You know the passage. Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
This passage from the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel is one of the most controversial passages in all of scripture. Conservatives tend to interpret this passage in an exclusive way. They claim it as a concrete truth statement that means if you don’t believe in Jesus you are going to hell, because there is no other way to the Father.
Liberals, on the other hand, tend to fear the passage’s truth statement about Jesus. They either ignore such passages or pull their hair out when reading them. Some liberals perform the Jiu Jitsu of post-modern biblical criticism. With the Jesus Seminar in mind, many liberal Christians will ignore this verse by claiming that Jesus probably never said anything like this. It was John who imposed these words on Jesus. That truth statement was a reflection of John’s issues, not the meek, mild, and humble Jesus.
Problems with Conservative and Liberal Interpretations
As a progressive Christian, I think Jesus was radically inclusive. A conservative interpretation of this passage that claims it excludes people from heaven has to deal with the whole passage. Just four verses earlier, Jesus stated, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” If Jesus wanted to be exclusive, he would have said, “There are very few rooms in my Father’s house. So, be sure you behave!” But Jesus didn’t reveal the scarcity of God’s generosity. Rather, Jesus revealed the abundance of God’s generous, all-inclusive love. Thus, an exclusive interpretation of Jesus statement that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life,” fails to incorporate the abundance of God that Jesus revealed. There are many rooms in God’s house.
And yet I can’t go along with liberal interpretations that fears the truth statement of the passage. I’m uncomfortable throwing out such verses. Even more, I believe in truth. Whether or not Jesus actually said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” I trust John’s Gospel enough to believe that the passage tells us something important about Jesus and his mission.
A Progressive Understanding – How is Jesus the Way, and the Truth, and the Life?
Jesus made the statement while having a conversation with his disciples. Jesus said to them:
…you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.
This passage is frequently called Jesus’ “farewell discourse” because, as the New Interpreter’s Bible explains, “it resembles the common literary form of the farewell or last testament of a famous man.” That matters because it answers Thomas’s question, “How can we know the way?”
Jesus is saying farewell to his disciples because he knows where the way, and the truth, and the life are leading him. He knows they are leading him to the cross.
Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life in a very particular way. It’s the way, and the truth, and the life of nonviolent love. As he was saying goodbye to his disciples, he was preparing them for his death. Jesus said, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Where was Jesus going? He was going to the cross. He was going to become the victim of human violence.
As James Alison states, Jesus was the Forgiving Victim. Instead of mimetically responding to violence with violence, Jesus did something different. He revealed that the way, the truth, and the life responds to those who killed him with all inclusive love, compassion, and forgiveness.
Progressive Christians need to reclaim this passage. It’s a truth claim, but it’s a truth claim that reveals the nonviolent and all-inclusive love of God that embraces everyone, even those we call our enemies.
After all, if you know the truth about the nonviolent love of Jesus, you will know the truth about the nonviolent love of his Father also. As Jesus said, “From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
That is the way, and the truth, and the life.
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