Historical Cultural Context
Glory: God's Honor
Generally speaking, Americans are unmoved by considerations of honor and shame.
Disgraced elected or corporate officials seem unaffected by shame and often manage to move on to bigger, better, and still more profitable levels.
Shamed athletes are still proposed for membership in their respective American hall of “honor.”
Even at the service academies where honor is an expressly professed value, flagrant infractions have become common.
And when culprits are caught and charged, they hire attorneys for defense. In honor cultures, going to court and hiring an attorney is shameful and an admission of defeat.
For Americans, the notion of honor carries nowhere near the importance that it does in the Mediterranean world.
How, then, can American believers appreciate what John the evangelist writes about Jesus and his Father in today’s Scripture?
They must strive to see life from the evangelist’s Mediterranean point of view. Without an understanding of honor as a core cultural value, the meaning of “glory” and “glorification” is completely lost.
Other farewell addresses in the Bible and other ancient literature usually exhort the survivors, the “children” to practice moral virtue or to remain obedient to the Law. Jesus’ farewell address lays down a “love command” which is described as “new.” “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” (Jn 13:34).
The “newness” of this command is difficult to specify. In his farewell address to Esau and Jacob, Isaac commanded: “Be loving of your brothers as a man loves himself, with each man seeking for his brother what is good for him . . . loving each other as themselves” (The Book of Jubilees 36:4-5). Similar sentiments are also found in the New Testament (1 Th 4:9; Rm 13:9; Gal 5:14; Mk 12:31).
What is evident in all these passages (including Jn 13:34) is that love is extended only to other members of the inner circle, the community, and not to those outside. “By this everyone [else, outside] will know that you are my disciples [insiders], if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35).
This example of mutual love among insiders should be a stirring example to all outsiders.
The best explanation for the “newness” of Jesus’ commandment is implied in the themes that are woven throughout the farewell address: intimacy, indwelling, mutual knowledge. These are the themes that characterize a covenant, in this case, the “new” covenant struck at the Last Supper.
God’s covenantal love is spontaneous, unmotivated, directed to sinners and others unworthy of love. Israel experienced this love of old (Dt 7:6-8). In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God’s love is known in a totally new dimension.
To the credit of its basically individualistic culture, Americans do “love one another” but in culturally distinctive ways. For example, Americans invented the curious distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. Love is directed accordingly.
In contrast, Jesus urges, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34). How do we measure up?
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