Thought for the day
According to the song, “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved in return.” In our better moments, we all know this to be the truth about our human being. For believers, it is no surprise that the very thing we need most stands at the centre of the Christian faith: God is love. The match between our need and God’s disclosure is perfect. If we took that really to heart, many things would change: our practice of prayer, our relationships, our joy in believing, our way of sharing our faith, our living of discipleship. All we need is love. The astonishing servant love of God in Jesus is exactly we most need.
You are love itself and yet we hesitate. Open our inner selves to your gracious loving, that we may ourselves as beloved and being loved we may learn to love in return. Amen.
John 13:31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him,a God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
The commandment to love God and your neighbour, taken from the Hebrew bible, is given by Jesus in Mark 12 as the “greatest commandment.” Our text today reflects the reception of this tradition in the Johannine community and literature, where it receives a unique profile.
Kind of writing
In the Fourth Gospel, chapters 14-17 belong to the literary genre of the final speech of the hero, his or her last will and testament. The farewell speech is well-established as a literary genre in the OT and the apocryphal books of the intertestamental period. There are numerous examples, like the blessings of Jacob to his children in Gen 47:29-49:33, the farewell of Joshua to the nation of Israel in Josh 22-24, and David’s farewell speech in 1 Chr 28-29. In the OT apocrypha we have the farewell speech of Tobit from his deathbed in Tobit 14:3-11. The entire Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is made up of farewell speeches patterned after Jacob’s in Genesis. The book of Jubilees gives farewell speeches for Noah (ch. 10), Abraham (chs. 20-22), and Rebecca and Isaac (chs. 35-36). Josephus includes a farewell address for Moses. In the NT, Paul makes a farewell speech to the elders at Ephesus in Acts 20:17-38, and the Pastoral Epistles in their entirety might be thought of as farewells, especially 2 Timothy. Correspondingly, 2 Peter is Peter’s farewell discourse.
The common situation in almost all of these instances is that of a prominent person who gathers his followers (children, disciples, or the entire nation of Israel) just before his death or departure to give them final instructions, which will help them after he is gone.
In our passage, Jesus speaks of his death (glorification in this Gospel) and how the “little children” are to love one another after he has gone. The material is Jn 14-17 is, of course, not historical but gives us the fruit of profound meditation on the deep meaning of Jesus, as disclosed to the Johannine community, through the great religious genius who was its founder and guide.
Old Testament background
There are three Old Testament backgrounds this passage.
(a) Glory refers to God’s presence in the Temple, which was both immanent (here and now) and transcendent (beyond). One example: Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Ex 40:34-35)
(b) Son of Man is a term taken from the book of Daniel where it refers not simply to a human being (the usual meaning) but to the agent of God’s final salvation to all humanity. In this sense, it was definitely used by the historical Jesus in reference to himself.
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a Son of Man (NRSV gets this wrong) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. (Dan 7:13)
(c) Love as the great commandment is given in Deuteronomy (the Shema Yisrael) and Leviticus: Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deut 6:4-5) You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord. (Lev 19:18)
All three references are significant: God’s glory is now shown in the final love of Jesus, in his lifting up on the cross into resurrection, making him the saviour; by his gift of himself we are enabled to love just as he loved.
New Testament foreground
(a) “To glorify” is used in the Fourth Gospel to refer to the revelation of God’s inner self, which will be brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus (his lifting up). As we saw above, the term can also mean God’s immanence and transcendence in the incarnate Word (who “tented among us”, whose “glory we have seen”). The hour of glory is announced by Jesus in John 12:23: Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
(b) The historical Jesus summarised the commandments into two, love of God and love of neighbour, in Mark 12:28-34 (||s in Matt 22:34-40 and Lk 10:25-28). This summary is echoed widely across New Testament documents. For example: “You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (James 2:8; several times in Paul).
(c) In the Fourth Gospel itself, the command to love is given high profile, so that it becomes really the only ethical requirement of the community (8-5-13-37). The formulation to love one another recurs in Jn 15:12, 17 and in 1Jn 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11-13; 2Jn 5.
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Romans 13:9)
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Gal 5:14)
Verse 31 The departure of Judas is the signal for a more direct and essential teaching to the disciples. Notice the past tense—we are dealing with a Johannine expression of faith from the end of first century ad. Jesus, the agent of God’s final salvation, has been lifted up on the cross (John 3) and in the lifting up, God’s own “glory”, his loving inner self was revealed.
Verse 32 The tense changes from the past (the point of view of the faith community) to the future (the point of view of Jesus’ giving his last will and testament). “At once” (only 3x in Jn) is used again at the cross: “at once, blood and water flowed out”.
Verse 33 “Little children”, a term taken from the Johannine community (x1 in John, here, and x7 in 1 John), is especially affectionate. “Looking for” Jesus has been a feature of this Gospel from the start. “Going”: cf. Jesus then said, “I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. You will search for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.” (John 7:33-34) Again he said to them, “I am going away, and you will search for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” (John 8:21)
Verse 34 New commandment: cf. Jn 15:12, 17. The writer knows this commandment is both new and old (from Deuteronomy and Leviticus): Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. (1 John 2:7-8)
It is old in its form. It is new in the Christian dispensation, because of the radical depth of love shown in Christ, which also makes the commandment (newly) possible in a absolutely new way. The tiny expression “just as” is vital here. As elsewhere in this Gospel (20:21), it means more than “on the model of Jesus”; rather, by means of Jesus’ loving us or on the strength of Jesus’ love, we are enabled to love as he loved.
Verse 35 The insistence on love as the distinguishing mark of the Christians is found extensively in the New Testament.
As is well known, there are three expressions for love in Greek: philia (friendship); eros (attraction between the sexes); agapē (unrestricted, indiscriminate seeking of the other’s well-being, without expectation of reward).
See Benedict XVI, God is Love. Agapē, the last above, is used in the New Testament in a distinctively Christian way.
Of course, behind the idealisation lies the reality that the Johannine community, full of tensions and splits, needed to hear this commandment again and again (as we do too)!
Pointers for prayer
1. Judas leaves and Jesus announces that the moment has come for God’s power to be made manifest. This is unexpected at a moment of imminent betrayal. Have there been times for you when the power of God was made manifest in strange circumstances?
2. ‘I shall not be with you much longer.’ Jesus announces a parting of the ways. There are places we have to go in life where others cannot come with us. There are places others have to go and we cannot accompany them. When have you experienced this going on alone as necessary for a fuller life for yourself, or for someone else?
3. Jesus proclaims love as the distinguishing characteristic of his followers. Have there been times when reaching out to others has heightened your sense of walking in the footsteps of Jesus?
4. Who are the individuals or communities whose love for one another and for others has been a witness to you?
We behold your glory, in the love shown by your Son, lifted up on the cross and exalted on high.
Increase our love for one another, that both in name and in truth we may be disciples of the risen Lord Jesus and so reflect in our lives the glory that is yours.
We ask this through Christ, the first-born from the dead, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.