Historical Cultural Context
On the Fourth Sunday of Lent in this cycle, we reflected on John’s presentation of the “world” as the forces that are hostile to Jesus and his followers. Today’s reading is another example of that sentiment.
How did Jesus cope with this hostility? How does he expect his disciples to cope with it? The Johannine Jesus prays (Jn 17:1-26) first for his immediate disciples (Jn 17:6-19) and then for all who will later come to believe in him (Jn 17:20-26).
Communication to God
Jesus addresses God as “Holy Father” (Jn 17:11), and the tone of the prayer reveals the attachment or solidarity between Father and Son as well as Jesus’ firm commitment to fulfilling the will of his Father.
Jesus asks the Father to protect his disciples in the world (Jn 17:11) and from the “evil one” (Jn 17:15), and to sanctify them in the truth (Jn 17:17).
In Jesus’ group-centered culture, no individual ever feels capable of taking on the “world” singlehandedly. In his moment of crisis, Jesus reminds the belligerent Peter to put his sword back into its sheath: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt 26:53).
As difficulties in the Mediterranean world affect groups and not just individuals, so protection must come from a group and not just an individual.
The group known as “the world” is opposed to the group comprised of Jesus and his disciples. Engagements between these groups have been very difficult, and the Jesus group suffered one loss (Jn 17:12) because the evil one is on the “other” side (see Jn 6:70; 13:2; 13:27).
The only way to get an edge on such a powerful enemy is to petition the help of an even more powerful ally, the heavenly Father (Jn 17:11, 15).
The Old Testament tradition urged that God’s people sanctify themselves: “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44; 19:2; 20:26). Holiness and sanctification involve separation from what is not holy.
Because the disciples belong to God (Jn 17:9) they must separate themselves from the forces that are opposed to God (the world).
Moreover, the disciples are to be sanctified in the truth which is God’s word (Jn 17:19). But since Jesus is both Word and truth (Jn 14:6), the disciples are to be separate from the world so that they can be more strongly attached to Jesus.
Indeed, they have accepted the word Jesus brought them (Jn 17:14) and are thus prepared for mission (Jn 17:18), that is, the disciples are now able to share the word with others.
It is difficult not to conclude that Jesus’ prayer for his disciples reflects something of a siege mentality: “us” against “them.” There was certainly good reason for this feeling in Jesus’ lifetime, and equally good reason for it when the evangelist was writing, some sixty years after Jesus died.
The contemporary Christian who would like to draw inspiration or guidance for life from a passage like this must strive to balance the need for separateness with the advantage of being open and available to all, even one’s enemies. Prayer understood in the cultural perspective can be of some help.
Religious prayer is primarily communication to God but the public prayers we hear often seem crafted (primarily?) to impress the listeners! Jesus’ prayer in this passage is addressed to the Father but delivered within earshot of his disciples! How many purposes does prayer serve in the life of your community?
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University