Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (18 March 2018)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (John 12:20–33 – NRSV)
This incident is unique to John. The express desire of “some Greeks” – perhaps suggesting the wider world beyond Judaism – to “see” Jesus, provides the occasion for Jesus to announce his Passover. That announcement contains some serious teaching for the disciples.
some Greeks: John could be referring to those Jews from the Diaspora who speak Greek. “They came to Philip” – Philip is a common Greek Name. The fact that there had been a translation of the Hebrew version of the Torah into Greek since the 3rd century, indicates what a significant group these Greek-speakers were. Legend has it that 72 Jewish scholars – six from each of the twelve tribes – were asked by the Greek King of Egypt, Ptolemy II, to produce a Greek text of the Torah. According to the legend, they took 72 days to do that. Whatever the truth in the legend, that text has come down to us as the Septuagint – from the Latin word Septuaginta, meaning “seventy”. Other books of the Hebrew Bible were translated in Greek later. St Paul – quoting from memory or text – always cites the Septuagint when he refers to the Old Testament.
The fact that they “went up to worship at the festival” suggests these Greek-speakers are practicing Jews. In John “the Jews” are hostile to Jesus. In fact, there is an extended section at the end of this very chapter in which Jesus berates “the Jews” for their lack of belief – see 12:37-50. However, these “Greeks” who are also Jews, do not invite a rebuff from Jesus.
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified: God’s glory is to be manifest in Jesus and through him and it is according to God’s timing. Thus Jesus says to Mary at the wedding feast in Cana, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” (2:4), to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming” (4:21), and John tells us that, when those who objected to his teaching, “tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come” (7:30) and similarly, “He spoke these words while he was teaching in the treasury of the temple, but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come” (8:20). In the Gospel today, the implication is that something momentous is about to be revealed – “the hour has come”. Up until now the references have been to something in the future. Now that changes. Thus we will hear Jesus say, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (12:27. See also 13:1 and 17:1). The hour is the revelation of God’s glory in and through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit: The manifestation of God’s glory is – shockingly – through Jesus’ death. “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die”. It is not enough to say that Jesus died just because he was a human being and all human beings will die. Nor is it enough to say he died because he got offside with those who wielded power. While there is a truth in each of these explanations, they do not help us understand the ultimate significance of Jesus’ death. Being authentically human is about being in the flesh – incarnation. And being in the flesh demands that we embrace fully our mortality – everyday, everywhere. The truth is, however, that death-denial seems to be a primitive force within us all. It is the source of sin in its many manifestations – selfishness, greed, hatred, violence, idolatry and all manner of death-dealing. We become victims and purveyors of the death we seek to evade. Excarnation seems to come more “naturally” than incarnation. Through him, with him and in him, the otherwise impossible journey of incarnation becomes possible.
“The real problem is the problem of death. If people don’t know how to come to terms with it, and souls have no preparation, then the only thing is to be eternally young and in pursuit of pleasure, and further sexual and hedonistic horizons.” (Saul Bellow, cited by J Howard, “Mr Bellow Considers his Planet,” Life, 68 (April 3 1970), 60.) The question of death and dying becomes even more challenging when we realize that dying and living are inextricably linked – throughout our days. “Death is not merely the biological incident that ends human life .... Whenever the concert is over, the meal is digested, or the career turns barren in one’s hands, a man experiences the quiet, disturbing fall from life to death.” (William F May, “The Sacral Power of Death in Human Experience” in A Mack, Death in Human Experience, Schocken, 1973, 101.)
We must die in order to live. That is a fundamental and unavoidable law of existence – for believers and non-believers alike. If we refuse the dying that our days ask of us, then we will simply die. For example, when the alarm goes off in the morning it is a moment of dying. You must leave behind your sleep and the comforts of your bed and step out into the new day. There is something in us all that resists such moments, even when we know they are a necessary part of living. That resistance – death resistance – can prompt us to evade our humanity. Death resistance contains the seeds of all that we call sin – deceit, greed, selfishness, impatience, envy, hatred, violence etc.
In the Eucharist we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes again. We are not masochists. We do not love suffering. We support medical science in its efforts to overcome disease and the pain it causes. We are however supreme realists. When science has done all it can do, there still remains what Bellow has called “the problem (or mystery) of death”. Do we see in death promise or threat, hope or despair? Do we reach for an analgesic – the most common perhaps being the urge to control – or do we respond in faith?
“Christianity forbids us to reach for an analgesic in such a way that we are no longer willing to drink the chalice of the death of this existence with Jesus Christ. And to this extent there is no doubt that in living out its Christian existence Christianity is required to say in an absolute and sober realism: yes, this existence is incomprehensible, for it passes through something incomprehensible in which all of our comprehending is taken from us. It passes through death.” (Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, New York: A Crossroad Book, 1978, 404)
Jesus’ Cross means that dying – throughout our days – is not to be feared. It is a place of encounter. It is a birth canal. Through our daily dying we are born again.