An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C, John 13:31-35, April 28, 2013
EVERY TIME A new Philippine president assumes office, he delivers an inaugural speech. In that speech, he normally gives us an inkling into a world of experience which he envisions for his country. The current occupant of Malacañang, for instance, has his “Tuwid na Landas at Mas Magandang Kinabukasan”. Former President Joseph Estrada is remembered for his “walang kamag-anak, walang kumpare, walang kaibigan,” meant to underline the pro-poor and pro-powerless stance of his administration, although almost everybody knows that this was not exactly what came off in the end. Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had her own vision, too, of good governance, transparency and option for the poor. Vision such as this is meant, among others, to define the society that a president tries to achieve. In pursuit of this, his lawmakers pass laws meant to regulate the relationships among the people in accord with the articulated vision.
We often say that Jesus came to establish a new order: the Kingdom of God. But what is to regulate this order? In his farewell discourse at the Last Supper, the Johannine Jesus gave his disciples a “new” commandment to govern the relationships among Christians: “Love one another” (John 13:34). This injunction is one of the mysteries that the Church liturgy celebrates on Holy Thursday. In fact, the first word in “Maundy Thursday” derives from the Latin term, mandatum, which is rendered “command” in English. Surprisingly, though, the injunction of love is rather ancient: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). In the synoptic gospels (Mark 12:28), Jesus is depicted as combining it with the Shemma (Deut 6:4) to specify the greatest commandment. But what is new in that law? Other interpreters and preachers argue that the commandment of love is new because, unlike the Old Testament injunction in which the standard of loving is the self (“as you love yourself”), in the New Testament, the norm of loving is the way Jesus loved (“as I have loved you”). Its newness flows from the way Jesus loved on the basis of which our love must be compared. Nothing, however, is farther from the truth.
To be sure, it may be well to recall that in the Old Testament, God established a covenant with Israel. The covenant entered into by the people of Israel with him may be summed up in the formula: “I will be your God and you shall be my people” (Jer 7:23b). In their response to that covenant through which they were constituted as his own people, redeemed from the slavery of Egypt, God gave them the law to observe. Now, by his whole life, but specially his passion, death and resurrection, Jesus initiated a new order. By his self-giving and rising to new life, he established the era of the new covenant. This teaching forms an integral part of the Last Supper tradition that finds a very explicit statement in Luke: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you” (Luke 22:20b). Which brings to mind Moses’ words in the ratification of the old covenant: “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with these words of his” (Exod 24:8). And what is the place of the new commandment of love in this new covenant? Just as the Torah or the law served as the response of the people of Israel to the old covenant, so the commandment of love embodies the new response of the renewed community of God—the Church—to his redemptive offer of the new covenant in Jesus.
In effect, if the 613 commandments—not just 10, by the way—of God regulated the life of God’s people under the old covenant, so the command of brotherly love is the rule of life of the community of brothers and sisters in Jesus. It regulates the relationship among those who were born from the side of Jesus’ resurrection. In John, the most decisive, distinctive mark of Christian discipleship, which sets Christianity from other world religions or humanisms, is not so much doctrinal characteristics as fraternal love. “This is how all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another” (John 13:35). It is also the Christian epiphany to the world. Christ is no longer physically present among us, but the evidence that he is alive is the love that fills up the Christian community. (Infrastructural projects are not an evidence of Christ’s presence in the parish.) And as such, the brotherly love injunction ceases to be a commandment. It really becomes a way of life that characterizes the community of disciples. It pervades the community, formed by individuals of new heart and new spirit, in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy: “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33).*