Fifth Sunday in Lent (B)

Jesus has come to Jerusalem for Passover again, but for the last time (12:12).

March 25, 2012

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Commentary on John 12:20-33

Jesus has come to Jerusalem for Passover again, but for the last time (12:12).

As was the case on his first trip, he comes from an intimate gathering among friends to an urban setting in the midst of crowds (see 2:1-12; 12:1ff).  He has just visited at the home of his friend Lazarus and his sisters on his way to Jerusalem. The growing crowds and acclaim follow him from his last sign, the raising of Lazarus from the dead (12:17).

The Identity of the Seeking Greeks

Among those who went up to Jerusalem to worship for the Passover festival were some Greeks.  Who were these Greeks? And what is the meaning of their presence here? A common interpretation is that the Greeks were gentiles and their presence here points to the direction of the future of Christianity. For example, David Rensberger notes that they “may symbolize the future mission of Christianity to the Gentiles” and refers readers to 7:35-36.  This seems unlikely, however. The word here is “hellenes,” not ethne, the word usually used to refer to gentiles or nations. One must explain, too, what would motivate gentiles to travel a long distance to worship at Jerusalem for the Passover. A more likely meaning is that the Greeks are diaspora Jews. The reference to 7:35-36 supports this, for Jews ask one another if “this man” intends to go to the Dispersion among Greeks. The diaspora refers to dispersed Jews, not gentiles.

From the conclusion of the last sign, the raising of Lazarus, many Jews believed in him (11:45; 12:9-11). This “crowd of Jews” who witnessed the raising of Lazarus from the dead continued to testify (12:17). This is the crowd that continues to follow him. The crowds of Jews who are followers of Jesus are likely implied in 12:20 who are going up to Jerusalem and include the seeking Greeks. The narrative gives no clues that these Greeks are Gentiles. The seeking Greeks may indeed signal the expansion of the mission, but Greek-speaking diaspora Jews is the more likely meaning.

The seekers wish to see Jesus. They never do see him. They make a request to Philip who tells Andrew, and together they tell Jesus (verses 21-23). Jesus answered them with a discourse on the meaning of his death (verses 23a-33). Who is “them”? Is Jesus’ discourse spoken to Andrew and Philip, or are the seeking Greeks included?  In the narrative, Andrew and Philip and the seeking Greeks seem to serve as a prop, similar to Nicodemus in 3:1-21. The seeking Greeks, like Nicodemus, set up a discourse about Jesus’ death and glorification. When Jesus begins speaking, the narrative audience seems irrelevant. In a real sense, we are “them,” that is, anyone who hears or reads Jesus’ discourse according to John.

The Ruler of This World

Jesus’ discourse on the meaning of his death and implications for discipleship echo Mark in that followers must lose their life in order to save it (Lent 2B, Mark 8:31-38). John’s narrative focuses on the conflict between the life of discipleship and the ruler of the world. “The world” in this context does not have the same connotation as “the world” God so loves (Lent 4B, John 3:16).  Those who “hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (verse 25, italics mine). This world is under judgment, and the ruler of this world will be defeated (verse 31).  

Jesus’ speech prepares the reader for the passion narrative. According to John, Jesus’ death and resurrection is a judgment against the imperial powers and ultimately — and paradoxically — a victory over them. D. Schowalter observes that “this language of elevation and glorification is [also] reminiscent of Roman imperial propaganda.”  Indeed, this entire discourse about Jesus’ elevation “…might be seen as reference to an ironic enthronement in which Jesus by his death on the cross offers the ultimate challenge to Roman authority.

The use of irony to assert Jesus’ victory over imperial powers is prominent in the passion narrative. The gospel of John persists in ascribing to Jesus imperial titles, “king” in particular.  Pilate intends to mock “the Jews” by calling Jesus their King (19:14). The soldiers ridicule him by dressing him in royal garb and hailing him “King.”(19:2-3) Pilate orders the inscription on the cross to read “King of the Jews.”(19:19) Ironically Pilate and his soldiers speak the truth. For those who can see, what appears to be the devastating power of Roman authority is actually its defeat. Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate victory over Roman power. 

The seeking Greeks wish to see Jesus. The ability to see what is not accessible to ordinary sight is a theme in John. Also, it is not necessary to see in the literal sense in order to believe. This gospel concludes with Jesus’ words to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29). The purpose of the gospel is to record Jesus’ signs for those who have not seen yet come to believe. Perhaps the seeking Greeks represent those of us for whom this gospel is written. They do not receive a personal audience with Jesus, but the truth is revealed to them, along with us, in Jesus’ speech foretelling the meaning of his death.

The truth contradicts the accepted norms of this world. In particular, John alerts his readers to the seductive powers of the world. There can be no compromise. Jesus is King. The emperor is not.  As we walk the final days of Lent through Holy Week, this truth both sustains and challenges us as we contemplate Jesus’ death and exaltation.

1David Rensberger, commentary notes for John in the HarperCollins Study Bible, NRSV, 1993.
2Daniel N. Schowalter, “Fifth Sunday of Lent,” New Proclamation Year B 2005-2006 (Fortress Press, 2006), p. 198.
3 Ibid.