Today’s lectionary text includes a key theme of life from death, nicely illustrated by Jesus’ parable of the grain of wheat. “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus makes a curious claim in this verse. A literal problem emerges in that grains/seeds don’t die before they germinate. A grain may appear dull and lifeless, but locked within is the marvelous chemistry and biology of life that, under proper conditions (e.g., light, temperature, water) will result in growth.
Okay, granted that Jesus wasn’t a plant biologist. The likely point is that the seed appears to be dead and lifeless although it is not really that way. This complication creates the danger of taking Bible verses too literally. We run into problems by pushing the story illustration too far. The issue is that Jesus was making an analogy between [apparent] death and spiritual life. The gist is that physical dying (such as what Jesus claimed for the wheat grain) can result in eternal life. Anyhow, Jesus makes a dramatic point about death and priorities: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25).
Jesus’ call for radical obedience to the point of death creates a nest of considerations. Some excuse Jesus’ words as intentional exaggeration, also known as hyperbole. In this case, the idea is that Jesus maintains a high standard because he wants people to take God’s calling seriously and aim for the best. If Jesus is intentionally exaggerating then he does so to convey his point with a decisive seriousness. Otherwise, people may not notice and too quickly downplay the issues. The result would then be lack of motivation in striving for better thinking and living.
However literal or not, some interpret Jesus’ words as functional in that they highlight the need for heroic volunteers. In the vulnerable birth stage of Christianity, Jesus had to recruit hardy, dedicated followers. If not, the whole thing would collapse before it got started. Still other literal interpreters believe that we must take Jesus’ words point-blank because there few people who can muster what it takes to enter heaven. What Jesus said then becomes a filter so that only the most worthy will persist to the end. This later view is the least optimistic and it also creates a competitiveness for who is the most righteous. Sure, we can emulate role-models but to have so few persons able reach heaven creates more mischief than it solves. Another problem with taking Jesus’ words too literally is that we could be put-off by the absurdity and give-up through exhaustion and discouragement.
A key question is “where are your priorities?” Are we willing to set aside even our lives for the possibility of eternal life later? This would seem to be the ultimate test of delayed gratification. Martyrdom was Jesus’ intention, and we know that in certain times and places God’s followers have paid the ultimate price. We know that one of the ways love is costly is through self-sacrifice. It’s hard for us who sit comfortably in our American, convenience-driven free world to begin thinking of martyrdom or even death. So much can insulate us from life’s rigors that we can scarcely imagine living or thinking in death’s shadow. Ever how you perceive it, love can require much from us and without a willingness to give our all we can’t truly embrace life.
Despite the confusion of various options, we can renew our thoughts and actions as we love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength. And we also need to love our neighbors as ourselves lest we ignore the necessary connection between loving God and loving others. Therefore, receive and share God’s love and truth. This way, it will be well with our souls.