Commentary on John 13:31-35
As is the case with many lectionary texts, something is lost when this passage is not read in its literary context.
The context of this passage, of course, is John’s account of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.
In this account, we hear that about many things that Jesus knows, and about how he responds to the knowledge that he has. He knows that his hour has come to depart from this world and go to his Father (John 13:1a). How does he respond? “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1b). He knows that the Father has given all things into his hands, and that he has come from God and is going to God (13:3). How does he respond? He gets up from the table and takes on the role of a slave, washing his disciples’ dusty, dirty feet.
Jesus also knows who is about to betray him (John 13:11), and he is very troubled by this knowledge (13:21). How does he respond? He announces the imminent betrayal to his disciples, and then proceeds to feed the betrayer: “So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot” (13:26). Judas then leaves to do his dirty work, and the narrator adds, “and it was night” (13:30).
It is at this dark moment that our text begins, “When he (Judas) had gone out, Jesus said … ” We might expect a speech about how evil Judas is and how awful the consequences of his actions will be for him. But Jesus instead focuses on his mission and preparing his disciples for what is to come. He speaks of being glorified and of glorifying God (John 13:31-32), which in Johannine language is a reference to his elevation on a cross (3:14; 12:23-28). Then he tells his disciples in tender words (“little children”) that he will be with them only a little longer, and that where he is going, they cannot come (13:33).
This conversation continues after our lectionary text, with Peter asking, “Lord, where are you going?” and Jesus responding, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward” (John 13:36). Peter responds, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you” (13:37), to which Jesus responds by predicting Peter’s denial of him (13:38).
Yes, Jesus also knows that Peter, one of his closest companions, will deny him. Yet his parting words to his disciples focus not on blame for their past and future failures, but rather on preparing them for what is to come, promising that although he will no longer be physically present with them, they will not be abandoned.
In the coming chapters Jesus will talk about the Paraclete, the Advocate who will teach and advise and comfort them. Now he focuses on the need for his disciples to live in community, to love one another as he has loved them (John 13:34).
This “new commandment” — “that you love one another as I have loved you” — is in parallel with what Jesus has already told his disciples: “You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:13-15).
The “new commandment” is also paralleled in John 15:12-14: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
These two parallels to John 13:34 help to flesh out the meaning of “loving one another.” On the one hand, loving one another as Jesus has loved encompasses the mundane; it means serving one another, even in the most menial tasks. On the other hand, this love encompasses heroic acts of great risk; it extends even to the point of giving one’s life for another.
The love of which Jesus speaks, then, and which Jesus demonstrates in his life and death, is a love which extends from the mundane to the heroic and encompasses every kind of self-giving act in between. Jesus tells his disciples that it is by this kind of love that everyone will know that they are his disciples (John 13:35).
It is often noted that John’s Gospel focuses on mutual love within the community of disciples, and does not speak of love for those on the outside, or of love for enemies. It is true that Jesus commands his disciples to love one another. Nevertheless, he also declares God’s love for the world (John 3:16), which surely includes those outside the community of faith. Jesus demonstrates the depth of God’s love for this often-hostile world in his death on the cross.
Here in chapter 13, Jesus demonstrates his love for the same disciples who will fail him miserably. Jesus washes and feeds Judas who will betray him, Peter who will deny him, and all the rest who will fail to stand by him in his hour of greatest distress. The love that Jesus demonstrates is certainly not based on the merit of the recipients, and Jesus commands his disciples to love others in the same way.
We disciples of Jesus have continually fallen far short in our love for one another as well as in our love for those outside the community of faith. Theological and ethical arguments often descend into personal attacks and name-calling; personal interests often trump the common good of the community; those in need of compassion find judgment instead.
Jesus could not be clearer: It is not by our theological correctness, not by our moral purity, not by our impressive knowledge that everyone will know that we are his disciples. It is quite simply by our loving acts — acts of service and sacrifice, acts that point to the love of God for the world made known in Jesus Christ.