A divine treasure is hidden
A reflection on the gospel for the 5th Sunday of Lent by Dries van den Akker SJ
John 12: 20-33
20 Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.21 These approached Philip, who came from Bethsaida in Galilee,and put this request to him, 'Sir, we should like to see Jesus.'22 Philip went to tell Andrew, and Andrew and Philip together went to tell Jesus.23 Jesus replied to them: Now the hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified.24 In all truth I tell you, unless a wheat grain falls into the earth and dies,it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest.25 Anyone who loves his life loses it;anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.26 Whoever serves me, must follow me,and my servant will be with me wherever I am.If anyone serves me, my Father will honour him.27 Now my soul is troubled.What shall I say: Father, save me from this hour?But it is for this very reason that I have come to this hour.28 Father, glorify your name!A voice came from heaven, 'I have glorified it, and I will again glorify it.'29 The crowd standing by, who heard this, said it was a clap of thunder;others said, 'It was an angel speaking to him.'30 Jesus answered, 'It was not for my sake that this voice came, but for yours.31 'Now sentence is being passed on this world;now the prince of this world is to be driven out.32 And when I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself.'33 By these words he indicated the kind of death he would die.
Just before the text of today’s gospel, we heard that the Jewish Passover was drawing near (11:55). That is the third time in John’s gospel we hear it. The first time was in 2:13; the second in 6:4 and here the third. The tradition says that Jesus’ Public Life lasted three years. This opinion is based on these three Passovers, enumerated in John’s gospel. So, this Passover will be the last one. And everybody who knows something of Jesus’ life realises what that means. His passion, death and resurrection come nearer. So, the text fits very well with the fifth Sunday of Lent, the last week before the Holy Week.
Just before today’s text we hear how Jesus enters Jerusalem. The people who came to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast are shouting: ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord...’ A citation from Psalm 118. But then Jesus ‘finds’ a donkey. And mounted on that donkey he enters into Jerusalem. As did a long time ago the son of David, Solomon (1 Kings 1:38-41)! And as the prophet Zechariah announced (9:9-10): ‘Rejoice, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is approaching, he is vindicated and victorious, humble and riding a donkey...’ The climax of the first part of John’s gospel.
Jesus enters into Jerusalem on a donkey as Salomon once did and as Zechariah announced. To emphasize the meaning of this event the artist gave Jesus a crown. At the same time the dark background strikes us... and the loneliness of Jesus.1960, Taizé, Reconciliation Church
The first part of John’s gospel runs from the 1st until the 12th chapter inclusive. John tells of some important moments (anecdotes) of Jesus’ life. He calls them ‘signs’. We are invited to discern the divine inside of Jesus’ person through the outside of the ‘signs’. The last ‘sign’ was that Jesus called the dead Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead (cf. 12:17-18). This sign can be considered as a reflection of Jesus’ own resurrection. Thus the first part is coming to an end. That is confirmed by the fact that some Greeks want to see Jesus. Greeks are people from outside the country; non-Jews, pagans. Although John doesn’t use the word ‘sign’ here, it can be considered as the ultimate sign. His kingdom transgresses the frontiers of his own people. That makes Jesus say, ‘Now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’
The Greeks come to the apostle Philip. And Philip goes to Andrew. The names of these two apostles remind us of the beginning of John’s gospel. Andrew was the first who met Jesus (1:40). Philip is the third one (1:43-44). These two apostles are a frame around the first part of John’s gospel. There is another frame as well. The word ‘king’. It sounds in the prophecy of Zechariah (12:15) and we heard it for the first time, when Nathanael says to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God, the King of Israel’ (1:49). In the meantime there is one other occasion when we hear the word ‘king’. After the multiplication of bread, the people wanted to make Jesus king, but he withdrew into the mountains... (6:15). But now is the moment. Jesus is king, and the pagans want to see him. The moment of his ‘glorification’ has come.
No, not the moment..., the ‘hour’ has come! Another frame. The first time we hear about Jesus’ hour in John’s gospel is at the wedding of Cana, when his mother says to him, ‘They have no wine.’ Jesus answers (2:4), ‘My hour has not come yet.’ But now - while the Greeks ask to see Jesus - now Jesus says, ‘The hour has come.’
2. To see Jesus
The Greeks say to Philip, ‘We should like to see Jesus.’ Philip goes to Andrew. The word ‘see’ occurs many times in John’s gospel. But in connection with Andrew it gets a special meaning. For in the beginning of the gospel we hear how Andrew and another disciple of John the Baptist follow Jesus. He asks them, ‘What do you want?’ They answer, ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’ And Jesus reacts, ‘Come and see.’ What happens during that visit at Jesus’ place we don’t know. But when Andrew comes back from that visit he says to his brother Simon Peter, ‘We have found the Messiah.’ What did he ‘see’ in the meantime? I try to imagine: what should I have had to see to make me say that I saw the Messiah? What did Andrew and his companion actually see? At any rate they ‘saw’ that Jesus was the Messiah. However, now there are Greeks who want to ‘see’ Jesus...!
Greeks want to see Jesus. The artist places Jesus in the centre. Symmetrically surrounded by three men at his right (two of them must be Andreas and Philippus), and three at his left, the Greeks. Here represented as medieval knights; one of them seems to be a clergyman. 1860, Belgium, Oudenaerde, St Walburga
Again we will not hear what they saw; we don’t even hear if the Greeks - after their visit to Jesus - came to the same conclusion as Andrew in the beginning. It is not told..., unless..., unless the following story tells what the Greeks saw: Jesus’ Last Supper, his Passion, Death and Resurrection. In that case John makes us, readers and listeners, those Greeks. Reading these stories, we see what the Greeks saw.
The hour of glorification
When Jesus hears about the Greeks, he reacts, ‘Now the hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified.’ The glorification means Jesus’ passion and death. Of course, beyond his passion and death there will be glorification. But that takes place on the invisible side of our existence. Visible will be his passion and death. On the outside there is defeat and destruction. But on the inside... In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus already announced the way he was to die (3,14): he would be lifted up. An ambiguous image. On the outside he would be lifted up on the cross, just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert. Everybody who looks up to him will be saved. What do they see? A man tortured to death. Why? Because he preached forgiveness and love for everybody, especially for the sinners and for those who don’t deserve love. Love is stronger than punishment and vengeance. Love is ‘higher’ than any evil and the power of death. That is what Jesus on the cross means. He was ‘grace upon grace’ during his lifetime (1:16-17). He remains ‘grace upon grace’ even when it hurts painfully; even when it costs him his life. So on the outside: passion, torture, death. But on the inside: the victory of love.
The sign of the grain
Jesus finds a beautiful parable for this mystery, ‘Unless a wheat grain falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain.’ So to speak, it will not offer the richness which is inside it. ‘But if it dies it yields a rich harvest.’ If it dies it will offer its richness which is inside. Invisible on the outside as long as it is a wheat grain which is not buried in the earth.
We remember that John spoke about the ‘signs’ of Jesus. These were acts Jesus performed the ultimate ‘sign’.
The parable of the grain perfectly explains Jesus’ following words, ‘Anyone who loves his life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world -will keep it for eternal life.’ The grain was ready to do for what it was destined. To die in the earth and, in doing so, yield fruit. No dying, no fruit. Let us not forget that Jesus talks about grace and love. Love and grace may mean hurt and torment, may even kill. But then will be revealed the divine life that is hidden on the inside of love and grace. The faith Jesus had to live according to this philosophy of life. That is why John admires him. Almost beyond human measures. Exactly. That is why John concludes that Jesus came from heaven. That he contemplated this mystery in heaven in Jesus’ former life beside God the Father. That is why John can tell that Jesus entered his passion and death with sovereignty.
Love and hate
‘Anyone who hates his life...’ (12:25). To our ears, the word ‘hates’ may sound exaggerated. But in the biblical culture, people thought according to the two ways model. There is either love or hatred. Nothing in between. No nuances. There is either life or death. Remember Moses who said to his people (Deuteronomy 30:15), ‘I am offering you life and prosperity, death and disaster.’ Two ways model. Listen to Psalm 1: ‘How blessed is anyone who rejects the advice of the wicked...; but who delights in the law of YHWH. How different the wicked; how different.’ Again two ways model. No nuances. Or remember Jesus’ words (Matthew 06,24), ‘No one can be the slave of two masters: he will either hate the first and love the second, or be attached to the first and despise the second...’
In the words we heard, a surprise is hidden. Jesus advises his followers to go the same way as that he does, ‘to hate one’s life here on earth to keep it for eternal life.’ Does Jesus suggest that in us the same mystery is hidden that was/is in him? That our lives are a ‘sign’ just as his life was/is? That inside us a treasure is hidden which is waiting to be revealed?
His next words seem to confirm this assumption, ‘Whoever serves me, must follow me, and my servant will be with me wherever I am.’
‘Now my soul is troubled’ (12:27). After all these lofty emotions back to earth. We are talking about the upcoming suffering. For a moment the human nature of Jesus is speaking. We hear the same word ‘troubled’ when Jesus is confronted with the mourning people around the deceased Lazarus (11,33): there too, he is ‘troubled in himself’. And when he sent Judas away, ‘Jesus was troubled in the spirit...’ (13,21). And when he foretells Peter that he will deny him, ‘Don’t let your heart be troubled!’ (14,01).
But perhaps Jesus’ words are not so down to earth as we might think. These words are a citation of the Greek translation of Psalm 06,04, ‘My soul is deeply troubled.’ So, even in this human moment Jesus is fulfilling the scriptures.
‘Shall I say, “Father save me from this hour?”’ We remember that the other evangelists write how Jesus was in anguish in the garden of Gethsemane. And that he prayed, ‘Father, if possible, take this cup away from me. But let it be as you, not I would have it.’
John places this prayer in a totally different context. Of course, there is a human nature in Jesus, which feels as every human being. In this moment: fear for what will come up. But at the same time it will be the heart of his mission. To show that God’s love continues even in the most horrible and fiendish circumstances. In this way he will glorify the Father, and the Father will glorify him by doing as such.
Jesus calls this moment ‘the last crisis’, the ultimate separation between good and evil. The ‘good’ will be stronger than the evil. Jesus calls it ‘that the prince of this world is driven out.’ ‘And when I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all the people to myself.’ Nothing less than that: ‘All the people’! You and me too. All the people are invited to come and see how they are loved. Consequence of the question of the Greeks who wanted to ‘see’ Jesus.
John closes this fragment beautifully, ‘By these words he ‘signified’(!) the kind of death he would die’ (12,33). We remember how the acts Jesus performed were meant to be a ‘sign’. Now these words are a ‘sign’ as well. In these human words a divine treasure is hidden.
‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself’ (12,32). The artist places the baptism by Saint Peter between the people who are drawn to Jesus and the way up to Jesus.10th century, handwriting illumination. Germany, Bamberg, Staatliche Bibliothek