A Provocation: Fifth Sunday of Easter: John 13:31-35

A Single Question:

  • On what planet is this a new commandment?

Some Longer Reflections:

To be sure, this is a good commandment, and necessary.

But it is not new.  In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus is asked about the “greatest and first commandment.”  He answers with two: Love God, Love neighbor.  In Luke, an expert in Torah questions Jesus to determine whether Jesus understands what it means to live a faithful life.  Jesus hands the question back to him, and the student of Torah reveals that he understands faithfulness exactly the way Jesus does: Love God, Love neighbor.  They part, having agreed completely.

It is not surprising that they would agree.

In Luke’s story, Jesus makes it clear that he and the expert in Torah agree because they are Jewish.  Deep in their understanding of the world is the Shema: Hear, O Israel, The LORD our God is One; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, and strength.  This basic understanding is then bolstered in the book of Leviticus, where love of neighbor is made clear, as well.

This is not a new commandment.  It is as old as the Jewish faith itself.

As with anything old, there are some surprises hiding in it.

For instance, the linking of love of God and love of neighbor (itself as old as the Ten Commandments, at least) is still a crucial characteristic of Jewish (and therefore Christian) faith.  These are not religious faiths that aim at otherworldly escape.  Both Jews and Christians properly insist that ill-treatment of people is an offense against God.  This linking of real life and real faith serves as a diagnostic tool for analyzing much of what passes for “faith” in the world.  To quote a meme making the rounds on Facebook recently: If your religion requires you to hate, you need a new religion.

And the phrase “heart, soul, and strength” is more interesting than might initially appear.

  •  The heart, in Hebrew body metaphor, is not the seat of emotions but of purposeful choosing.  You make good ethical choices in your heart.  Love God when you choose what you will, and will not, do.
  • The word translated as “soul” is nephesh, which is the part of a human being that desires and aspires.  Love God when you stretch for goals that are just beyond your reach.
  • But most interesting of all, as my friend and colleague, Murray Haar, pointed out to me recently, is the word usually translated in this passage as “strength.”  The word in Hebrew is meod, a word often used in the Bible, but only twice translated into English as “strength.”  Mostly, the word means “exceedingly.”  How does this adverb become a noun?  Good question.
    • Perhaps the word refers to the human drive to overcome: Love God in your efforts to exceed limits that have been imposed.
    • Or perhaps the word points to the human need to be victorious: Love God when you fight to overpower opponents.
    • Or perhaps the word refers to the human ability for self-transcendence: Love God in your efforts to see life from perspectives higher than your own personal interests.

This last possibility has real potential for opening up the scene in John about the “new” commandment.

The hidden question in this scene always concerns just who it is that we are to love.

  • If we are to love those people who are part of our own little sect, those who agree with us about all things, then this is not much of a commandment.  Members of cults are required to love each other, but this is part of the danger of cults.
  • If we are commanded to love our neighbors, then this is a very good commandment, and often difficult, neighbors being what they are.  But this is still a very old commandment.
  • But if the scene itself is meant to give us an idea about whom to love, then things become rather more interesting.

In the verse immediately preceding, Jesus tells his gathered disciples that he will be with them only a short time longer.  He tells them that where he is going, they cannot come.

And then he tells them that this is also exactly what he told to the Ioudaioi, who are either Jews or Judeans, depending on who is doing the translating for you.

This could be interesting.  Whoever the Ioudaioi might be, they are set in parallel with the disciples.  Many uses of this word in John’s story set them up to be opponents (even enemies) of the disciples and Jesus, but here Jesus sets them side-by-side with the disciples: neither can come where Jesus is going.

What if the Ioudaioi are the ones who are to be loved?

The language and syntax of the scene suggest that as a reading.  The commandment orders the hearers to love “one another.”  The word in Greek does not limit this loving to a small set of cult members.  The word simply points to the “over-against-ness” of the one who is to be loved.  And the word implies that this loving is to become reciprocal.  As I noted, no commandment is needed when the Other is the same as I am.  The Greek word implies that the loving crosses boundaries.

And, when Jesus commands love, he does not command phileo, the love of a person who is finally “another self.”  Jesus uses the word agapao, which is reciprocal and responsive love, love that grows as it discovers difference and difficulty.  That is why the word is used of God’s love for people: God loves BECAUSE it requires forgiveness and reconciliation.  That is agape.

But the word also applies to human responding, reconciling love.

That means that, if the Ioudaioi are to be understood as Judeans, Jesus is telling his Galilean followers to overcome the traditional mutual distrust of Northerners and Southerners, a distrust that was intensified during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, when Northern Zealots stirred a civil war against those who were not, in their view, sufficiently ardent in their fight against Roman influence.

Or, if the Ioudaioi are to be translated (anachronistically) as “the Jews,” then Jesus is here commanding his followers to heal the split within the Jewish family that Christians have too often gladly celebrated.

He might even be commanding his followers to heal a basic split within all of Creation.  If John’s story is addressed to a community that is increasingly becoming a Gentile social phenomenon, Jesus is telling them to find a way to remain connected to the Jewish faith, particularly in its differing assessment of the significance of Jesus.

This would be a new commandment indeed.

Read Christian biblical interpretation.  Christian interpreters take regular potshots at Jews in every century.  Sometimes the attacks are blatant, and other times they are more subtle.  But Christians have a durable tendency to speak of Jews in the past tense, which tendency one also sees in 19th century German interpretation, which was glad to refer to the Jews who appear in the New Testament as representatives of Spätjudaiismos, “late Judaism,” thus writing the obituary of the faith of Jesus and his family a half century before the Holocaust.

This new commandment will require developing an ability for self-transcendence of the sort the Shema already asks us to practice, but the difficulty of this act of seeing beyond ourselves makes this a NEW commandment worthy of the name.

And, Jesus says, that is how everyone will know that we are his disciples.



2 thoughts on “A Provocation: Fifth Sunday of Easter: John 13:31-35

  1. “Christian interpreters take regular potshots at Jews in every century.”

    No they don’t. Christians don’t do that. You’re talking about assholes. Different things.


    1. I agree that such representatives of the Christian Faith are, at very best, embarrassments, and that they are not proper speakers for Christianity.

      But some of those who have taken potshots are indeed prominent representatives of the faith, both pastors and scholars, laypeople and clergy. Much as I would like to, I cannot simply rule these people out of the faith. I find myself stuck with them.

      But, again, this is not proper faithfulness.


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