An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B, John 12:20-33, March 25, 2012
BY NATURE WE recoil at the thought of death and love life. Under normal circumstances, we all wish to avoid death; in fact, in face of sickness and threats of death, we seek to prolong our life. Normally, we try to escape suffering. When ill, we seek immediate healing. We all dread death. We fear extinction. That is why, striken with terminal cancer, for example, people are terrified; they feel shattered. They are horrified at the thought of dying. The reason for all this is that, consciously or unconsciously, we all wish to live forever. This is true even of those who do not believe in God. There is no untruth to the observation that faced with the fact that death is inevitable, many people, often without explicitly intending to, immortalize themselves through various ways. Some write books. Others erect monuments. Still others sire children. To live forever is innate to human nature.
In today’s Gospel (John 12:20-33), Jesus was confronted with death. And John does not hide Jesus’ horror over it: “My soul is troubled now” (John 12:27). Which echoes Mark’s portrait of Jesus’ agony: “My heart is filled with sorrow to the point of death (Mark 14:34). Of course, John does not have an account of Jesus’ agony in the garden, unlike the Synoptics, but the anguish and other elements of his agony are found in the Gospel. The statement, “what can I say? Save me from this hour” (v 27), really conveys the inner tension which Jesus suffers. This, of course, is quite ironic, even paradoxical, because when he came, Jesus went about doing good, healing all who were in the grip of the devil (Acts 10:38). But when the Devil turned to him, he could not free himself from his grip. Thus his prayer, “save me” (John 12:27b). He prayed to be freed from the hour of his passion.
The point of the passage is this. Though Jesus cannot be saved from the hour, he triumphed over the natural shrinking from the horror of passion and death. The reason for this is that “it was for the purpose of bringing salvation that he came” (v 27d), and this can be achieved only through suffering. He brought salvation because he obediently accepted the cross. Far from doing his own will (see Mark 14:36), he clung to God, for he was all that mattered. On account of this, salvation--or, in John’s vocabulary, life--became possible. Thus Reading II: “In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to God, who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and when perfected, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”(Heb 5:7-9). Also, by his suffering, Jesus showed to people who God is: God fulfills his promise of a new covenant (Jer 31:34, Reading I) to people who are the beneficiaries of his Jesus’ suffering.
This truth of salvation is akin to the situation of a woman in labor. The first time she is about to give birth, a woman is gripped by fear, even by the fear of dying, but the thought of her husband whom she loves and who loves her, and her baby, makes her undergo through it all. She at first may recoil at it; nonetheless, she submits to it. But through her labor, a new life is ushered in to the world. A baby is born.
The same may be said of our life as Christians. To find eternal life, we need to undergo constant dying. We die to our selfishness, to our ambition to dominate others, acquire enormous wealth, and be number one. To do this, of course, is not easy because, earthbound as we are, we tend to attach so much importance to self and its selfish cravings for power, wealth and honor. But in the long run, we find that these do not guarantee happiness, nor is one able to cling to power, wealth and honor forever. In the end, we discover that these have to go, leaving us disillusioned. There is much truth to Jesus’ saying that “whoever would preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will find it”(Mark 8:33). As a Christian, one has to suffer, even die, for Christ and his body the Church. Then, new life will surely sprout. “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit”(John 12:24-25). That is enough guarantee that one will live forever. Books can burn, monuments can crumble, generation can be obliterated, but the life that comes from suffering for the Gospel is the only thing that will remain forever.