Historical Cultural Context
Honor, the Father, and Spiritual Phenomena
Today’s Gospel selection resounds with themes of honor, the Middle Eastern core value that lies at the heart of understanding Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. It helps bring chapter 12 and the Book of Signs to a conclusion.
Jesus declares that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn 12:23). He then prays: “Father, glorify your name!” and the Father responds: “I have glorified it and will glorify it again” (Jn 12:28). The word “glorify” belongs to the semantic field of honor. It means “to assert or declare the honor” of the Son and the Father.
Throughout the first twelve chapters of this Gospel, Jesus has won arguments with opponents, worked seven signs, shared impressive and significant teaching with “his own people” (Jn 1:11), but they received him not. They denied his claims to honor.
Now Gentiles come to see Jesus and this appears to be the reason for his statement that at last he will receive the honorable recognition he deserves. The Greek word “to see” may also mean “to visit with” or “to meet.”
In John’s heavily self-interpreted gospel, however, the word probably has the meaning “to believe in”; there were still many who did not believe in Jesus despite the signs he worked.
Further, Jesus declares that the hour has come. Will he shirk it? Will he ask the Father to “save me from this hour?” (Jn 12:27). No, for it is precisely through his obedience unto death that he honors the Father’s will, and the Father bestows honor by raising Jesus from the dead.
The parable of the seed (Jn 12:24) indicates the means by which Jesus will be glorified. His death will be the source of life for many, actually for all (Israelites and non-Israelites). Moreover, those who follow Jesus will gain their entry to eternal life through death (Jn 12:25-26).
For this reason, the one who is too attached to life in this world will not prove to be as honorable a follower of Jesus as the one who prefers life in the world to come. In eternity, the disciple will be with Jesus in the Father’s love, an honorable status that nothing on earth can match.
The “voice from the sky” (Jn 12:28) is yet another indication of Jesus’ honorable reputation. In the Hebrew Scripture, this is the familiar bat qolor “daughter of the voice” of God which addressed the prophets. Some in the crowd think they have heard thunder (which was also considered the voice of God, see Ps 29); others think it the voice of an angel.
The fact that the audience was not shocked or disturbed, but offered instead some of the commonly accepted explanations for this phenomenon, indicates that they were fully aware of Jesus’ experience even though on this occasion no one else seemed to be participating in it with him.
The “voice from heaven” is a culturally specific element in the Mediterranean alternate state of consciousness. All alternate states must be interpreted according to the traditional beliefs of their respective culture.
Newspaper and magazine reports that contemporary Westerners are hungering for more intimate contact with the spiritual world suggest an echo of the Gentile request of Andrew: “Sir, we would like to see [or believe in) Jesus.” Seeking a broker to establish contact with a patron is a common Mediterranean strategy.
Yet notice that Philip takes the request to Andrew, then both seem to lead the Greeks to Jesus. The group-centered Mediterranean world gives pause to Western individualists who might want to “do it alone, on my own, thank you very much.”
Lenten communal observances in many churches, such as educational programs or devotional activities, provide a golden opportunity “to see, visit with, and come to a deeper faith in Jesus.”
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University