Last Sunday’s Gospel about the raising of Lazarus points to a supreme irony in the Gospel of John: Jesus’ very act of raising Lazarus from the dead confirms the Jewish temple leaders in their conviction to kill Him. The contrast could not be clearer. Jesus, who brings life, is opposed by the death-dealing conviction of His opponents. This is but one example of Johannine irony serving to highlight the differences between Jesus and His opponents.
As we approach Holy Week we encounter a lot of contrasts and ironies in John’s Gospel account of the Passion. We do well to look at some of them.
Irony is a literary technique that highlights a striking difference between two or more situations; this difference is known by the audience or readers while the characters in the narrative are unaware.
Another form of irony uses words to express something quite different from their typical meaning. A blind man may “see” better than those with vision. One considered a teacher may be ignorant of truths apparent to the most unlearned and simple of people.
The irony in the story of Lazarus comes several verses after the portion we read this past Sunday. The pertinent passage reads,
Therefore, many of the Jews who had come to Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in Him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” Caiaphas did not say this on his own. Instead, as high priest that year, he was prophesying that Jesus would die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also for the scattered children of God, to gather them together into one. So from that day on they plotted to kill Him. As a result, Jesus no longer went about publicly among the Jews, but He withdrew to a town called Ephraim in an area near the wilderness. And He stayed there with the disciples (John 11:45-54).
Yes, this passage is dripping with irony. The occasion of Jesus raising a man from the dead causes the Pharisees to plot His death. He who gives life must be put to death.
A second irony is that Caiaphas “accidentally” speaks the truth. He conspires in murder, but his office of prophet remains! He cannot help but speak the truth because he is High Priest. His prophecy is true, but only in a way very different from what he intends. He is like Balaam’s donkey, which spoke the truth, but as a beast, knew not of what it spoke. Thus Caiaphas is a prophet, but only in an accidental, unknowing way.
Yes, John’s Gospel is rich with irony—in a gleeful, sharp, sarcastic way. We human beings are prone to becoming fodder for irony because we are so fickly and inconsistent; we often play into divine plans even as we resist them!
Consider some other examples of Johannine irony:
I. Straining gnats and swallowing camels – Jesus has been brought before Pilate on trumped up charges. Yes, they have an innocent man on trial and conspire to have him murdered. Yet despite this wickedness, John reports, the Jewish leaders did not enter the Praetorium [the Governor’s palace] to avoid being defiled and unable to eat the Passover (Jn 18:28).
They are more concerned with the ritual impurity of entering the house of a Gentile than the fact that they are conspiring to murder an innocent man (who happens to be the Son of God)!
Yes, this is dripping with irony, a kind of sarcastic and tragic irony. In their foolishness and blindness, they will consider themselves worthy to eat the Passover because they did not enter the house of a Gentile. Never mind that they have conspired to murder an innocent man.
II. Who is really blind here? – In the story of the man born blind (John 9) there are numerous ironies. The blind man himself says to the Pharisees who interrogate him, That is remarkable indeed! You do not know where He is from, and yet He opened my eyes (Jn 9:30). In other words, who is really the blind one here? Why should the student have to teach the teacher?
The blind man (who ironically can now see better than the supposed teachers and enlightened ones) instructs them of what they should know: Never before has anyone heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, He could not do anything like this (Jn 9:32-33).
Jesus later doubles down on the irony by declaring, within earshot of the religious leaders, For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind may see and those who see may become blind (Jn 9:39). They then continue, foolishly and blindly, to take the bait: Some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard this, and they asked Him, “Are we blind too?” “If you were blind,” Jesus replied, “you would not be guilty of sin. But since you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (Jn 9:40-41).
The caustic irony cannot be missed. The rhetorical question remains, “Who is really blind here?”
III. The “enlightened” ones stumble about in the dark – One of the themes in John’s Gospel is the battle between light and darkness. This theme is announced in the prologue: The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn 1:5). Jesus is the Light of the World, but men have shown that they prefer the darkness due to their wickedness (See John 3:19).
Jesus also says, Are there not twelve hours of daylight? If anyone walks in the daytime, he will not stumble, because he sees by the light of this world. But if anyone walks at night, he will stumble, because he has no light (Jn 11:9).
When Judas leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus, John merely says, “It was night.” He is not just telling us the time of day. Darkness now has its hour. Although Judas and his conspirators consider Jesus misguided and dangerous, they think that they are the enlightened ones, knowing better than Jesus, who is the true Light.
Here comes the irony: Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane. He and His apostles made it there by the light of Passover moon and because Jesus is the light of the World. In a scene dripping with irony, John notes that as Judas approached the moonlit garden he brought a band of soldiers and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees. They arrived at the garden carrying lanterns, torches, and weapons (John 18:3). Yes, they stumble about on a moonlit night needing torches and lanterns to find their way.
IV. The arresters are arrested – Jesus, knowing their intentions and noting that they have trouble seeing, stepped forward and asked them, “Who are you looking for?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they answered. Jesus said, “I AM.” And Judas His betrayer was standing there with them. When Jesus said, “I AM” they drew back and fell to the ground (Jn 18:4-6).
This is a kind of comedic irony. Sent to arrest Jesus, they are arrested by Him! The implication is that He almost needs to help them up from their fall. They are so overwhelmed by the authority of Jesus and His Divine Name that they fall backwards to the ground.
Some argue that their falling to the ground is a voluntary sign of reverence for the Divine Name. Maybe, but if so, then this is merely another supreme irony: that they would show reverence for the Divine Name while at the same time assisting in an act of betrayal and in the arresting of an innocent man.
V. The decider is indecisive – The description of the trial before Pilate in John’s Gospel is an ironic portrait of Pilate. Though possessed of great local power and the ability to decide Jesus’ fate in a way that will be unquestioned, Pilate is weak and vacillating. He is this way because of his ambition. He fears the crowd and their capacity to riot. Such an occurrence would be a huge blot on his record and likely prevent his future advancement.
Deep within his conscience, Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent of the charges. He correctly suspects that the Jewish leadership has brought Him up for unjust reasons and are serving their own interests more so than justice or religious conviction.
In chapters 18 and 19, John paints a physical picture of Pilate’s vacillation by describing his going in and out of the Praetorium (Governor’s palace) numerous times. In 18:28, Pilate goes out to address the Jews. In 18:33 He goes back into the Praetorium to speak with Jesus. In 18:38, Pilate goes back out to the Jews to say that he finds no guilt and tries to negotiate Jesus’ release. In 19:1, Pilate is back in the Praetorium and yet another compromise indicates that Jesus should be scourged but not killed. In 19:4, Pilate goes back out to the Jews hoping that the scourging of Jesus will have satisfied them. Though he said he had found no guilt in Jesus, he presents Him again after His scourging! Why have Jesus scourged (a terrible punishment) if he found no guilt in Him? Of course the Jewish leaders were still not satisfied and demanded Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate’s fears grow and in 19:9 he goes back into the Praetorium to speak yet again with Jesus. Although Pilate asserts that he has the power to kill or release Him, Jesus looks at this deflated and fearful man and reminds him that he would have no power at all if God had not bestowed it on him. Finally, Pilate emerges one last time in 19:13 and in anger violates his own conscience and hands Jesus over to be crucified.
The dramatic irony is hard to miss. Here is a seemingly powerful man with the office to decide life or death, yet indecisive. He is a vacillator, swaying in the breeze of public opinion. On seven different occasions he goes into or out of the Praetorium. John’s portrait of this leader is dripping with irony. Pilate is more a follower than a leader.
VI. The judge is put on trial – John describes another irony within this irony. Although Jesus is on trial, at a key point He turns the tables on Pilate and it is Pilate who is on trial.
Usually in a trial the defendant is required to answer questions. Pilate begins by asking, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Jn 18:33) Jesus turns the tables on Pilate and asks him, “Are you saying this on your own, or did others tell you about Me?” (Jn 18:34) Later, when Pilate asserts his authority to pass sentence on Jesus, Jesus reminds him that he would have no authority if God had not granted it to him.
Finally, when the critical moment to pass judgment comes, John writes, When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and he sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (Jon 19:13). The Greek text is ambiguous as to who is sitting on the judge’s seat. Does the “he” who sat down on the judge’s seat refer to Pilate or to Jesus? Historically, it was Pilate who sat in the judge’s seat, but grammatically it is ambiguous.
John underscores the irony: Who is really being judged here? Clearly it is actually Pilate who has come under judgment for violating his conscience and succumbing to fear. Yes, it is another dramatic irony wrapped in a grammatical ambiguity.
There are other ironies in John’s Gospel (such as Nicodemus, the enlightened teacher who comes to Jesus by night but needs to be taught Jn 3:10), but allow these examples to suffice.
The use and uncovering of irony is a memorable way to teach. John and the Holy Spirit who inspired him do not hesitate to make use of it. Ultimately, irony exists because we human beings are fickle and often pretentious. Such qualities are the fuel of irony.