Fall 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 196-212.

Mary Rose D'Angelo:
      Images of Jesus and the Christian Call in the Gospels of Luke and John

Luke's Gospel invites us on a journey with Jesus the prophet foretold in Scripture and revealed at Emmaus, while John calls us to intimacy with Jesus as God's life-gift.

Mary Rose D'Angelo, assistant professor of New Testament at St. Thomas Theological Seminary in Denver. Colorado, writes and lectures in the fields of New Testament, women's studies, liturgy, and spirituality.

AS the variety of spiritual teachers in the church's history offer, differing patterns and possibilities for realizing the life of Christ so too the four-Gospel canon provides the church of believers with distinct ways in which to image Jesus and to understand the Christian call. Individual Christians cannot choose to ignore Mark (1) and to adopt a purely Lucan view of the gospel, however, as one may find Juliana illuminating and Benedict irrelevant for his or her own Christian call. But the differences among the four Gospels are real, and believers are engaged and nourished in differing degrees by the options of Christology and Christian life in each.

This essay will attempt to cast into high relief the images of Jesus and the call to discipleship presented by Luke and John and to consider their accessibility to women as well as men.(2) These two Gospels present the reader with striking contrasts. Luke sees Jesus primarily as a prophet and hero of the spiritual life, sent with mighty deeds and words to call God's people to repentance, liberation, and God's justice. John also understands Jesus as sent by God and a prophet, but still more as God's life-gift, true and living bread, water, vine, dwelling, light; the call in John is to eat, drink, abide in Jesus. Luke offers believers a responsible place in God's creation and people; John invites us to drink and become a source of life. Luke provides pairs of stories to include women as penitents, as seeking healing, as prophets, disciples, and ministers of charity, in every role which biblical history and first-century convention will allow them. John seems to make no particular effort to include women, but women emerge in this Gospel in roles that completely disregard convention.

The last pictures of Jesus in the Gospels offer a particularly helpful approach to their understanding of Jesus and the Christian call, as they appear to present Jesus as the author expects the community to encounter him. Thus the Gospel of Mark gives us no visual image of the risen Jesus; the final scene of the Gospel is the interview between the women and the white-clad stranger at the empty tomb, which proclaims the resurrection (16:1-8),(3) but leaves the reader with the bleak and terrible picture of Jesus hanging on the cross, deserted by his friends and crying out his abandonment by God (15:34). This Gospel expects the community to encounter Jesus in their own martyrdom; its invitation to discipleship is an invitation to the cross: "If anyone would come after me, . . . let that one take up the cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). In Matthew, on the other hand, the final scene presents the reader with the risen Jesus in the midst of his disciples, committing them to his teaching on the mount of the sermon and promising them his endless presence (28:16-28). For this author, the community encounters Jesus as the wise teacher, the wisdom of God, in whose continual presence they learn to do God's will by interpreting together the Law and the words of Jesus (18:18-20; 28:18-20). In this Gospel, the invitation to discipleship is "Come . . . learn of me" (Matt. 11:28-30).


Luke has a strong sense of the distance of Jesus' day from the contemporary church. This author's second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, gives the only account of the ascension (Acts 1:1-11) and puts a definite limit to the days when the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples (Acts 1:3). So Luke looks into the past to seek Jesus, consciously undertaking the historian's task of sorting the writings and testimony of others to compose a coherent and credible narrative (Luke 1:1-4).(4) Thus the relation between Luke's image of Jesus and the spiritual way the Gospel offers is less immediate than their connection in the other Gospels, which do not confine the risen Jesus to the past. Nevertheless, the last scenes of Luke give us clues to a way in which Luke perceives Jesus' presence with the community as well as to the major image under which this author organizes the traditions about Jesus' teaching and career.

First, in the appearances which Luke recounts, the risen Jesus "opened their eyes to understand the Scriptures" (24:45-47); "beginning from Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted for them all the things in the Scriptures that applied to himself' (24:26). Secondly, Jesus pledged to them the spirit, the promise of God's power and presence as a continuation of his own life with them (24:49; Acts 1:4-8). These traits of Luke's account seem to reflect the experience of Luke's community; they interpret the Scriptures by the leading of the spirit they have received from Jesus' resurrection, and their hearts "burn within them" (24:32) as they uncover the meaning of Jesus' life everywhere in the prophetic works. With them Jesus is present as he was with the disciples on the road to Emmaus: he speaks to them through the Scriptures, but their eyes are "held from seeing him" (24:16). When they recognize him in the breaking of the bread, he vanishes under their recognition (24:31).

The words of the disciples walking to Emmaus also give us clues to the major images of Jesus and of Christian spirituality in this Gospel. When the stranger asks the two disciples what they discuss on their journey, they reply: the things relating to Jesus the Nazarene, "who was a hero (man),(5) a prophet mighty in work and word before God and all the people . . ." (Luke 24:19). For Luke, as for the other Gospel-writers, Jesus is more than a prophet, but this author uses prophecy to interpret Jesus' words and deeds in images that are drawn from the Bible and yet accessible to the Christian communities that live in the Greek-speaking imperial world. Thus the Jesus of Luke's Gospel resembles the god-inspired wise man of the Greek world, the philosophic hero and holy man.(6) Jesus' miracles and his prophetic wisdom attest to his nearness to God; his life demonstrates noble compassion for suffering humanity; he "withdraws" (9:10) and prays frequently (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28, 29; 11:1; 22:41, 44); he instructs his disciples in a wise and compassionate way of life and teaches and exhorts them to pray (11:2-13; 6:28; 18:1-14; 20:47). But this somewhat conventional picture is made vivid and particular by being drawn in the heroic lines of biblical prophets, whose role receives a new meaning in Luke because Jesus culminates their line, and because through him God pours out their spirit on a new people taken from among the Gentiles (Acts 2:17-21, 38-39; cf. 15:14).

Secondly, when the two disciples reflect on and retell their encounter with Jesus, they recall how he spoke with them "on the way/road" (24:32, 35). Antiquity had no word for "religion" in our sense, but in Acts, Christianity emerges as a "way" among others, distinct from Judaism, though deriving from it.(7) At the same time, the "road" or "way" is Luke's metaphor for the individual spiritual journey. Paul's encounter with Jesus also occurs "on the road" to Damascus (9:17, 27; 26:13). And the Book of Acts is dominated by a geographical metaphor; in the person of Paul, the Christian message travels west to Rome, beginning always from Jerusalem (Acts 9:1, 26; 11:29-30; 15:2; 18:22; 21:17). So also a geographical device organizes the Gospel: Jesus is on the road from Nazareth to Jerusalem. In the central section, Luke departs radically from Mark's outline, devoting 9:51-19:28 to Jesus' journey to Jerusalem (a journey which takes one chapter of Mark), as the prophet's road to his death. It is this road and the death of Jesus that are the model for the believer's spiritual journey.

Like the last scenes of the Gospel, the opening sermon of Jesus presents Luke's portrait of Jesus as prophet; it also sends him on his way to the cross. This sermon (4:16-30) radically revises Mark's story of Jesus' rejection by his own hometown (Mark 6:1-6). In the first scene of his ministry in Luke, Jesus is honored with a call to read and interpret the Scriptures in the Sabbath service. He reads from Isaiah 61:1-2:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me;
therefore he has anointed [christed] me;
to preach good news to the poor he has sent me,
to proclaim release to the captives
and regaining of sight to the blind,
to send the downtrodden to release,
to preach an acceptable year of the Lord.
He interprets: "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing (4:21). These "words of grace" (4:23) announce God's jubilee: th uniquely gracious year (8) of Jesus' ministry in which the slaves of sickness and sin are freed by God's messianic messenger. An they are received with appropriate wonder and joy by the congregation at Nazareth. "Is this not Joseph's son?" they marvel, not in scorn (as the townspeople ask a similar question in Mark 6:3), but in admiration and deep pride (4:22).

But Jesus shatters their appreciative reception of him as local hero, driving them to reject him by his own prediction that the will do so. "Of a certainty you will say . . . 'What we have heard happened in Caphernaum do here, in your own place.'" As Elija fed the Sidonian widow (1 Kings 17:8-16) and Elisha cleansed the Syrian leper (2 Kings 5:1-27), Jesus will feed the hungry (9:10-17) cleanse lepers (5:12-17; 17:11-19), raise the dead (7:11-17; 8:40-55) -- but not in Nazareth. We are inclined to ask how the citizens of Nazareth have failed, and Mark explains the failure of Jesus' mission in his own place by the lack of faith he finds there (6:6). But for Luke, all this is irrelevant. Jesus pushes the Nazarenes murderously to reject God's acceptable year, because such is God's will for him: "No prophet," he asserts, "is acceptable in his own country" (4:24). He departs, never to return; from here on he is on the road with nowhere to lay his head (cf. 9:58).


The scene just related provides a miniature of Luke's portrait of Jesus as prophet. We shall dwell on three features of this portrait's development in the rest of Luke. First, Jesus as prophet proclaims God's release, God's liberation: for the poor and oppressed, vindication; for the sick and possessed, restoration; for the rich and the sinner, repentance and responsibility. Second, Luke is concerned that his prophetic message include the whole variety of God's people, including the women. Even here, Jesus' prophetic predecessors Elijah and Elisha are recalled by a miracle done for a woman as well as by one done for a man (4:26-30). Third, Luke describes Jesus as prophet who determinedly goes the way that God has prescribed for him in the Scripture; his noble journey and death provide a pattern of virtue by which the believer can "take up the cross daily" (9:23).

First, for Luke, Jesus' message of "release" recasts the prophets' message of justice. Its meaning for the downtrodden is most strikingly voiced in Luke's startling beatitudes:

Blessed the poor, because yours is the kingdom of God.
    Blessed the hungry now, for you will be filled.
        Blessed those who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when human beings hate you; when they isolate you and revile you and cast out your name as evil for the sake of the son of man.
    Lo, your reward is great with heaven, for so their fathers did to the prophets.
But woe to you rich, for you have your comfort.
  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
    Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe when all human beings speak well of you, for so their fathers did to false prophets. (6:20-26)

Frequently Christian authors attempt to soften this proclamation of God's judgment by spiritualizing the epithets and suggesting that they apply only to the disciples. Indeed, they are addressed to the disciples; and the last beatitude and woe show that Luke sees the disciples' suffering as the culmination of human misery. But Mary's prophetic song announces the same radical reversal:

[God] has brought down the mighty from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly,
has filled the hungry with good things
        and sent the rich away empty. (1:52-53)

Further, the same view of God's judgment not only appears throughout the Gospel, but also is an organizing motif. One section of the Gospel that is devoted to the meaning of justice and responsibility is a stop on the journey to death and Jerusalem to "eat bread" at a Pharisee's table (14:1-17:10). In 13:25-28 Jesus warns his hearers that not all who now receive him will share the messianic banquet with the patriarchs and prophets: "You will begin to say, 'We ate with you and we drank with you and you taught in our streets.' And he [the householder] will say, 'I do not know whence you are. Depart from me, workers of iniquity.'" Those who encounter Jesus at the table and in his teaching (whether in his lifetime or as the disciples at Emmaus and we have done) incur responsibility to the release he preaches. In Luke 14:1 Jesus enter the house of a Pharisee to eat bread, and manifests God's release in the cure of the dropsical man (14:1-6). Until he takes the road again in 17:11, the scene does not change but its boundaries are strained as one group after another presses in upon the table. Each group -- guests (14:7-11, 15-24), host (14:12-14), the crowds (14:25-35), tax collectors and sinners (15:1-32), disciples (16:1-3; 17:1-4), the money-loving (16:14-31), the apostles (17:6-10) -- inspires appropriate teaching about the responsibilities of "eating and drinking"(9) for those who hope to be blessed by "eating bread in the kingdom of God" (14:15). Especially striking is the number of parables set at table or leading up to a feast. The climax of the supper is the parable about Lazarus and Dives (16:14-31).

Though addressed to the Pharisees directly (16:14), this parable also underlines the choice the disciples (and readers) must make between serving God and serving Mammon (16:13). It contrasts the rich man who celebrates every day with the poor neighbor who sits at his gate longing to be filled with his table scrap (16:19-21). When both die and their situations are reversed, the rich man begs for Lazarus' aid, first to relieve him, then to warn his living brothers. But he is refused. "If they do not attend to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded even should one arise from the dead" (16:31). Despite Jesus' uniqueness as messenger his message about God's judgment is no different from the prophets'. The gracious season he proclaims is time to come to term with the demand of responsibility toward the poor and justice for the downtrodden.

Three other parables inspired by the presence of tax collector and sinners (15:1) proclaim communal responsibilities to "release" as forgiveness. The lost sheep (15:1-7), the lost coin (15:8-10), and the prodigal son (15:11-32) not only portray God's joy over the re-inclusion of the sinner, but also require "neighbors" and "brothers" to join the jubilee with feasting (15:6, 9, 32). While these stories do not dwell on the responsibilities of the one who is forgiven Luke is concerned that they not escape the prophetic demand The tax collector who is freely forgiven must commit himself to that welcome by reparation, as Zacchaeus does: "Lo, half of my goods, Lord, I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded, I restore it fourfold" (19:8). Luke makes inclusion of the marginal the center of God's "acceptable year," and constantly makes it the basis of responsibility, of "what we should do" (cf. 3:10-14).


This dialectic of inclusion and responsibility brings us to our second particular interest in Luke's portrait of Jesus as prophet. This Gospel manifests a predilection for pairing stories about men with stories about women, male figures with female. Luke inherits a story using a man who finds a lost sheep to convey God's joy in welcoming the sinner (15:1-7; cf. Matt. 18:11-14) and includes with it a story about a woman who finds a lost coin (15:8-10). The unbinding of the bent woman in the synagogue on the Sabbath (13:10-17) balances the healing of the man with the withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath (6:6-11; cf. Mark 3:1-6). A list of named women disciples who are on the road with Jesus introduces the parables discourse (8:1-3), as the list of the Twelve introduces the sermon on the plain (6:12-19). The resurrection of the widow's son (7:11-17) surpasses the restoration of the centurion's servant (7:1-10; cf. Matt. 8:5-13) and complements the resurrection of the male ruler's daughter (8:40-56; cf. Mark 5:21-43). A woman penitent forgiven at the table of a Pharisee (7:36-50) balances both the release of the dropsical man at the Pharisee's table (14:1-6) and the absolution of the paralytic (5:17-26; cf. Mark 2:1-12). In the infancy narrative, Luke presents an annunciation to Jesus' mother (1:26-38) as well as one to John's father (1 :5-23); Mary's prophetic song (1:46-38) is paired with Zachary's (1:67-76); and a woman prophet accompanies the man prophet who greets the child in the temple (2:25-38).

At least two factors inspire this proliferation of women. One is the importance of prophecy as a category in Luke. The unassailably immediate claim of the prophetic spirit blowing where it will without regard for sexual social barriers made room for women both in the biblical history and in the early Christianity that Luke seeks to describe.(10) On the other hand, since this author views prophecy through the lenses of historical probability, its radical potential is restricted in the Gospel in such a way that both prophetic activity and roles of women are accommodated to the conventions of Luke's time.(11) The second and more important factor is the author's desire to edify. By presenting a procession of women penitents, suppliants, widows, disciples, and prophets, the Gospel invites its women readers to responsibility among God's people:(12) to ministry, especially of charity, with Martha; to learning, with Mary (10:38-42); to the expense of penitent love with the sinful woman (7:36-50).

Both prophecy as the model for Jesus' and the church's career and the desire to edify the believers for a way of heroic virtue dominate our third topic: Luke's narration of Jesus' journey to death. In Luke, Mark's call to discipleship is revised to say, "If anyone would come after me, let that one take up the cross daily and follow me" (9:23). The passion narrative is revised to present a pattern of heroic virtue that offers believers an example that can be lived daily, and the motif of journeying draws the whole Gospel into Jesus' march to a prophet's death.

From the opening of his mission in the first sermon, Jesus manifests his knowledge of where it must end. He drives the Nazarenes to reject him, because "no prophet is acceptable in his own country," then journeys about Galilee and Judea "doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil" (Luke 4:44; Acts 10:38). At 9:51 he "sets his face" against opposition and suffering (cf. Isa. 49:7; Jer. 1:18) "to go up to Jerusalem," knowing that "today and tomorrow and the following day I must journey, for it is not acceptable that a prophet perish outside Jerusalem" (13:33).

In narrating Jesus' death, Mark seeks to harrow readers with its desolation; Jesus is utterly alone, and from the moment he closes his lips before Pilate to the end of the Gospel in 16:8, his only words are "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" By contrast, Luke's "way of the cross" is crowded with figures who offer Jesus the opportunity to continue his message.

As he goes to the cross, Jesus is followed by a great crowd of the people, and by women of Jerusalem who mourn over him. Addressing them as "daughters of Jerusalem," Jesus predicts the suffering they will undergo at the hands of the Romans in 70 C.E. The words he uses evoke Jeremiah's prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem in 583 B.C.E. and are phrased to show his concern for others. The same magnanimity and prophetic foreknowledge infuse Jesus' words from the cross and inspire nobility in those around him. He forgives the ignorant soldiers who crucify him (23:34).(13) While in Mark both malefactors join in the mocking of Jesus (15:32), in Luke one of them becomes an example of repentance: "We receive our deserts, but he has done no wrong' (23:41), and of humble prayer: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (23:42). The cry of desolation with which Jesus dies in Mark (15:34; Ps. 22:1) is replaced with another psalm verse, a prayer of confiding love: "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit" (23:46; Ps. 31:6). Neither God nor human beings have abandoned Jesus in this picture; all Jesus' acquaintances stand by with the women to witness his death (23:49) and the crowds repent and mourn as they return to the city (23:48). The centurion here makes no great leap of faith as in Mark, but places a just and reasonable epitaph on so noble a death: "Surely this was a righteous man!" (23:47).

Thus for Luke, Jesus' death, as his life, is the deed of a prophet for God's people, who offers forgiveness and freedom to the malefactor crucified at his side, who draws in his wake the women of Jerusalem and Galilee and a whole repentant people of God. His call to justice is undergirded by his own just way.

This call to justice is not fully realized in the Gospel itself. In depicting Jesus as proclaiming God's release and exerting the prophets just demand, Luke envisions the forces of oppression as the devil and his company but does not consider the political realities of oppression in the first-century imperial world. From a desire to live with the Rome that rules the church's world, Luke causes Pilate three times to declare Jesus innocent (23:4, 15, 22), thus laying his death at the Jews' door, and judging that they were punished for their ignorance of their own good by Rome's destruction of the temple in 70 (13:34-35). Thus Luke blames both Jesus' death and the fall of Jerusalem on the infidelity of the Jews rather than on Rome's imperial self-interest. While such a judgment may come appropriately from the grief of a Jewish prophet like Jeremiah in 583 B.C.E., blaming the victims in this way is self-serving on the part of gentile Christians. It mars the credibility of Luke's call to justice and warns us that to appropriate Jesus' message as a call to justice, to responsibility for God's jubilee of release for the downtrodden, means more than repentance and individual almsgiving. It means care to deal truthfully with the political world, to wrest liberation from all systems of oppression and terror for women, for political prisoners, for those downtrodden because of race, class, or scarcity.


Like Luke, the Gospel of John begins from the communal memory of Jesus as a prophet sent by God, interpreting his mission as a second redemption that surpasses and fulfills the deeds done through Moses (cf. John 6:14). But "sent by God" has a new meaning for John's community: in this Gospel, Jesus is "the one who has come down from heaven to give life to the world" (6:33).

Again we turn to the end of the Gospel for the image of Jesus as this community encounters him. The last scene of the Gospel is the memorable encounter between Jesus and Thomas (20:24-29).(14) Three aspects of it are particularly evocative of the image of Jesus and the spiritual way of the Gospel.

First, Jesus' last words in the Gospel are a blessing on those who, unlike Thomas, believe without having seen (20:29) -- a blessing on the reader, a constant participant in the narrative, who cannot lay on Jesus Thomas's demand for assurance, and for whose benefit the Gospel is a written witness "that you may believe and have life" (20:31). Witness is of the first importance for this Gospel, which treats Jesus' career as a double trial in which Jesus and the world are judged before each other. But human rules of evidence do not apply, and "seeing' as a witness has at times a wider meaning than being an eyewitness to Jesus' life "from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up" (Acts 1:22). When the prologue proclaims "we have seen his glory" (1:14), or Jesus tells Nicodemus "what we have seen we attest" (3:11), the "we" who have seen appears to include not only the contemporaries of Jesus but also those blessed who believe without seeing. This is because the real witnesses are God and the Scriptures (5:37, 39), because ultimately "the spirit is the one who testifies" (1 John 5:6). The prophetic spirit is Jesus' bequest, the truth dwelling in the community and guiding them in all truth (16:23). If for Luke the spirit is the foundational experience of the glorious past, for John it is the living and unruly reality in which the community exists.

Secondly, the visual image of Jesus presenting his wounds to Thomas vividly illustrates the oneness of the cross and resurrection in the Gospel. Jesus ascends to the cross and the Father in one giant step from the noon of passover eve to the evening of the first day of the week. In John's view Jesus dies at the hands of the Romans because his death could not be by stoning; he had to be "lifted up" on the cross (3:14-15; 12:32-33; 18:32), to be glorified upon and through it (12:23). He is crucified still wearing the crown of thorns and purple cloak in which the soldiers mocked him; no one takes his life from him (10:17-18) but, proclaiming its fulfillment of God's work (19:30), he lays it down to take it up again. His presence in the community and the Gospel is a wounded glory that proceeds from the glorious cross.

Third, when Thomas cries, "My lord and my God," his profession of faith makes explicit the uniquely high Christology of the Gospel. Only in this scene and in the prologue is the word God used of Jesus. But the whole Gospel forces upon the reader the question "Where is he from?" and demands the answer that Jesus comes from and returns to God (13:3) as the "one who comes down from heaven to give life to the world" (3:13; 6:33). For this author Jesus is not like Moses, not like Jacob, but is like, or rather, is and is more than, the very life-stuff of salvation: God's bread (6:33, 35), water of life (4:14; 6:35), light of the world (8:12), true and living vine (15:1-6). The call to discipleship in this gospel is an invitation to a startlingly direct communion:

The one who comes to me will never hunger,
the one who believes in me will never thirst.
The one who chews on me will live by me. (6:35, 57)
This promise fulfills and transforms the many invitations of wisdom in the Hebrew and Greek Bible; Sir. 24:19-21 is a particularly good example:
Come to me you who desire me
and eat of my fruits,
For the remembrance of me is sweeter than honey
and my inheritance sweeter than the honeycomb.
Those who eat me will hunger for more,
those who drink of me will thirst for more.

Jesus in John, like wisdom in Sirach, is God's life-gift: that of God which we can take into ourselves, and like bread, like water, it becomes part of us. This sustenance is not a source to which we return constantly, like Torah in the wisdom tradition (cf. Sirach 24:23), but rather makes the believer a continuous source of life: "From the breast of the one who believes in me will flow rivers of living water" (7:37).

In the "Book of Signs" (John 1-12), John involves readers in this vision of Jesus and discipleship through a series of dramatic dialogues that use irony and symbolism to make readers a third party to the conversation, drawing upon our resources and evoking our response. The dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is particularly effective.

At noon, by Jacob's well (4:4-6) Jesus asks for water from one who is both a Samaritan and a woman (4:7, 9). This staging initiates a sustained contrast between the woman and Nicodemus, ruler of the Jews (3:1). He is learned and a teacher (3:10); she is suspect both as a woman and as a Samaritan (4:9). Jesus accosts her, whereas Nicodemus approached him (3:1-2). Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark; she arrives in the fullest light. This light places her with regard to the trial of the world. The end of Jesus' interview with Nicodemus defines the judgment: Jesus is the judge who judges no one (3:17; 5:27; 8:15; 12:48) but rather comes into the world as light (3:19; 12:46) and the world judges itself by responding: the one who does evil turns from the light; the one who acts in God turns toward it (3:20-21; cf. 18).

With the blind man of John 9, the Samaritan woman is the supreme example of the one who encounters Jesus emerging victoriously into light. By contrast with Nicodemus, who, despite his learning, is unable to rise to the level of Jesus' discourse, the Samaritan woman is led to new heights at every exchange. Jesus offers her water; and because he lacks the means to draw it, she skeptically asks the right question: "Are you greater than our father Jacob?" (4:12). "Yes," cries the reader. And Jesus makes the unrefusable offer: water that surpasses not only Jacob's well, but the Law's wisdom that it signifies: "Whoever drinks of the water I will give will never thirst again, but the water I will give will become in that one a spring of water springing up to eternal life" (4:14). When the woman asks for this water, she appears not to understand it (4:15). Yet when Jesus turns on her life what seems to us the harsh light of judgment, she is utterly illumined. "You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not yours" (4:18). We read this as an accusation, but for her it is an insight as deeply and sympathetically revelatory as Jesus' mysterious words are to Nathaniel (1:48-49). "Come and see one who told me everything I've ever done," she invites her co-citizens (4:29, 39). Now she responds to the light in Jesus: "I perceive you are a prophet" (4:19). She asks him the theological question between her people and his (4:20) and wrests from him the confession that he is both Messiah and "I am" (4:26). And when she returns to evangelize the city, she leaves behind her water jar, no longer needing to draw water in order to drink (4:28, 15). "From the heart of the one who believes in me," says Jesus of the spirit from which she has drunk, "flow rivers of living water" (7:36).


The Samaritan woman is the triumphant vindication of the prophetic spirit blowing where it will (3:8), a spirit that eludes the trained perceptions of Nicodemus (who ought to understand rebirth, as any rabbi would) and makes a theologian and missionary of so dubious a candidate. The contrast between the woman and the disciples in 4:27-43 is not the least startling aspect of this story. She undertakes missionary labor in the field of Samaria without any command from Jesus, while they are still unable to see "fields white for the harvest" (4:35).

In undertaking her mission, the Samaritan woman typifies the other women in John, all of whom, without, or even in spite of, Jesus' word, act to move events in the direction they must go. The Mother of Jesus initiates the sign of the wine at the wedding, ignoring Jesus' blunt response and preparing the waiters to carry out his behests (2:4-5). Martha, after her interview with Jesus, sends Mary to him with the words "the teacher is here and calls you" (11:28); although this does not seem to be true, it is one step along the way to Lazarus' resurrection. Mary foretells Jesus' death as she anoints him for messiahship, and Jesus defends her prophetic deed against Judas's envy (12:1-8). Mary Magdalen's unexplained visit to the tomb both sets the scene for the first resurrection appearance (20:11-18) and occasions Peter's and the beloved disciple's testimony to the empty tomb (20:2).

That these women act with at least the authority of the men around them argues the egalitarian, almost anarchic workings of the spirit of prophecy of the Johannine community.(15) The experience of the spirit is explained by this community through its accommodation of a theological tradition which encounters divinity in female form. In the poem in Sirach 24, Wisdom describes herself in ancient and powerful female imagery: vegetal imagery of tree, blossom, fruit, spices, flowering and fruitful vine (24:13-19); images of food, drink, water, and light (24:19-32). These are the very images (food, water, light, vine) on which John most dwells to describe Jesus and the spirit as God's life-gift. And as, in John, the believer whose breast flows with rivers of living water possesses an inward spring of life, so Sirach's sage becomes a source of wisdom:

I went like a canal from a river
and like a water channel into a garden.
I said "I will water my orchard
and drench my garden plot":
And lo, my canal became a river
and my river became a sea.
Thus, this Gospel, like Matthew's, is imbued with a spirituality of wisdom. But two factors in this version of wisdom contribute to the greater role women play in John. First, more of the female imagery of wisdom survives in this community's explanation of Jesus and the spirit. Secondly, the medium of wisdom in John is not the discipline of continual study in Jesus' presence, but a uniquely direct communion with Jesus. "Learn of me," says Jesus in Matthew (11:29), but "Eat of me," in John (6:57). In John's narrative, we watch the spirit elude learning and wisdom in the person of Nicodemus, to include the woman at the well, for whom, as for most women of her time, such credentials were unattainable. In John's version of wisdom, as in later more inclusive traditions like mysticism and the radical reformation, the ultimate authority is "God's inward word."

The Gospel of John also manifests one of the most disturbing problems generated by a spirituality and a theology based on God's inward word -- the problem of responsibility to those to whom that word is inaccessible. In this Gospel there is only one command, the command to love one another. It is made concrete only in the symbolic example of the footwashing (13:1-20) and its riches of intimacy and egalitarian regard are not guarded by the command to love one's enemies (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27; Rom. 12:14, 19-20). The assurance of God's inner word permits the violent tone of John's castigation of the Jews (see John 9-10)(16) and the bitter accusation that those who believe but differ from this community are children of the devil (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8-10, 15). John set a sorry pattern for later Christian dialogue over differences in faith.

Of recent years, the Christian women's movement, excluded so widely from the legitimations of degrees and orders, has turned to the traditions of God's inner word as a source of authority and spiritual strength. The wisdom spirituality of John provides both a scriptural background for this tradition and a series of powerful icons of female autonomy and of divinity in the image of woman that can be deeply nourishing for contemporary women and men. But it also warns us that reliance on God's inward word must be supplemented with the call to responsible dealing with the world that Luke transmits and with a commitment to learn continually of Jesus, to refuse to be fathers and teachers (Matt. 11:29; 23:8-10).

Thus in the four Gospels we find four invitations that complement and correct each other. Mark presents us with a radical call to find Jesus' utterly desolate death the emblem of our fate and our salvation. Matthew supplements this call by offering a way of wisdom through the discipline of learning from Jesus in his continual presence. John proclaims a communion in wisdom that is direct illumination, that affirms the inner truth of the heart. And Luke asserts Jesus' promise of release and God's demand of justice and responsibility to a broad and various people of God.

  1. 1 The authors of the Gospels are anonymous; the traditional names will be used here for convenience, but I shall avoid the use of the masculine pronouns to refer to the authors.
  2. The reflections to follow derive from the work of many others than myself. The lectures of Paul S. Minear and Rowan A. Greer were particularly influential, as were the following works: H. Conzelmann, The Theology of St. Luke (New York: Harper and Row, 1961); R. Bultmann, The Theology of the New Testament, vol. 2 (New York: Scribner, 1955); Constance H. Parvey "Women in the New Testament," Religion and Sexism, ed. R. Ruether (New York: Scribner, 1974), pp. 138-46. Thanks is also due to Margaret A. Farley for her interest and encouragement.
  3. Mark 16:9-20 is judged by most scholars to have been added by a later hand.
  4. Luke appears to have used at least the Gospel of Mark and a lost document composed of the sayings of Jesus and known as Q.
  5. Aner, the Greek word for "man" as male, or hero.
  6. The philosopher and miracle worker Appolonius of Tyana is an example.
  7. For Judaism as way, see Acts 13:10; on pagan ways, Acts 14:16.
  8. Luke appears to think of the ministry of Jesus as one year, as do Mark and Matthew. Only in John do three passovers imply a three year ministry.
  9. For Luke, "eating and drinking" characterize Jesus' ministry in contrast to Johns (7:33-34; cf. 5:30, 33; 10:7; 12:22, 29; 22:30): meal settings are of particular importance (7:36; 9:13, 17; 14:1) and the passion narrative includes a testamentary supper-discourse parallel to John 22:34-38.
  10. On the prophetic spirit and the status of women in the early church, see E. Schüssler Fiorenza, "Word, Spirit and Power: Women in Early Christian Communities," Women of Spirit, ed. R. Ruether and E. C. McLaughlin (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), pp. 29-70, and In Memory of Her (New York: Crossroads, 1983), pp. 294-305.
  11. 11 Thus Luke presents a less radical, though broader, picture of the participation of women in early Christianity than does Mark. For instance, when in Mark 14:1-11 a woman anoints Jesus' head, her deed is an act of prophecy, whereas in Luke 7:36-50, a woman anoints Jesus feet as an expression of penitent love. Mark describes women as disciples and ministers (15:40-41); Luke also mentions women who minister, but seems to limit their ministry to financial support of Jesus and the disciples (Luke 8:3), despite the fact that Luke knows of women missionaries (cf. Acts 18:2).
  12. Parvey, "Women in the New Testament," suggests that Luke's care to include stories about women results from the needs of the catechumenate: the stories are intended to instruct and involve the women converts among whom Christianity made an early headway in the imperial world. A similar motive appears in the selection of the later lectionary for the catechumenate. In the old Western lectionary, the gospels of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and the epistle of Saturday of the third week in Lent provide models for the women catechumens and penitents.
  13. 13 This verse is missing in many important manuscripts, but if it is an addition, it accurately interprets Luke's picture of Jesus.
  14. 14 Chapter 21 is an appendix about the career of Peter and the beloved disciple, probably added later by a disciple of the author.
  15. 15 On the egalitarian character of John's community, see Schüssler Fiorenza, Memory, pp. 323-34.
  16. 16 On tensions between John's community and the Jews in the text of John, see J. Louis Martyn, Theology and History in the Fourth Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979).