Lectionary Readings: Jer 31:31-34; Ps 51: 3-4, 12-15; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12:20-33

Theme: A Suffering Servant Messiah


The gospel for today is set immediately after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the stage is prepared by the complaint of the Pharisees, “You see, there is nothing you can do; look, the whole world is running after him!”

The Greeks who had come to Jerusalem to worship at the festival (v. 20) would have been either Greek-speaking Jews from the diaspora, or “God-fearers”, converts to Judaism, but as the story progresses (vv. 21-22) we see that “the Greeks” is a metaphor for all non-Jewish people, the Gentiles. The Greeks come to Phillip and Andrew, both from Bethsaida, the only two disciples with Greek names, and ask to “see” Jesus, i.e. to talk with him and find out whether he is the promised messiah.

At this point the writer of the gospel switches from story-telling mode to reflection on what kind of messiah Jesus is. In the Jerusalem Bible this switch is made obvious by indenting the reflection, or commentary, in which the Risen Jesus speaks directly to the reader (vv. 23-28a). The main flow of the text (vv. 23, 27-28a) is interrupted by the metaphor of the wheat grain falling on the ground and dying in order to bring about a rich harvest (vv. 24-26). The law of nature is also the law of the Word of God.

It is commonly believed that the Jewish people at the time of Jesus were expecting a messiah who, as a new king David, would restore Israel to its former political glory and free them from the tyranny of Rome. However, Jewish American professor of Talmudic Culture Daniel Boyarin has published substantial evidence to show that there were also strains of Jewish thought that had been developing for centuries before Jesus that understood the messiah as a suffering servant who was both divine and human, and who would die for all people, Greeks as well as Jews, following close readings of Isaiah 53:1-12 and Daniel 7:9-14 (Boyarin, 129-156).

In the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is told by Elijah that the Messiah is to be found sitting at the entrance of the city of Rome with the poor and ill, fixing their bandages. In Sanhedrin 98b the Rabbis say “The leper of the house of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is his name”, quoting Isaiah 53:4, “Indeed our illnesses he did bear and our pains he endured”. These and other midrashic traditions about a messiah who suffers vicariously for his people have deep roots in Jewish reflection on the messiah and were current at the time of Jesus. They are not innovations by the early Jewish Christians. What was new was their identification of the messiah as Jesus of Nazareth.

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Do the deep Jewish roots of Christian faith change your attitudes to Judaism in any way? If so, how? 2. How does a suffering Messiah challenge your image of God?

Bibliography: Babylonian Talmud https://www.sefaria.org/Sanhedrin?tab=contents; Boyarin, D. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York NY: 2012).


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