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16. Inherited Autonomy

The pharisees and scribes were upset because Jesus had cured a blind man on the Sabbath. If it was a real miracle, how could God tolerate that the law of the Sabbath be transgressed! So they summoned the man's parents. "Is this man your son? Was he born blind? If so, how is it that he can now see?" The parents answered as well as they could. But regarding the cure they relegated full responsibility to their son. "Ask him. He is old enough. He can speak for himself!" (9,21). And speak for himself he could! Illiterate though he was, he argued so convincingly that the learned men of Israel were left without defence. They could only stop him by expelling him from the synagogue.

This is a typical Johannine scene. An individual, saved by Jesus, proves his own worth by fending for himself. How should we evaluate this? Was it only of passing interest to the Evangelist? Or did he recommend the spirit of independence as an ideal to be pursued by every disciple of Jesus?

In the years following on Vatican II we have seen in the Catholic Church a renewed awareness of the responsibility of individual Christians for their own moral decisions. Most moral theologians and many pastors of the Church are convinced, for example, that the responsible use of contraceptives should be left to the conscience of Christian couples themselves. These should base their decisions on their own sense of Christian responsibility, evaluating common Christian principles in the light of their own situation. Similarly, difficult moral decisions are believed to be the competence of those directly involved; of doctors in the area of medicine; of politicians and trade union leaders in matters of the social order; of parents regarding their own children.

But we are also witnessing reactionary forces in the Church which seek to restore clerical paternalism and passive submission on the part of the laity. They talk in terms of 'obedience' rather than responsibility; they stress the authority of the 'lawgiver'rather than the inner reasons for certain proposed rules of conduct; they tend to think of the Church's laws as God's absolute will rather than respect an individual's mature decisions. The two approaches are worlds apart in spirituality and Christian practice. Has John's Gospel anything to say about this contemporary conflict?

Successors to Jesus

In his farewell sermon Jesus made a remarkable statement. He was preparing his disciples for his departure. From now on, after his resurrection they would need to stand on their own feet. Then he said:

"Truly, truly I say to you,he who believes in me

will also do the works that I do. Yes, greater works

than these will he do because I am going to the Father."


In other words: as my disciples you will be able to do equally great things as I have done; yes, even greater things!

The statement is so noteworthy because John has been stressing the importance of Jesus' works throughout his Gospel. Jesus miracles are the works which his Father sent him to do (9,4). These works are so obviously performed with the help of his Father that they should provoke faith in those who see them (5,36; 10,38; 14,11; 15.24). But the most important work Jesus came to perform was to save people (4,34). Making the Father known to people and so glorifying the Father's name on earth was the work he had come to do (17,4). Giving people a meaningful life by raising them from death was the greatest work he accomplished (5,20-24). Laying down his own life for them was part of this work (compare 10,18). By making Jesus say that his disciples will be doing equally great things as he had done himself, John deliberately raises the disciple from the level of a subject to the level of an equal. "I do not consider you servants any longer for the servant is not made a partner in his master's plans. I consider you friends because I have shared with you whatever I heard from my Father " (15,15). The disciple becomes a partner in Jesus' mission, with the same responsibilit Jesus had and the same authority. "As the Father sent me, so I am sending you" (20,21). The disciple will be Jesus' equal because he is Jesus' successor.

In as far as Jesus revealed to us his Father, he is succeeded by his Spirit.237 But in as far as the work of salvation needs to be carried on by people of flesh and blood, Jesus is succeeded by his disciple. And that succession implies equality of authority and equality of support. When Joshua succeeded Moses, God reassured him: "No one shall be able to oppose you as long as you live. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not fail you or abandon you. Be strong and of good courage" (Jos 1,5-6). And the Israelites promised: "Just as we obeyed Moses in everything, so we will obey you" (Jos 1,17). For Moses had laid his hands upon Joshua and appointed him his successor (Dt 34,9). In the same way Jesus appoints his disciple to be his successor thereby granting him or her partnership and equality in the execution of his mission.

It is within this context of succession that Jesus says, "It is good for you that I go" (16,7). For only then can he send his Spirit and so make his disciple autonomous, independent, a full partner in the mission. The death of a father, though sad in itself, is good for the son if the son thereby inherits autonomy and achieves his full stature by succeeding to his father's position. The same succession, the same inheritance Jesus envisages for his disciple. (1)

Personal guidance

With our ecclesiastical mind-sets we might be inclined to think succession to Jesus applies mostly or more properly to priests, bishops or others carrying responsibility in the Church. But this is far from John's mind. The promise of equalling Jesus is given to every disciple. "Whoever believes in me will do the works I do" (14,12). Jesus knew there would be among his disciples those who would witness more powerfully than he had done; those who would show signs of God's loving care more radiant than his own; those who would evangelise with greater success; those who would suffer longer and more grievously than he would do; those who would initiate more radical social reforms than he had done. He did not begrudge them the glory for such "greater works". On the contrary, this is why he had come; to release this new power of creative service in the mission he had begun.

There is great respect in this for the dignity and personal worth of each disciple. The same respect is shown by the stress on the personal guidance which the Spirit will give to each individual.239 The disciple will meet new situations. He or she will have to know how to take courageous decisions that will both honour the unchanging values received in revelation and the demands of the challenge of the moment. This is where the Spirit will guide. He will teach the disciple everything and make him or her remember what Jesus had taught (14,26). He will give insight in the fullness of truth. Speaking from Jesus' own consciousness, the Spirit will explain how future eventualities are to be met (16,12-15). This promise implies that the individual disciple, by being sensitive to the Spirit, can face his or her vocation with creative autonomy. His or her own heart will be a constant source of Spirit-filled inspiration (7,38)!

That John takes this promise very seriously is also clear from the absence in his Gospel of establishing what we might call 'external teaching power'. In other New Testament writings Christians and their ministers are reminded that they should be faithful to traditional doctrine (Acts 20,28-30; Tit 1,9; 2 Pet 1,12-21). Paul imposes his teaching authority and even threatens with excommunication (2 Thes 2,14; 1 Cor 5,3-5; 11,16; Gal 1,8-9). There is no trace of this in John's Gospel. While Paul distinguishes various ministries as part of the one body (1 Cor 12,12-30), John has only one concern in the allegory of the vine (15,1-10): that the disciple remains united to Jesus himself. If ministers were important, he could have distinguished between branches, twigs, leaves and so on. No, only direct adherence to Jesus counts. (2)

That the Johannine Community had a different attitude in the matter is strongly confirmed by an analysis of the three Johannine letters. The author is deeply worried about false teachers who have split the community (1 Jn 2,18-19) and who are trying to influence even those who remained faithful so far (1 Jn 2,26; 4,1-6). Yet, he never appeals to his teaching authority, he never threatens with sanctions. Instead, he reaffirms the Johannine principle: "You have been anointed by the Holy Spirit, so all of you possess knowledge" (1 Jn 2,20); and "The anointing you received from him remains in you. You have no need that anyone should teach you" (1 Jn 2,27). The only thing he can do is to repeat his own testimony and to appeal to the witness of the Spirit. If they test the spirit of the false prophets it will be clear that what they teach is wrong (1 Jn 4,1-6). They will recognise that such teaching differs from what they carried in their heart from the beginning (1 Jn 2,20-24). The norm remains the Spirit. "The anointing of the Spirit teaches you about everything. It tells the truth and does not lie. So remain faithful to him in what he taught youthus far" (1 Jn 2,27). (3)

Self-confidence and leadership

The lack of emphasis on teaching authority does not mean that the ministries play no role for John. They exist in the community and provide a useful service. But preachers, prophets and elders are not more perfect disciples; or, to put it in today's terms, being a priest or a religious does not make us a more perfect Christians. The focus is on discipleship, not on ecclesiastical status. This explains why John presents his heroes and models not from among the twelve apostles but from a motley array of lay believers.

John the Baptist preached conversion and spiritual reform. He was well able to keep the Jewish leaders at arm's length (1,19-28). But when Jesus made his public appearance, he gave witness to him and directed his own disciples to Jesus (1,29-36). His disciples protested about Jesus' popularity, but John stuck to his principle. Jesus should become more important, he himself less so (3,22-40). However, while loyally pointing to Jesus, the Baptist retained his own autonomy.

The Samaritan woman, who represents religious seekers, catches our imagination by her lively, authentic personality (4,7-42). She talks to Jesus with the ease and self-confidence of a truly mature person. If she had five husbands, she must have been both attractive and able to hold her own in a society where men dominated. She was ready to learn and able to galvanise her town people into action once she was convinced Jesus was a true prophet. Small wonder that she could prove such an inspiration for that indomitable Church reformer,Teresa of Avila! (4)

Not less colourful is the man born blind already referred to at the beginning of this chapter (9,1-41). Intelligent, honest, resourceful and well able to look after himself, he shames the men of learning who refuse to do their own thinking. He is not unduly upset by the unjust sanction imposed on him. He gladly accepts Jesus as his saviour once he understands who Jesus is. He is a man ready to start a totally new life.

Martha is a friend of Jesus (11,1-44). She had sent the message to Jesus about Lazarus' illness. She did not understand why Jesus had not come immediately, but she did not criticise him for it. She trusts him, even when he promises to do the impossible, namely bring Lazarus back to life. Even so she remains practical. When Jesus wants the stone removed from the tomb, she says, "By this time there must be a smell. He has been dead for four days". She is the one who manages the household when Jesus and his disciples are their guests (12,2). She is a perfect model of an independent-minded believer. She professes her faith in Jesus before she has seen (11,27), with the kind of faith Jesus will praise in contrast to the unbelieving Thomas (20,29).

Then there is the disciple whom Jesus loved. the great hero of the Johannine community.(5) He is close to Jesus, resting his head on Jesus' chest at the Last Supper (13,23). He stood under the cross when Jesus died and took charge of Jesus' mother (19,26-27). He saw the linen cloths in the empty tomb and was the first to believe in the resurrection (20,8). He recognised Jesus at the miraculous catch (21,7). Since his testimony carried great weight in the Johannine community.(21,24; compare 19,35)it is very telling that, whoever he was, he is presented as a disciple, not as an apostle.

The Gospel presents many other interesting personalities who are portrayed with diverse and distinctive characters: (6) Nathanael, Mary Magdalene, Thomas, Nicodemus, the Roman official (4,46-54), the paralysed man (5,1-18), Philip and Lazarus. Often there are short references to people we would have like to know more about because they too figure as individuals: the boy who brought the five loaves and two fish (6,9), Jesus' relatives (7,3-5), the woman caught in adultery (8,2-11) and Joseph of Arimathea (19,38). Last not least, the Gospel presents Mary, Jesus' mother, as a strong, determined person always ready to give her support (2,1-5; 19,25-27).

Christian autonomy

It is not difficult to see the application of all this to our own times. What Christ is asking for is that each Christian confidently and responsibly shares in his mission. There is no room here for distinguishing between man or woman,(7) lay or cleric, educated or illiterate. Each person should realise his or her own dignity and spiritual autonomy. Each will be true to his or her Christian vocation to the measure one is true to oneself.

Any form of false dependence is contrary to Jesus' Spirit. It is true that we have received everything from Godi not unlike Jesus owed everything to his Father. But it is equally true that God entrusted us with our own autonomous dignity so that, again like Jesus, we can live our Christian life with a sense of our own creative responsibility. With the help of the Spirit we can manage on our own and do even greater things than Jesus did.

As members of Jesus' community we need the help and encouragement of our brothers and sisters, the guidance and service of teachers and ministers. But we should never allow this to become an excuse for surrendering our own Christian autonomy. We must remain responsible for our own decisions. Our spirituality must be fed by direct contact with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Both intellectually and emotionally we should develop our own individual and unique way of being a successor to Jesus. What God wants is ourselves; not mass products or cheap im itations.

For reflection. Jesus speaks up.

The early Church was convinced that in Jesus' passion the prophecies of the suffering servant had been fulfilled. There we read: "Like a sheep that is dumb before its shearers, he did not open his mouth" (Is 53.7). Though John will mention that Jesus refused to speak during the second part of Pilate's interrogation (19,8-11), he does not present Jesus as a helpless and passive victim. This comes out clearly when Jesus stands before Annas. One of the guards struck Jesus in the face. Jesus replies indignantly: "If I have said something wrong, point out what it is; if not, why do you strike me?" (read 18.19-24).

People in general are inclined to feel proud about their social class, their economic status, their position in society, and so on. Are such things the right basis for human dignity?

Has my growth in faith made me realise the autonomy Christ has entrusted to me? Can I truly say that not the highest, but the ultimate norm for good and evil for me is my own conscience? Do I dare to take my own decisions?

When I am thinking of my own responsibility, does it have for me connotations of laxity, of "doing my own thing"? Or do I realise that my autonomy demands even greater love and loyalty from me?

Do I know people that seem to be independent, mature and balanced Christians? What can I learn from them?

Foot Notes .

(1) Cf. J. WiJNGAARDS, Inheriting the Master's Cloak, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame 1985, pp. 153-160. On the importance for John of a personal, mature growth in faith, see M.C. TENNEY, "The Growth of Belief", Bibliotheca Sacra 132 (1975) 343-357; M.E. JOHNSTON, "Some Speculations on the Psychology of St. John's Gospel", Theology Annual Hongkong 6 (1982) 89-121

(2) R.E. BROWN, The Community of the Beloved Disciple London and New York, 1979, pp.85-87.

(3) R.E. BROWN, The Epistles of John, Chapman, London and Doubleday, New York,  1983, pp. 93-96; The Community, ib., pp. 138-142.

(4) Cf. J. WIJNGAARDS, Experiencing Jesus. Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, 1981, pp.103-118.

(5) D. J. HAWKIN, "The Function of the Beloved Disciple Motif in the Johannine Redaction", Laval Theologique et Philosophique 33 (1977), pp. 135-150; P. S. MINEAR, "The Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John. Some Clues and Conjectures", Novum Testamentum 19 (1977), pp. 105-123.

(6) R.F. COLLINS, "The Representative Figures of the Fourth Gospel", Downside Reviw 94 (1976), pp, 26-46; 118-132.

(7) Though John never expressly defines the equality of women, he clearly demonstrates it by his examples. R.E. BROWN , "Roles of Women in the Fourth Gospel", Theological Studies 36 (1975), pp. 688-699; A. YARBRO COLLINS, "New Testament Perspectives: The Gospel of John", Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 22 (1982), pp. 47-53; S.M. SCHNEIDERS, "Women in the Fourth Gospel and the Role of Women in the Contemporary Church", Biblical Theology Bulletin 12 (1982), pp. 35-45; J.R. SCHMITZ, "Women in John's Gospel", Emmanuel 90 (1984), pp. 191-196.

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