Historical Cultural Context
Repetition and Style
Today’s Gospel concludes Jesus’ response to Philip’s request: “Show us the Father” (Jn 14:8). The beginning and end of this passage repeat the same idea but in reverse: “if you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15) and “those who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me” (Jn 14:21).
Such a literary construction is called an “inclusion” characterized by “reverse parallelism” The text “included” within these verses is intended to be viewed as a unit.
The unit (Jn 14:16-20) contains three basic ideas, also repeated in parallelism.
(1) The Spirit is coming to the community as advocate, helper, counselor (Jn 14:16); Jesus is returning (Jn 14:18). This pattern repeats itself throughout the farewell address.
Jesus alternates the expressions “I go to send the Spirit” with “I myself shall return.”
One and the same basic fact, that God does not abandon the community but remains ever with it, is captured in each statement.
(2) The forces of evil neither see nor know the Spirit (Jn 14:17a); the disciples see the risen Jesus, source of their life (Jn 14:19a).
Seeing and failing to see are major themes in John’s Gospel. Here the forces of evil (the world) stand in contrast to the force of Risen Life (the disciples).
(3) The disciples know the Spirit because he abides with and in them (Jn 14:17b); the forces of evil do not see the risen Jesus, but the disciples recognize his abiding presence in the mutual love that they express freely and openly (Jn 14:19b-20).
A number of insights from Mediterranean culture help modern believers to gain a better understanding of John’s repetitive style.
Repetition And Meaning
First, secrecy, lying, and deception are key strategies in this culture for protecting one’s honor It is always difficult to know the truth; the suspicion is always that others are lying.
Though this makes life very difficult, the culture offers strategies for affirming that truth is being told. One is to call God to witness to what one says. The prohibition against using God’s name in vain is a prohibition against calling God to witness a lie.
The fact that such a commandment exists suggests that it was a common practice to name God as witness to a lie.
Modern Western culture’s access to polygraph tests, sodium pentathol, and similar means makes it difficult to appreciate the frustration the ancients felt in trying to discover the truth. Jesus’ guarantee of the Spirit of truth as Paraclete was good news indeed.
Second, modern believers may feel uncomfortable about the contrasts John regularly draws between “us” (believers) and “them” (the world, the forces of evil). If John and his community sound slightly paranoid, that judgment may be more than partly correct.
Middle Eastern culture is agonistic, that is, it is conflict-prone. Its basic social institution is the large and very extended family. Everyone outside the family is suspected of being an enemy, plotting evil against the family, seeking to damage it. Truth was owed only to family and kin extending no further than the village. No one outside the village had a right to know anything.
This cultural orientation is challenged by Jesus’ teaching to love one another and imitate the love that exists between Jesus and the Father Jesus’ love-command extends beyond the family and the village.
John’s reference to “the world” or the forces of evil no doubt stems from this basic cultural hostility toward non-kin, but it also is based on the realization that some people refused to believe in Jesus and his message and sometimes did take hostile action (e.g., ejecting folks from the synagogue).
Since they live in a different culture, what role do Americans expect the Paraclete to play in their lives?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University