Passion – How Love and Suffering Coexist – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

John 12:20-36

“Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you…” This is like a teacher getting the attention of the class by saying, “Listen up!”[i]  Various other versions of the Bible translate Jesus’ attention-grabber here as “Believe me,” or “I assure you,” or “I can guarantee this truth,” or “I tell you for certain…” Does Jesus have your attention? We are primed to know this is very important what Jesus is about to say; however we have to do some homework to make sense of its importance.

Two things. Jesus describes how a grain of wheat must die to bear fruit. A farmer would tell us that as long as a tiny grain of wheat keeps on being a kernel in the head of a stalk of wheat, it remains just that: a lone kernel of wheat among many such kernels. It’s only when a grain of wheat is detached from the head and buried in the ground that it can germinate and produce a whole stalk of wheat. Jesus describes this process as a grain of wheat “dying.” Of course Jesus is speaking metaphorically. What does Jesus mean? Because he has signaled that this is very important: a grain of wheat needing to “die” to bear fruit? Jesus is speaking both about generosity and about suffering.

There is a paradoxical principle in life: in giving we receive. The one makes the space for the other. This is to practice our life as a gift, a gift we have received so as to be a gift we then share. This is of the essence of life: not clinging to it, not hoarding it, but cherishing it, participating in it fully, and then sharing the gift of our own life with others with great generosity. This is the nature of Jesus’ life and love which he commands us to follow in big and small ways… especially the small daily ways whose opportunities for sharing our life are endless. It is a paradox: living our life by giving our life is the essence of life. It is either one or the other. Our life orientation is either to give our own life, or take our own life. Living life “on the take” – taking our own life – is deadly. Jesus’ example and Jesus’ command we shall hear again on Maundy Thursday is to give our life loving one another.[ii] Jesus’ metaphor for this is the gestation of a grain of wheat that must give its all. It must “die” to bear fruit.

Giving our life in love is not without suffering. Passion – Jesus’ passion and our passion – is both about love and suffering. The German theologian, Dorothee Sölle, says that the New Testament protests against a spirituality without conflict. Dorothee Sölle says we must struggle together against every form of oppression. She refuses to accept pain with passivity, which would only harden our hearts. Sölle says we, the followers of Jesus, must meet pain, confront pain, identify with those who are experiencing pain, and then struggle through it to grow into “a new humanness more capable of both pain and love.” In suffering, a person’s self-protection and isolation are broken, the heart broken open so as to make space for others, which is compassion.[iii] This is the paradox of passion, of love and pain comingling.

Jesus adds to his teaching about the fullness of life some troubling words: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”[iv] Hating your life. We would have an easier time with this if we could blame a mistranslation of a Greek word, if we could say that, in today’s English, this word “hate” is better translated as such-and-such. But we cannot do that. The verb here translated as “hate” is just that. The Greek verb is to detest, to denounce. It is an egregious moral choice: “Hate your life.”[v] I find it deeply troubling to hear Jesus say that.

Over the years I have listened to so many people describe how they hate themselves because of who they are, or from where they come, or because of what they do or cannot do. They hate themselves and their lives. And I have told these wounded souls, as I have been told myself: “You may not hate yourself. You may not hate the life to which you have been entrusted.” “You may not hate yourself. You have been created from Love to love.” God is love. So what is Jesus possibly saying about hating life?

I don’t know.

Scriptural scholars are of a very divided mind what Jesus is saying here and why. The best I can make of this is hyperbole. Jesus is speaking with great exaggeration to get people’s attention. The best I can make of this is the old wisdom, “Keep your eye on the prize.” We have been given the gift of life in this world, and in preparation for the life to come, what follows our earthly death. “Keep your eye on the prize.” There is more to life than just life in this world.

In my hearing, Jesus’ statement here about “hating your life” is completely contrary to everything else Jesus says about loving living and living loving. We would not want to do with these troublesome words what sometimes happens in the media when one sentence of a speaker’s statement is lifted out of context and then broadcast alone, completely out of character for the speaker.

We do not have liberty to excise Jesus’ words about “hating your life” from the Gospel canon; however we can and must contextualize these words in a broader understanding of what Jesus was all about in this life and for the life to come. Which is not about hate.

This is Passion Week. Passion is about love, and passion is about suffering. The great mystery of life is how love and suffering coexist, and how they inform each other. Jesus shows us the way.


[i] This Greek word is amēn (“very truly I tell you”) occurs 143 times in the New Testament, 25 of which in the Gospel according to John (1:51; 3:3, 5, 11; 5:19, 24, 25; 6:26, 32, 47, 53; 8:34, 51, 58; 10:1, 7; 12:24; 13:16, 20, 21, 38; 14:12; 16:20, 23; 21:18).

[ii] Maundy Thursday, named from the Latin mandatum (a mandate, a command), from Jesus’ words at the Last Supper (John 13:14). This is the prominent word of an antiphon chanted in the liturgy: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

[iii] Dorothee Sölle (1929–2003) was a German liberation theologian and the author of many books, most noted being Suffering. Quoted from Rowan Williams’ The Wound of Knowledge; Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross (1990), p. 134.

[iv] John 12:25.

[v] The Greek verb “hate” is miséō.

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