[Joy Clement Daniel is a PhD candidate in the School of Intercultural Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, focusing his research on “Mission to the Children.” Johnson Thomaskutty is Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India, and currently a Global Research Institute Writing Scholar at Fuller.]
Question # One: Why are children absent in the pages of the Gospel of John in comparison to the Synoptic Gospels?
The Gospel of John is written from an entirely different point of view. While the Synoptic evangelists capture the story of Jesus from once upon a time point of view John captures it from once before time point of view. Due to this fact, John does not include the genealogy and the infancy narratives of Jesus. The following points are significant to note in this regard: first, while the Synoptic evangelists portray several stories related to children (infancy of both John the Baptist and Jesus and many other stories) John speaks about children from an entirely different perspective, i.e., children as eternal followers of Jesus/God; second, while the first three gospels use the expression Kingdom of God, i.e., a political metaphor, to delineate the relationship between God the King and His subjects, John uses eternal life, i.e., a filial metaphor, to decipher the Father and children relationship; third, while the Synoptic evangelists unravel the King-and-subjects relationship by way of a horizontal eschatology where the vertical aspects are presented in subsidiary fashion, the Fourth Evangelist brings to the fore a Father-and-children relationship in a vertical eschatological fashion where the horizontal aspects are subsidiary; and fourth, while the first three evangelists look at the story of Jesus mostly from a resurrection (and also historical) point of view and arrive at their conclusions on the basis of literal happenings (and literal children in the process), John unlock the events mostly from a post-resurrection point of view (and also merges history with theology) and arrives at his conclusions on the basis of both literal happenings and the ideological brainstorming (and hence children are more a kind of ideological construct). The above differentiation might help us to understand John’s view of children as a more developed and ideologically inclined one.
Question # Two: Marianne Meye Thompson develops her thesis on a metaphor ‘Children of God’ to better understand children in the Gospel of John. She portrays ‘children of God’ as a lived out identity in the world in reference to messianic community with social consequences than a spiritual status which is the traditional way of understanding it. This community is a new family that becomes a point of identity for those who are children of God and called to be an identity for all who are created by God. What is your view about it?
What Marianne Meye Thompson proposes in her article (“Children in the Gospel of John.” The Child in the Bible. Edited by Bunge, M.J. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008: 195-214) looks like a good model as far as my knowledge is concerned. By placing the theme of life at the center of the Fourth Gospel Thompson beautifully foregrounds the relationship between God the Father and his children. She emphasizes the following expressions with greater theological significance in the process of interpreting the Fourth Gospel: first, children in John are “any and all persons as children of God”; second, they are “reborn as children of God”; third, their identity as “being in the eternal life experience”; fourth, as a “new nascent messianic community”; and fifth, they are ultimately a “new community.” When Louis Martyn (History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel. Nashville: Abingdon, 1968) was suggesting that the Gospel of John as a two-level drama, he was in reality unlocking something intriguing. At the first level of the drama, the story revolves around Jesus, the child par excellence, as a paradigm for humanity in relation to God the Father. At the second level of the drama, the same is expected from the children of God as they are a model community following the grand model of Jesus the eternal child of God. Johannine community as the children of God differs in several ways from other communities including the Qumran community. While the Qumran community adopted a rhetoric of distance, John’s community accepted a rhetoric of difference. It further suggests that Johannine community, as Marianne Meye Thompson suggests, “a lived out identity in the world in reference to messianic community with social consequences.” I may re-emphasize the following things for clarity: first, Johannine narrator presents Jesus himself as a paradigm of God’s child; second, the community of John was expected to adopt the Father/God-and-Son/Jesus relationship as their esteemed model in this world; third, the world can follow the model of the children of God/Johannine community that was shaped by the ideologies of Jesus the child of God; and fourth, while those who accept this model are considered as “children of light,” those who do not accept are considered as “children of darkness.” Thus, John suggests a model that can be appropriated through people’s acceptance or rejection.
Question # Three: In your understanding of the Gospel of John what other imageries or metaphors are useful to understand this Gospel with special reference to children and childhood?
The Gospel of John is a gospel of symbolism and metaphorical expressions. A reader who reads the text with external eyes may not really get the deep-rooted and polyvalent meanings of the text. I see the theme of water runs all through the gospel with an indication about the children of God, i.e., born with water (3:5), drinking the water Jesus provides to be part of the new community (4:13-14; 7:37-38), and being part of the family of God through the water (7:7; and also possibly in 5:2). In all these occasions Jesus uses water as a symbol of regeneration, new identification, and transformation to be children of God. The newness motif of the gospel further clarifies several things: first, the theme of new wine (as ‘new joy’; 2:9-10); second, new temple (as ‘new identity’; 2:19-21); third, new birth (as ‘new beginning’; 3:3); fourth, new water (as ‘new worship’; 4:13-14); fifth, new life (as ‘new faith development’; 4:46-54); sixth, new bread (as ‘new perspective’; 6:25-51); and seventh, new light (as ‘new sight’; 9:5, 41). The introduction of Jesus as the new Moses, new manna, and the new exodus motif (6:16-21) bring to the fore some of the significant aspects of the gospel. All these themes are introduced in relation to becoming the children of God and being part of the messianic community. Jesus offers everything new to those who approach him by faith. Thus, children of God are a new community and they are the children of light.
Question # Four: I know that you had been involved in ministry to the children in your early years. What is the point of attraction of this Gospel to the children and how they can be brought to this Gospel? Would you like to prefer few stories or chapters for Sunday school teachers or child development workers?
The main attraction of John to the children is its theme of life. The Fourth Gospel is a Gospel of life. Jesus came to give life in abundance. This theme has to be foregrounded when we approach the Sunday school children. In my early years, especially as a Sunday school student from the age three and later on as a Sunday school teacher from the age fifteen, I was attracted to the Fourth Gospel mainly because of this theme. From that point of view, I look at two stories in the gospel with keen attention: first, the story of the Samaritan woman and her faith reactions and gradual growth as a child of God (4:1-26); and second, the story of the blind man turned healed and his faith and commitment as a newly added member of the community of John (9:1-41). God’s love for the world and the provision of eternal life are to be expounded further by keeping the Sunday school children at focus.
Compiled by: Joy Clement Daniel and Johnson Thomaskutty