Commentary on John 15:9-17
This section brings another exhortation.
The first one was “abide in me” (John 15:4). Now it is “love one another,” and it is marked by a grammatical enclosure, or inclusio (verses 12, 17), which makes it a self-contained section. This exhortation is a restatement of the love commandment of John 13:34, where it is called “a new commandment.” In what sense is it new? Probably because the kind of love that it is advocating for has a new component: self-sacrifice.
- In John 15:9-10 Jesus models for the community the kind of loving relationship they must have. It is based on obedience to God’s commandments and on self-giving. In the same way that Jesus kept God’s commands and abide in God’s love so also the disciples, if they keep Jesus’ commands, will abide in his love, that is, they will remain attached to Jesus and through Jesus to God. And this love is best expressed as self-giving, sacrificial love, laying down one’s life for your friends.
- Jesus calls his disciples “friends” and contrasts this with the master-slave relationship which was a one-way relationship.
- The ideal of friendship was important in the ancient world. There were two kinds of friendship: political and fictive-kinship. Political friendship was built alongside patron-client lines. Fictive-kinship friendship was more reciprocal. Friends looked always for the well-being of one another. It even implied the willingness to defend the friend with one’s life. In general, it was more egalitarian than the patron-client relationship, even though in some occasions a friend could act as a broker of a patron’s favors (see also verse 16).
- Jesus is saying here two things: he is the disciples’ friend. He is willing to give his life for them. Yet he is not his disciples’ equal. He retains a singular position. But he has brought them into a relationship of reciprocal love, creating a community of friends, willing to sacrifice themselves for each other.
- What are some of the implications of these ideas today?
- One is the nature of Christian love. The love God showed toward Jesus he showed toward his disciples so they could show it to each other. When they love in this way, their love becomes impregnated with divine qualities. It is not just an emotional, cozy feeling, but a conscious decision to put yourself on the line and risk everything for the other. This kind of love will make sure that justice is done in the world. You will venture yourself from the safety of your community into the broader society to see that it is transformed by this sacrificial love that Jesus modeled for us. Cornel West has said that justice is the shape love takes in society.
- Another implication has to do with the meaning of Jesus’ death. According to this passage at least (but see John 1:29) Jesus did not die as an atonement for sins but as a proof of God’s love toward humanity. One way to corroborate this idea is to notice that the institution of the Lord’s Supper is missing from John and it is replaced with the washing of the disciples’ feet, a clear sign of Jesus’ love for them. Jesus died as an example of love taken to its most extreme and radical manifestation, the greatest love of all (verse 13), not as a payoff for people’s sins. I often wonder what would the church look like if its distinctive sign would have been the towel and the basin rather than the cross and the empty tomb. Instead of redemptive suffering — which has justified so much bloodshed through the idea of the Christus Victor, from the Crusades, to the Conquest, to the Holocaust — we would have love, the giving of oneself for the other.
- A third implication is the meaning of being Jesus’ friends. This idea modifies the notion of Jesus as an absolute Master and Lord by placing him on a more equal relationship with the disciples, yet, as we said above, retaining a certain position between them and God. I have explored this idea in my book Jesus, Disciple of the Kingdom, where I suggest that Jesus, besides being the Lord, is also the ideal disciple of the kingdom, summoning us into co-discipleship and friendship.
When preaching or teaching from these highly used and abused passages we have to make an effort to pay close attention to the text in its historical and literary context. This will prevent us from interpretations that fuel antisemitism, sectarianism, exclusivism, and exceptionalism, all of these common elements in so many religious and cultural discourses.
- Koester, Craig R. Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel. Meaning, Mystery, Community. Second Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003.
- Malina, Bruce J. and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.
- Vena, Osvaldo D., Jesus, Disciple of the Kingdom: Mark’s Christology for a Community in Crisis. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014.