Saturday, May 5, 2007

5th Sunday of Easter (C): New Way of Loving

Mandatum novum, do vobis
(by Simon Ushakov, 1685)
photo grab:

The Text: John 13:31-33a-34-35
When Judas had left them, Jesus said, "Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him,God will also glorify him in himself,and God will glorify him at once. My children, I will be with you only a little while longer. I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."


"See, how they love one another!", this is what Gentiles in the 3rd century A.D. exclaim whenever they see a Christian community (cf. Tertullian, Apology 39.6). With candidates, in this Christian country, killing each other as midterm elections draw near, the opposite is true: “See, how they hate one another!”

"Love one another." This commandment, addressed particularly to the disciples, belongs to the first part of Jesus' long farewell speech at the Last Supper (see 13:31 - 17:26). It is to be the response to the new reality that is to be brought about by Jesus' passion, death, and resurrect on. That is why before Jesus gives the new commandment, he speaks of his "glorification". For the writer of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ glorification is the one event of his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension.

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another" (13:34). What makes this commandment "new" (13:34)? It seems this is not even original to Jesus. In the Book of Jubilees, a Jewish religious writing in 2nd century B.C which reworks the materials found in Genesis and Exodus, Isaac leaves a farewell commandment to his sons, Esau and Jacob: "Love one another, my sons, as a man loves himself, with each man seeking for his brother what is good for him . . . loving each other as themselves" (Jubilees 36:4-5). Likewise, Paul, writing in around 50 A.D. exhorts the Christians in Thessalonica: "Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for yourselves have been taught by God to love one another" (1 Thess 4:9). Similar exhortations are found in (Sir 27:17; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; Mark 12:31). Indeed, this commandment sounds like an echo of a much older biblical text, Lev 19:18, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself".

The newness of this commandment can be understood better if we take into its background the theme of the "new covenant" in Jeremiah 31:31-34. We see a better connection too with Jesus' last farewell in the context of the Last Supper. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus would speak of this theme after supper: "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood" (Lk 22:20).

Writing at the end of the Babylonian Exile (ca. 531 B.C.), prophet Jeremiah (chapter 31) prophesies a reunited people of God (Israel and Judah v. 31) under a new and unbreakable covenant:

31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
God reminds the Jews of a broken covenant with him which resulted to the punishment in the Exile. That covenant was made with Moses at Sinai. It is the old covenant from the time of Moses to the Babylonian Exile. God’s own fingers wrote the covenant in stone tablets (Exod 31:18). It would be valid forever, for all places and for all times – a Berit Olam, "a perpetual covenant". This covenant, however, was broken.

A broken covenant does not mean it is the end of that covenant. A broken marriage vows, for instance, does not mean that the bond of marriage is also broken. The marriage does not cease to exist, but it is in crisis. Everything depends on what the couple do next.

Even though Israel broke the covenant, it does not cease to exist. God does not make another covenant. God’s promise to be with his people remains valid. But over that broken covenant, God extends pardon. With it, God promises that the old covenant will be renewed. It will become “new” in the sense of better, different, no longer breakable covenant. It is to be written directly to the heart.

For Christians, this promise in Jeremiah is fulfilled in Jesus (Lk 22:20; 1Cor 11:25; Heb 8:13; 12:24). The new covenant, no longer be broken, is written in the heart of Jesus.

The "new commandment" (mandatum novum) in John is not new in the sense of being original. It is "new" because it is different; it is renewed by Jesus. The reason to love one another is no longer just to feel good and safe, no enemy to worry about, and establish a smooth interpersonal relationship with others. The reason of love for one another is Jesus.

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