Today’s Gospel reading, John 12.20-36, tells an interesting story — a small story, really, but with big implications. In the aftermath of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, some Greeks — likely ‘God-fearers’, a technical term at the time for Gentiles who were interested in Judaism but did not fully convert — come to the disciples asking for an audience with Jesus: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Jesus’ response is telling, particularly as we walk alongside him in Holy Week, as it says a lot about how he understood his life’s work and the events that were unfolding around and about him.
Upon hearing that this group of Gentiles wished to see him, Jesus answers, cryptically, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” ‘The Son of Man’ was a messianic title, but a very specific one. In the books Christians call the Old Testament, ‘son of man’ generally refers simply to a human person. For example, God addresses the prophet Ezekiel almost exclusively by this name, as though saying, ‘You there, human….’ But the book of Daniel, which is a strange combination of folk tales, historical records, and apocalyptic visions, records a vision in which a messianic figure is called ‘One like a Son of Man’ (Daniel 7.13). If a ‘son of man’ is just an everyday human, ‘The Son of Man’ became a messianic title with connotations of ‘the true human person,’ that is, the one who shows us what the fullest potential for humanity looks like. And so, in response to some humans outside the community of the people of God coming to see him, Jesus refers to himself as the ‘real human’. Moreover, he says, it’s time for this ‘real human’ to be glorified. What happens next, then, is to be revelation and proclamation to the Gentiles, that is to the whole world, of what true humanity looks like in all its glory.
But, as Jesus so often does, he flips to script on everyone. What does this glorious messianic revelation look like? He continues:
Amen, amen, I say to you: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12.24f)
He describes his glory as a seed falling to the ground and broken in order to produce new life. If we think about it, there are a lot of metaphors that work on this principle: that same grain of wheat could be ground to produce flour, grapes need to be stomped in order to produce wine, and olives need to be crushed to produce oil. This principle provides some needed nuance to what Jesus says next: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it.” This isn’t a masochistic saying about martyrdom; it’s a profound truth that demonstrates how creativity, construction, and new life emerge out of what has been destroyed in this world. To hold on too tightly to what we have now — even our very lives — prevents the kind of new life, new experiences, new growth that the world (and we) desperately need.
This is as true for us as it was for Jesus (”Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (12.26)) and there is no escaping it, no matter how difficult it may be. As Jesus put it, “My soul is troubled now, but what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (12.27f). This is what faith looks like.
Even after a heavenly voice confirms this message, the crowd struggles to believe it. This is not the kind of messiah they were expecting. Jesus doesn’t directly respond to this — he’s made it clear on multiple occasions that his path will end with his death — but instead encourages them to take advantage of the time they have:
Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light. (12.35-37)
The time is short. We can’t take our days and years for granted. So on this Tuesday in Holy Week, let us take the time to reflect on what is passing away in the world, or what we need to let go of in our lives in order for something new, better, and blessed to arise.