Historical Cultural Context

God the Patron

John’s Gospel is permeated with the word “love.” In today’s eight verses the word occurs eight times! Of particular interest is Jesus’ advice that his followers “love one another” (Jn 15:12, 17) “as I love you” (Jn 15:12). How did our Mediterranean ancestors in the faith understand this word?

Generally speaking, “being” is the primary preference in the Middle Eastern value system. This means that Middle Easterners generally opt for spontaneous response to the stimulus of the moment, like children in the market place who should respond immediately to cues to dance or mourn (Mt 11:16-17). People who don’t respond appropriately are considered uncooperative, which definitely does not promote and solidify group attachment.

In this same value system, “doing,” that is, calculated and planned activity, is a secondary option. In today’s passage, Jesus urges the disciples to “keep [ = do] my commandments” (Jn 15:10) and “do what I command you” (Jn 15:14). A survey of any of the Gospels reveals that he repeats this exhortation rather frequently. Why is this necessary?

In most cultures, the primary value orientation represents male choices. For females in the culture, the options are reversed. For males in the Mediterranean world, the values that regulate activity are “being,” then “doing.” For females, the order is “doing,” then “being.”
In his ministry, Jesus sought to invert the order of these values according to the needs of the moment. Martha who was quite appropriately “doing” (primary orientation for Mediterranean women) was directed to imitate Mary’s “being” (spontaneous response to Jesus at the moment, Lk 10:38-42).

Here in John 15 addressing his (presumably) male disciples, Jesus says “being” (love-attachment to him and the Father) is not enough. They must strive to “do” (keep the commandments; do what I command you).

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the prophets had to prod Israel to similar behavior. The nation believed that simply “being chosen” by God sufficed. This conferred honorable status. What else was needed? Each prophet challenged the people to “keep” the covenant, to “obey” the commandments, to “perform deeds of justice and charity,” because this was not the normal cultural script.

The preference for goal-setting and planned activity in Western culture and the corresponding difficulty in “hanging loose” therefore sounds like it is just what the prophets and Jesus were after. If they had to preach to Americans today, what would the message be


John J. Pilch

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson