LOSING LIFE IN ORDER TO SAVE IT
Jer 31:31-34; Heb 5:7-9; John 12:20-33
Today’s Gospel reading is taken from the Gospel of John. It is a preparation for the forthcoming events of Easter: the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. The gospel sees the death of Jesus as the manifestation of his love for mankind. Jesus talks about his imminent death—how he fears it, yet desires it; for the hour of his SHAME will also be the hour of his GLORY. It is only when one is capable of loving that one can fulfil his/her goal and to grow in maturity. Jesus encourages his followers to practice sacrificial love, by giving up their lives for their brother and sisters.
- THE SETTING OF THE GOSPEL
The setting of today’s gospel is soon after the raising of Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:38-44) and the Triumphal Entry (Jn 12:12-19). Thereafter, Jesus had gone into the temple and cast out the moneychangers from the court of the Gentiles. His popularity was at its height. The Jewish leaders were planning to kill him. Anticipation was in the air. Everyone could feel that something was going to happen. Just at that moment, there is some distraction: some Greek (non-Jewish) men wanted to meet Jesus. These men were most likely God-fearers, foreigners who had converted to the Jewish religion, having heard about Jesus. Our text says that they had come up to worship at the feast (Passover). They had come to Jerusalem not as tourists seeking enjoyment or to satisfy their curiosity. They had come to pray, to meet God, and to discover what this God wanted of them.
John’s expression, “to see Jesus” does not mean to “have a look at Jesus”, what he looks like, how tall he was, or his complexion; but they want to “know Jesus in depth”. It means “to discover his identity.” The gospel does no tell us what happened to the Greeks. But we are given the important speech of the Master (in the rest of the gospel text). Through his discourse in the following text, Jesus “lets himself be seen” and “he manifests his countenance” to anybody who sincerely wants to know him. Here is the first faint hint of a gospel which is about to go out to all the world.
- THE SON OF MAN
Jesus begins his self-introduction by the statement: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn 12:23). The term, Son of Man, takes its origin in the book of Daniel 7:13. In Daniel 7:1-8, the writer describes the world powers of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes, and the Persians who had terrorized the people for ages. Their ferocity is symbolized by savage beasts like the lion with eagle’s wings, the bear with the three ribs between its teeth, the leopard with four wings and four heads and the terrible beast with iron teeth and ten horns. But it was the dream of the visionary that a new power was going to come in the form of a man in order to conquer these brutal empires. In later OT texts, this golden age will come by the direct intervention of God. God will send a mighty warrior, the SON OF MAN, to smash away the world powers in favour of the Jews. When Jesus says: “The hour has come when the Son of Man must be glorified”, the Jews imagined a big military campaign on the march. But by “glorify”, Jesus meant “crucify”. When he mentioned the “Son of Man” they thought of the conquest of armies of God. But he meant the conquest of the “Cross”. This must have left the Jews shocked and bewildered. No wonder, they did not understand him! The tragedy is that they refused to make the effort to understand him.
- THE AMAZING PARADOX
Next, Jesus uses paradoxical statements to lay out his agenda further. A Paradox is a statement or an expression, which at first sight looks or sounds contradictory, utter nonsense. But, on closer examination, it will be found to be not contradictory, but rather a way of emphasizing a point that one wishes to make. We have such a paradoxical expression in today’s gospel passage. Jesus says: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me” (Jn 12:24-26). This paradox that can be summarized in three things which are all variations of one central truth. These three are at the heart of the Christian faith and life:
- a) By death comes life: There are three different uses for the grain of wheat: 1) It can be stored and sold on the market. 2) It can be ground up and eaten. 3) It can be buried in the ground to await a future harvest. The grain of wheat is ineffective and unfruitful so long as it is preserved, as it were, in safety and security. It is only when the seed is thrown into the cold ground, and buried there as if in a tomb, that it bears fruit. In other words, it is only when someone buries his/her personal aims and ambitions that he/she begins to be of real use to God. Life is fruitful in the measure as it is laid out. Paul expresses this idea well when we said, “For me, to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). Think of the various martyrs down the history of the human race and of the Church! Like Jesus, many heroic men and women found love for God and fellow human beings as values worth dying for. By their death Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King Jr in America became powerful influences in the liberation of their people. By dying to some our old attitudes and forms of behaviour, we discover a new way of life.
- b) By spending life, we retain it: The words that follow Jesus’ illustration of a seed dying are words that are not popular to the ears of the world or the ears of Jesus’ followers today. These are words that contain some important truths that Christians would ordinarily want to forget. Jesus insists that the person who hoards his/her life loses it at the end. The person who “loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life”. Jesus spoke the raw truth. Only politicians stand for what they think the voters will fall for; but Jesus is not a politician. This is not the only moment that Jesus expresses this bitter truth. In fact, he repeated this phrase in different ways and various moment of his teaching. Here is a list of texts that express this paradox:
- “Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:35);
- “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mtt 16:25);
- “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?” (Lk 9:24);
- “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mtt 10:39, Lk 17:33).
Disciplining oneself is what Christian tradition calls “mortification”, “self-denial” or “carrying the cross”. We must do these and follow Jesus if we wish to be truly (spiritually) alive in this world and gain life eternally in the world to come. People who refuse to make sacrifices only EXIST; they do not LIVE!
- c) By service comes greatness: The people whom the world remembers with love are those who serve others. Unfortunately, many people render services only for what they can gain out of them. They may well become rich, but one thing is certain—they will never be loved. For love is the true wealth of life. (Jesus continues this teaching at the Last Super, when he washes the feet of his disciples). Jesus came to the Jews with a new view of life. The Jews looked on glory as conquest, the acquisition of power, the right to rule. But Jesus looked on it as a CROSS. Christ’s paradox is nothing other than the truth of common sense. Any truthful person cannot miss it.
- THE AGONIES OF JESUS
In spite of his being God, Jesus goes through some very tense moments. But these tensions lead him to great certainty. He fears the hour that is coming, yet he desires it. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John does not record Jesus’ anguished prayer in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest. However, this final section of today’s Gospel might be read as John’s parallel to the agony in the garden. It is here that John shows us Jesus fighting his battle with his human longing to avoid the CROSS. No one wishes to die at 33 years; and no one wishes to die upon the cross! But Jesus remained steadfast. His inner tension leads to certainty in this respect:
- a) Jesus is convinced that it is for the purpose of suffering that he came. To crown it all, a voice from heaven (like the one heard at Jesus’ baptism and at Jesus’ Transfiguration) speaks. The voice affirms that God welcomes the sacrifice that Jesus will make on behalf of others. Jesus teaches that this voice WAS SENT FOR THE SAKE OF THOSE WHO WOULD BELIEVE IN HIM (Jn 12:30-31).
- b) Jesus sees his passion, death, and Resurrection, as a death-blow to the ruler of the world, SATAN. “Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out”. By his obedience on the Cross, Jesus broke the power of evil.
- c) Jesus gives a confident response to the question he, himself, raises when asking God to save him from his impending death. His fear is real. But he is also courageous. Real courage does not mean being NOT BEING AFRAID. It means to be TERRIBLY AFRAID, and yet to do the thing that ought to be done. That was the courage of Jesus! God’s will meant the CROSS; and Jesus had to nerve himself to accept that cross.
- HATING ONE’S LIFE AND THE IMPORTANCE OF HUMAN LIFE
In today’s gospel too Jesus is speaking of ‘hating’ one’s life. But we all know that life is sacred and no man can take it away as his own or another’s. In the past, those who committed suicide were not allowed funeral services in the church. The outlook on suicide has somehow softened, not because life has become less precious but because of some psychological findings which reveal that those who kill themselves are often mentally sick and therefore not fully responsible of their action. Does this mean that Jesus gives less importance to life?
The context of the gospel shows that to ‘hate’ is to give less preference. The comparison here is between life in this world and eternal life. Jesus realizes that attachment to home, loved ones and possessions may prevent people from following him and closing their eyes to the values of the Kingdom. He is telling us to yield up the LOVE OF LIFE for the sake of THE LIFE OF LOVE.
- BEING LIFTED UP
At the end of his discourse, Jesus claimed: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself”. Here Jesus was referring to the CROSS. What Jesus taught, he also practiced. He willingly suffered the shame and pain of the cross in order to die for the life of his enemies. Although his audience constituted mainly the Jewish leaders and people, who strongly believe that “Son of Man” would be undefeatable (because “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” Dan 7:14), Jesus did not mind shocking them by linking himself with DEATH ON A CROSS. Jesus’ death on the cross will make a big the difference! Meanwhile, the conquering Messiah of the Jews is a figure about whom scholars write books, the PRINCE OF LOVE on the cross is a king who has his throne forever in the hearts of all people. The only secure foundation for a kingdom is sacrificial love. Jesus himself declares: “My Kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36).
- SOME PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR OUR DAILY LIVING
- a) Like Jesus, we are called to be courageous. We are invited to enter into the mystery of Jesus’ suffering and death, during the forthcoming Holy Week, with faith and courage. Real courage does not mean never being afraid. It means doing what is to be done in spite of being afraid. Are we willing to do whatever it takes to be like Jesus?
- b) The world would be a very bleak place indeed if there were no people who were prepared to die to personal gain, safety, security, advancement, etc. for the sake of others. Yet today the attitude is: “what is in it for me?” If the answer is NOTHING, then forget it. Every instinct in us urges us to follow the path of personal gain and fulfilment. But a life of sacrifice is our ultimate goal, says Jesus. The old self must die in order that the new and true self can be born.
- c) What God did for Jesus he does for every one of us. God still speaks to us daily. When he sends us out upon a road, he does not send us without direction and without guidance. When he gives us a task, he does not leave us to do it in the lonely weakness of our own strength. God is not silent. If we listen to him, we will hear him speaking to us, and we will go on with his strength. Our trouble is not that God does not speak, but that we do not listen.
- d) Jesus made an impact in the world because he was willing to take the “road less traveled”. Because of this fact, “Every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:10-11). Every day, moment-by-moment, we are left with a decision: “do I live for the moment or do I invest in the future harvest?
As we prepare for the forthcoming events of Easter: the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, may we seek to walk in the footsteps of Christ, by living with a constant consciousness that this world is not our home. We are only transiting through this world. May we seek to be less attached to our families, our possessions, our achievement, etc., in favour of a strong desire for things that eternal.