel!), this was not what occupied Peter and company. They cast nets (either a smaller one single-handedly or a larger dragnet) to catch as many fish as possible not for recreational purposes, but in order to make a living-a hard living at that.9 In a word, fishing was taxing business, in both the physical and financial sense.10 Trolling throughout the night on a lake subject to sudden storms, hauling in (if lucky) hundreds of pounds of fish flesh, gutting it for sale or transport, and tending to the basic tools of the trade (nets and boats) through an endless cycle of washing, mending, folding, and repairing-all of this made for grimy, smelly, bloody, back-breaking work, despised by elites and sophisticates who, nonetheless, enjoyed the product of the fishermen's labors.11
While the fishermen themselves might profit from their toil, fishing revenues in Herodian-controlled Galilee were severely siphoned off by a tightly regulated political monopoly. Buoyed by his opulent new capital city Tiberias, dedicated to the emperor on the western bank of the Galilean sea, as well as by the booming demand for Galilean fish sauces and stews throughout the empire, Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, seized the opportunity to make the small inland lake of Galilee into a real "sea," his own private "little Mediterranean" pond.12 The Roman client-king developed his own microcosmic version of Caesar's claim to own all the oceans and waterways of the realm and everything in them.13 At every turn, family fishing businesses, like those of Jesus' disciples, were caught in Antipas's conglomerate net, forcing them to procure fishing licenses and leases, to produce demanding quotas, and to pay taxes, tolls, and other fees to an extensive bureaucracy monitoring the whole fishing enterprise, from catching to processing to shipping.
When Jesus comes along, then, and calls the four Galilean fishermen to follow him, he is essentially saying: "You're working for me now, not Antipas; you're fishing for the kingdom of God, not the Roman-Galilean empire." We are not told what motivates the men to drop their nets and follow Jesus. Perhaps they already sense in Jesus the prospect of a new way of doing business, an alternative kingdom. In any case, they respond not only to Jesus' potential liberation, but also to his patent domination evident in his imperious command to follow. They cast their lot (and net) with a new ruler, the agent of God's empire.
Beyond the exploitative dimensions of the Galilean fishing trade in Jesus' day, a more obvious (but still curiously neglected) aspect of such work was its fundamentally destructive aim. To catch fish is to kill them! Appropriately, Old Testament prophets use fish-catching (along with fowl-hunting) as an image of devastating divine judgment not only against oppressive foreign nations (like Egypt; see Ezek 29:2-7), but also against the iniquitous people of God (idolatrous Judah in Jer 16:16-18 and unjust Samaria in Amos 4:1-2). Habakkuk uses the same image, but with considerable angst: "You [O Lord] have made people like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. The enemy brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net, he gathers them in his seine; so he rejoices and exults.... Is he then to keep on emptying his net, and destroying the nations without mercy?" (2:14-17).
We might pose a similar query to Jesus: "Why perpetuate this violent, destructive fishing metaphor as a blueprint for Christian mission?" As one writer has quipped, at least sheep (another stock zoological image for God's people) get to be fed and tended for a while before being shorn and/or slaughtered.14 By contrast, the work of fishing is swiftly "fatal and final"15-for the fish!-and eerily evocative of the marauding, martial force of imperial conquest. So what is Jesus up to with his people-fishing call? It is hard to say, and I do not want to blunt the shocking, disturbing punch of Jesus' call with banal explanation (especially since he provides no commentary). Suffice it to say that, on some level, Jesus appropriates the agenda of rapacious imperial domination in order to establish an alternative kingdom, the empire of God. As Jesus himself "catches" people, far from killing them, he feeds, heals, exorcises, and resuscitates the needy. Such is the good news of this kingdom.16 But in one dramatic case at least, in the process of liberating an "occupied" demoniac, Jesus sends a pack of Legion-infested pigs hurtling down the mountain and into the Sea of Galilee, which is the opposite action of pulling fish out of the sea, but with equally lethal results (Matt 8:28-34//Mark 5:1-20//Luke 8:26-39). And the "Legion" troop is as obvious a symbol of Roman military might as one could imagine, and by no means an innocuous reference, given this Legion's virulent disruption of the demoniac's life and its own violent destruction in the abyss.
In Mark's narrative, Jesus' next "follow me" call comes soon in the succeeding chapter and targets a tax collector named Levi (2:13-17). Matthew and Luke contain closely parallel accounts later in their Gospels (Matt 9:9-13//Luke 5:27-32), the main distinction being Matthew's naming the disciple "Matthew." Once again the episode is set "beside the sea" (Mark 2:13), near Peter and Andrew's home fishing village of Capernaum; and once again, while "Jesus was walking along" (Mark 2:14//Matt 9:9), he abruptly challenges a man on the job-"at the tax booth"-to join him. Without delay or discussion, Levi/Matthew gets up from his desk and goes with Jesus. Luke punctuates the scene with the stark comment, "he left everything" (5:28). And so the pattern continues: Jesus' intrusive, imperious call triggers an immediate, immoderate response.
But not everything matches the previous call scene. Most notably, Jesus does not provide any explanation of what he intends for Levi to do. There is no "I will make you fish for people" or anything more fitting for Levi's profession ("I will make you collect people, count the crowds, assess the situation, etc."). The blunt "follow me" without any elaboration only accentuates the effrontery of Jesus' mandate.
While on the surface it may seem that Jesus and the gospel writers could not care less about Levi's particular identity or occupation, closer historical and literary analysis suggests otherwise. First, any mention of a tax collector (telones) in first-century Palestine can scarcely be considered incidental, given the heavy, multi-layered tax burden imposed on the vast majority of the population for the benefit of a tiny elite minority. Part of this politicaleconomic network was sketched above in relation to the Galilean fishing industry. To elaborate briefly, any Galilean worker was subject to a staggering hierarchy of financial debts-head taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, shipping fees, transport tolls, and other customs and duties-starting with Caesar at the top of the patronage heap and extending to Caesar's chief client-rulers, like Herod Antipas, with various agents and functionaries taking their cut (and then some) along the way. And then we should not forget the taxes and tithes exacted by the Judean temple establishment in Jerusalem that was tolerated by Rome in exchange for keeping the peace.17 Embedded in such a stifling system, it is no wonder that Judas the Galilean and others instigated a tax revolt (unsuccessfully), claiming God as the only true Master worthy of tribute, financial and otherwise.18
Levi's tax office or customs house by the Sea of Galilee in Capernaum constituted a daily, tangible reminder of the problem. Levi was part of the system, one of Herod's minions, and perhaps, by virtue of his location, the very one who leased the fishing rights for Peter and associates and levied the first tariffs on their catches.19 And while the synoptic stories tell us nothing about Levi's business practices, the original audiences would doubtless have assumed a propensity toward cheating and profiteering, with the help of police enforcement.20 As John the Baptist discerns in Luke, tax collectors and soldiers ganged together in extortionist practices (Luke 3:12-14). Moreover, Levi's name (in Mark and Luke)-evocative of the priestly tribe of Israel supported by the people's tithes and offerings-may have elicited a sardonic smirk: here someone who symbolizes legitimate, voluntary "taxation" in Israel's theocratic kingdom is working for "King" Herod (in Rome's hip pocket) to impose extra, onerous tax burdens on God's people. As the parable of the Good Samaritan indicates in Luke, Jesus is not any too sanguine about current Levitical commitment to justice in the first place (10:30-37).
While Jesus does not physically topple Levi's tax booth, as he will the tables of the temple money-changers, by calling Levi to leave his post, Jesus still disrupts the Galilean tax system. A "closed" or "out to lunch" sign at the local customs house could only encourage tax evasion. Actually, "out to lunch" aptly describes Levi's whereabouts, because the next scene features a dinner party at his home with Jesus and a large company of fellow publicans and other assorted "sinners." The initiative seems to shift, as Jesus apparently "follows" Levi home to eat. But in fact this fellowship meal boosts Jesus' honor and fits his plans quite nicely. Luke stresses that Levi "gave the great banquet for him [Jesus]" (5:29) and later makes clear, in Jesus' encounter with another tax worker (a "chief" officer named Zacchaeus), that Jesus is not shy about inviting himself to dinner in imposing terms ("I must stay at your house today," 19:5). Each of the Synoptic Gospels depicts Jesus' eating with tax collectors and sinners as an intentional, integral part of his mission (cf. Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34; 15:1-2). Levi may provide the house and the menu, but Jesus controls the affair as both honored guest and imperious (as well as gracious) host. Jesus uses this venue, as he explains to his Pharisaic critics, not merely to socialize but to evangelize-to call and challenge sinners like Levi and associates. Only Luke specifies the goal of calling "sinners to repentance" (5:32). In the case of the tax collectors at least, if Jesus calls them, as he did Levi, to forsake their jobs and follow him, that guarantees some measure of reform, not only for the individual employees, but also for the whole Herodian economy. Abandoned tax booths at seaports and checkpoints throughout the Galilee do not bode well for imperial business.
LEAVE THE DEAD
Matthew and Luke21 share another "follow me" call of Jesus, albeit in different settings (Matt 8:18-22//Luke 9:57-60). Matthew's Jesus remains headquartered around the Sea of Galilee, preparing "to go over to the other side" (8:18), while Luke's Jesus is "going along the road" southward from Galilee to Jerusalem (through Samaria) (9:51-57). In both cases a prospective disciple22 approaches the itinerant Jesus with the frank assertion, "I will follow you wherever you go." Such an open-ended commitment might seem to be exactly what Jesus would want and even more-since it comes unexpectedly without Jesus' prompting. But in fact Jesus does not warmly accept this seeker's offer. He doesn't quite turn him away either, but rather clarifies the extreme nomadic lifestyle demanded of all who follow ("the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."). The ensuing silence and disappearance of the would-be follower suggest that, for all his initial bravado, he ultimately preferred a good night's sleep to the rigors of camping out with Jesus.
Attention immediately shifts to a second prospect to whom Jesus asserts his authority and commands, "Follow me." The peremptory, initiatory element is more evident in Luke, where Jesus abruptly pivots from responding to the first man to calling "another" who happens to be in the neighborhood. In Matthew, Jesus' call answers the proposal of another interlocutor already designated a "disciple." But whoever starts the conversation, the content is the same: not only Jesus' "follow me," but also his stunning dismissal of the second person's plea to bury his father before journeying with Jesus. "Let the dead bury their own dead," Jesus bluntly retorts. He brooks no adjustments, however seemingly justified, to his urgent agenda.
If few of Jesus' statements have been more misunderstood than "I will make you fishers of people" because of cultural naïveté, few have caused more consternation than "let the dead bury their dead," because its meaning rings all too clear, regardless of cultural context. Ancient Jews, Greeks, and Romans, as well as most people today across the ethnic and religious spectrum, regard some form of decent burial and "last rites"-especially for close kin-as a fundamental human right in a civilized society. If anything qualifies as an "excused absence" from any other activity, mundane or extraordinary, it would be burying one's parents. Addressing his son Tobias, Tobit patently reflects the core values of Jesus' Jewish environment: "My son, when I die, give me a proper burial. Honor your mother and do not abandon her all the days of her life.... And when she dies, bury her beside me in the same grave" (Tob 4:3-4). At the appropriate time, Tobias faithfully fulfills his father's wishes for an "honorable funeral" (14:11-13), the ultimate commitment to Moses' stipulation to "honor your father and mother."
Whereas elsewhere Jesus staunchly supports this Decalogue commandment, even against certain legal experts who sought to mitigate its requirements (Matt 15:3-6//Mark 7:8-13), his refusal to allow a prospective follower to bury his father seems to turn the law on its head. Exceptions were made for high priests and holy Nazirites oath-bound to avoid corpse impurity, even of immediate kin, at all costs (Lev 21:10-11; Num 6:6-7).23 But while Jesus devotes himself wholly to God and generally supports purity regulations (e.g., sending the healed leper to the priests for inspection), he does so as an ordinary Galilean Jew, not as high priest or Nazirite (Nazarene does not equal Nazirite). Matthew and Luke highlight Jesus' royal lineage through David, not a priestly one through Aaron, and depict Jesus touching dead bodies at funerals and, unlike the abstemious Baptist, imbibing fermented drink at banquets in very un-Nazirite fashion.24 Jesus is not flouting laws pertaining to kosher diet or corpse impurity: he is simply acting like most Israelites who eat and drink and must tend to the dead. In fact, proper attention to burying the dead, while rendering the handlers temporarily defiled, insures the wider maintenance of order throughout the land.25
Thus the bizarre mandate to let the dead bury their dead appears to run counter not only to cultural norms, but also to Jesus' own typical attitude and behavior. Popular attempts to disentangle this interpretive knot often resort to further religious/spiritual considerations. While Jesus does not hold his followers to exceptional high-priestly or Nazirite standards, he does insist that they put God's will and way first above all other obligations, familial and funereal. The imperious Jesus speaks again: he would have resisted any plea to "first (proton) let me go" and do anything. Also, in order to make the "leave the dead" injunction somewhat more palatable, commentators commonly regard one or both "dead" references in spiritual terms: "Let the (spiritually) dead bury the (spiritually) dead."26 That does not clarify much (who are the "spiritually dead" and why is Jesus thinking of them here?), but at least the "spiritually dead" might theoretically be able to do something with other dead folks (spiritual or not), whereas the incapacitated "really dead" can hardly be expected to do anything.
But Jesus does not blanch at impossible images (think of camels passing through needles' eyes) nor does he limit himself to some artificially compartmentalized "religious" or "spiritual" sphere of life and death. So again, while not denying that Jesus calls for personal commitment and consecration to God above all other loyalties, I push further to try to ascertain possible material and political implications of Jesus' vocation. Taken in its starkest sense, "let the dead ones [pl.] bury their own dead ones [pl.]" evokes an absurd, grisly scenario of multiplying dead ones and mass new-burial. If the recently dead are relying on the previously dead to bury them, then clearly burial has ceased to take place; rather, the body count will only continue to rise.
Byron McCane has persuasively argued that the man who approaches Jesus is specifically concerned about "secondary burial," that is, re-burying or gathering his father's desiccated bones with his ancestors' in the family tomb, culminating a year-long ritual of mourning.27 Given his urgent eschatological mission, Jesus doesn't have time to allow this extended burial process to happen "first." Bodies and bones must be left as they are. If the setting underlying the would-be follower's request "is a normal first-century burial cave," as McCane avers, "then the father's body is only one of many that lie there, each of them in varying states of decomposition and burial."28 Accordingly, if Jesus' command is heeded, the decomposition will proceed apace, but the (re)burial will halt. Before long, the tombs will be filled only with disarrayed skeletons, many disjointed from one another.
Such a picture of untended, disorderly tombs is upsetting enough, both physically and socially, since gathered bones reinforce kinship ties. But conjoined with the political experience of imperial conquest and occupation and with Jesus' previous statement about "foxes and birds," the macabre scenario, I suggest, is even more disturbing. While the prospective disciple may be thinking about unburied bones (already) in a family tomb, Jesus' word-picture evokes memory of much less fortunate corpses and carcasses as well. Recall, in the wake of Babylon's conquest, Ezekiel's famous landscape of dry bones that had never even been accorded the dignity of initial burial (Ezek 37:1-14). The book of Tobit displays a similar situation in the aftermath of Assyrian aggression, though Tobit himself does everything he can to clean up the marauders' mess:
If I saw the dead body of any of my people thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury it. I also buried any whom King Sennacherib put to death when he came fleeing from Judea in those days of judgment that the king of heaven executed upon him because of his blasphemies. For in his anger he put to death many Israelites; but I would secretly remove the bodies and bury them (1:17-18).
And perhaps most relevant to Jesus' shocking non-burial portrait is God's charge to Jeremiah, on the brink of Judah's invasion by Babylon:
For thus says the Lord concerning the sons and daughters who are born in this place, and concerning the mothers who bear them and the fathers who beget them in this land: They shall die of deadly diseases. They shall not be lamented, nor shall they be buried; they shall become like dung on the surface of the ground. They shall perish by the sword and by famine, and their dead bodies shall become food for the birds of the air and for the wild animals of the earth (16:3-4).
Jeremiah's horrible picture comes from the same chapter, noted above, that speaks of God's iniquitous people being snared by foreign fishermen (16:16-18). Once again, then, we confront a tragically apt image of the devastating predicament of Jesus' occupied land and nation. Roman and Herodian rulers established and enforced their hegemony over Palestine through capital punishment as much as economic exploitation, leaving a trail of exposed bodies in their wake. Apart from the myriad casualties of invasive military conquest, victims of crucifixion, sometimes in the thousands, regularly served as gruesome billboards of imperial occupation.29 To punctuate their glorious authority and their enemies' ignominy, the Romans typically permitted only dishonorable burial of the crucified in criminals' caves or graveyards, apart from family. More often than not and more shamefully still, they simply left the dead hanging on the cross or cast them into shallow grave pits "for the birds of the air and for the wild animals of the earth" to consume.30
In the tradition shared by Matthew and Luke, Jesus elsewhere envisions the apocalyptic scene of human corpses as carrion for scavengers: "Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather" (Matt 24:28//Luke 17:37).31 Could Jesus have something similar in view in his "let the dead bury their dead" pronouncement, immediately preceded by references to "foxes [have holes] and birds of the air [have nests]"? Such zoological illustrations are usually thought to be random, innocent examples of creatures with homes (holes/nests), unlike the wandering Son of Man. Jesus could just have easily spoken about donkeys with stables, sheep with pens, pigs with sties, etc. But he does not. He selects instead two animals known for their rapacious, predatory habits, one of which he later applies in Luke 13:31-33 directly to the murderous Herod Antipas-"that fox" who wants to kill him as it already has beheaded John (Jesus is not admiring Herod's "foxy" wiles or looks).32 Jesus also speaks derisively in Matthew and Luke about those who "live in luxury . . . in royal palaces" (Luke 7:25; cf. Matt 11:8)-a description that precisely fits Antipas, with his recently minted mansions in Sepphoris and Tiberias. "That fox" has quite a den; that bird has a nest to die for-built on the backs and bones of Galilean workers.33
In leading his followers on a homeless course, with no place to lay their heads, Jesus identifies with those who are marginalized and displaced in occupied Palestine and counterpoints the vulturish imperial authorities and their cohorts who live in palatial splendor. However, in exhorting his followers to leave the dead unburied, Jesus more co-opts than counters imperial policy: exposed, disgraced corpses are the stock-in-trade of brutal conquerors, the bread and butter of voracious birds and foxes. Again, Jesus' language shocks, jars, and puzzles in a way that no explanation can fully satisfy.
But perhaps we gain some purchase on Jesus' meaning by realizing that appropriating enemy rhetoric can be a means of resistance-subversion from within, taking over (overtaking) the channels of power and communication. This is dangerous business, of course, not only because of the potential to fail, but more critically, because of the tendency to become like the enemy in the process. Ironic distance from the oppressor must be firmly maintained alongside strategies of appropriation. Jesus accentuates this separation by his vagabond, anti-Herodian existence: he dwells in no royal villa on the beach. Aligned with the unsettling image of unburied bodies, we might then imagine the homeless Jesus wandering among his dead compatriots in sympathy and lamentation, even with eschatological visions of divine restoration and resurrection on the horizon-not unlike those that came to Jeremiah and Ezekiel in their dark valleys of dry bones (Jer 16:14-15; Ezek 37:3-14).
But whatever Jesus was thinking and doing, we can be assured that his head was not in the clouds and his feet were not off the ground. Preoccupied with the realities of fishing, feeding, taxing, and dying, Jesus places himself squarely in the jaws of imperial politics. And he bites back with imperious force, marshalling followers with a simple, yet sweeping, command to leave everything for the sake of advancing the kingdom of God. As Martin Hengel observes in his classic study of Jesus' leadership, Jesus fits the mold of apocalyptic, charismatic leaders who summon supporters to follow them "very concretely and with an unconditional ultimacy."34 However, Hengel also distinguishes Jesus from such leaders in terms of political engagement. Hengel admits that Jesus' kingdom message, like that of John the Baptist, "could be misunderstood in a political way."35 But Jesus did not set himself forward as a political messiah.
While Jesus' precise personal role in the kingdom of God remains ambiguous in the Synoptic Gospels and while Jesus does not call his followers to arms in conventional resistance mode, this study has proposed that a political-economic orientation, far from misunderstanding Jesus' vocation, represents an integral component of it. Jesus' imperious call is also an imperial call. Provocatively and precariously, he uses the talk and tactics of empire to subvert the current regime and to promote a just, alternative order, the empire of God, "on earth, as it is in heaven."
[Footnote] 1 See W. J. Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman, 1976) 97. 2(1) Matt 4:18-22//Mark 1:16-20; (2) Matt 9:9-13//Mark 2:13-17//Luke 5:27-32; (3) Matt 8:18-22//Luke 9:57-60; (4) Matt 16:24-26//Mark 8:34-37//Luke 9:23-25; (5) Matt 19:16-30//Mark 10:17-31//Luke 18:18-30. 3 Cf. J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Vol. 3: Companions and Competitors, ABRL (New York: Doubleday, 2001) 72: "Jesus seized the initiative in deciding who would be his disciples. He confronted certain individuals with his imperious command to follow him, a command that brooked no opposition or delay." 4 For a consistent reading of basileia tou theou as "empire of God," see the commentary by W. Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000). 5 While recognizing differences among the respective gospel reports, I assume that the three episodes under investigation reflect basically reliable tradition about the historical Jesus (largely because of their radical, countercultural thrust). My main concern, at any rate, is to probe the literary-narrative and socio-political contexts of these "follow me" accounts. For a thorough discussion of the historicity of the call stories, see Meier, Marginal Jew, 3.40-197. 6 1 Kgs 19:19-21. On Elijah's call of Elisha as a literary model for Mark 1:16-20, see J. Marcus, Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 27 (New York: Doubleday, 2000) 183-84. 7 See C. Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988) 132. 8 R. A. Horsley and N. A. Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997) 25. 9 On various modes of fishing in the Sea of Galilee, see J. J. Rousseau and R. Arav, Jesus and His World: An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995) 93-97. 10 On the Galilean fishing industry in its Herodian political context, see esp. K. C. Hanson, "The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition," BTB 27 ( 1997) 99-111 ; K. C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998) 106-110; M. Sawicki, Crossing Galilee: Architectures of Contact in the Occupied Land of Jesus (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000) 27-30, 143-47; Horsley and Silberman, Message and the Kingdom, 24-26, 46-47; S. Freyne, "Herodian Economics in Galilee: Searching for a Suitable Model," in Modelling Early Christianity: Social-Scientific Studies of the New Testament in its Context, ed. P. F. Esler (London: Routledge, 1995) 35. 11 The attitudes of Cicero and Terence were typical: "And the most shameful occupations are those which cater to our sensual pleasures: 'fish-sellers, butchers, cooks, poultry-raisers, and fishermen', as Terence says" (On Duties 1:42, cited in Hanson, "Galilean Fishing Economy," 99). 12 On the analogy between the Mediterranean Sea and Sea of Galilee in Herod's worldview, see Sawicki, Crossing Galilee, 27-30; her reference to "the backdrop of Herod's disneyworld, the Mediterraneanized Kinneret [Sea of Galilee)" (p. 185) offers a suggestive modern image. 13 See Juvenal, Satires 4:51-55, "Every rare and beautiful thing in the wide ocean ... belongs to the Imperial Treasury," cited in W. Carter, Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001) 141-42. 14 E. Best, Following Jesus: Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark, JSNTSup 4 (Sheffield: (SOT, 1981) 171-72. 15 Meier, Marginal Jew, 3.195 n. 124. 16 See the summary of Jesus' benevolent works of healing and deliverance in Matt 4:23-25, immediately after his calling the fishermen. Specific examples multiply as the narratives of Matthew and Mark develop. 17 On the tax system in first-century Roman Galilee, see R. A. Horsley, Galilee: History, Politics, People (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1995) 59-61, 137-44, 203-221; Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark's Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001) 27-51, 112-119; Hanson and Oakman, Palestine, 113-116; Rousseau and Arav, Jesus and His World, 275-79; Freyne, "Herodian Economics." 18 See Josephus, Ant. 18.3-10; R. A. Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987) 77-89; R. A. Horsley and J. S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985) 190-99. 19 Hanson, "Galilean Fishing Economy,' 103. 20 See J. R. Donahue, "Tax Collector," ABD , vol 6, 337-38; D. C. Duling, "Matthew," ABD vol 4,622; Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 217-19; E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993) 227-30. 21 Many scholars regard the common sayings tradition in Matthew and Luke (designated "Q" for Quelle, "source") as an early, independent (from Mark) witness to the historical Jesus. 22 Matt 8:19 specifies a ' scribe," whereas Luke 9:57 refers more vaguely to "someone." 23 A regular priest must also avoid defiling contact with dead relatives, "except for his nearest kin: his mother, his father ...'; only the high priest "shall not defile himself even for father or mother" (Lev 21:1-3, 10-11). 24 See Matt 1:1-17; 9:23-26; 11:18-19; Luke 3:23-38; 7:11-17, 33-35; 8:49-56. For a recent suggestion that "a broadly Nazirite symbolism" may inform Jesus' "leave the dead" saying, see M. Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000) 23-48. Bockmuehl bases his case, however, primarily on the Nazirite connotations of Jesus' activity during his final hours (Last Supper vow not to drink the fruit of the vine again; refusal on the cross to drink soldiers' wine), not on his usual conduct throughout his ministry. 25 For an excellent treatment of the nexus between material and social features of burial customs in Roman Palestine, see B. R. McCane, Roll Back the Stone: Death and Burial in the World of Jesus (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International. 20031 1-108. 26 Recent interpretation tilts in favor of treating the first reference metaphorically and the second literally: "Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead." see M. Hengel, The Charismatic Leader and His Followers, trans. J. Grieg (New York: Crossroad, 1981) 7-8; Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, 225-26; Bockmuehl, Jewish Law, 26-27. 27 McCane, Roll Back the Stone, 73-77; "'Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead': Secondary Burial and Matt 8:21-22," HTR 83 (1990) 31-13. The gathered bones might be placed either in special stone containers (ossuaries) or in designated niches (loculi) in family tombs. 28 "'Let the Dead'," 40. 29 After the death of Herod the Great (4 B.C.E.), for example, the Roman official Varus crucified some two thousand Judean rebels (see Josephus, Ant. 17.295). 30 See the discussion of the disposal of crucifixion victims in J. D. Crossan and J. L. Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) 245-47; M. Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977) 87-88; R. E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, ABRL (New York: Doubleday, 1994) 1206-1211; McCane, Roll Back the Stone, 89-108. 31 See McCane, Roll Back the Stone, 63-66. 32 On "fox" as an image of "malicious destructiveness" in Luke and the LXX, see J. A. Darr, On Character Building: The Reader and the Rhetoric of Characterization in Luke-Acts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992) 127-46; idem, Herod the Fox: Audience Criticism and Lukan Characterization, JSNTSup 163) Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) 173-88; cf. H. W. Hoehner, Herod Antipas, SNTMS 17 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972) 343-47. Foxes were typically associated with scavenging jackals and wild dogs in biblical thought, with the LXX sometimes translating "jackal" with the Greek term for ' fox ' (alopex; e.g. Lam 5:18, describing the ruin of Jerusalem after the Babylonian siege: ". . . because of Mount Zion, which lies desolate; jackals prowl over it"// ". . . foxes [alopekes] walked in it" [LXX]). Cf. Ps 63 : 10; Isa 34:3, 13, 15; 1er 9:10-11, 22; Ezek 13:4; 1 En. 89:10, 42-49, 55. 33 In a twist of tragic irony, Tiberias was actually built on the site of an ancient graveyard or necropolis; see Rousseau and Arav, Jesus and His World, 316-18. 34 Hengel, Charismatic Leader, 57. 35 Ibid., 36.
[Author Affiliation] F. Scott Spencer Professor of New Testament Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond