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A Reflection on John 12:20-126

Lent 5: 22nd March, 2014
Richard Wilson, Priest Assisting at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Jer 31:31-34, Ps 119:9-16, Heb 5:5-14, Jn 12:20-33

Jesus is in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover — the final one, we are just days away from his crucifixion. Some Greeks, by which we also understand, Gentiles, are there as well.

They ask to see him. What follows reminds me of a visit to the post office, the request is passed along a chain until it reaches its intended recipient, Jesus. The response that follows seems to bear no relationship to the original question.

Or does it? These are the last days of Jesus' life and ministry. He has declared his sonship and the messianic secret is out. If Jesus truly is the Messiah, as his passion is about to demonstrate, then the approach of Gentiles to salvation in this direct way may be a signal to him of the outworking of a plan. For Jesus, perhaps it is a signal of his work to overturn the social structure of the day bearing fruit at last and that it is time to declare his glorification.

His identity as Messiah and Gentile salvation in this direct and public manner is of course offensive, especially in the Holy City and at the holy festival of the Passover. That an alternative society might be a possibility offends the imbedded social structures of religious hierarchy and the privilege of wealth and regal power. Especially a society centred not on privilege but on the gospel values of equity, generosity, cooperation, empathy, and respect for the person and for creation, a society at the centre of Jesus' vision in his sermon on the mountain.

Jesus responds to these Greeks in difficult images of grains of wheat falling to the ground and needing to die in order to bear fruit, and that in order to inherit eternal life we each must lose our life as we know it.

Of course we understand these to be references to Jesus' own death and rising in a few days, but they also symbolise the social change Jesus worked for. They call for change that is not just fiddling at the edges, but change so profound that the new society will not resemble the old society at all, the old life will be lost and give way to the new.

It was a hard demand then, and led to Jesus being executed. It is also a hard demand for us today, to imagine a life dramatically different from the one we currently enjoy. This despite our rational understanding that change is always being made — think back to your childhood. What was it like? My childhood, growing up on the family fruit block in the Mallee, was vastly different to now. Yet we scarcely imagine any profound change has taken place.

But change happens and it is in our hands to decide what kind of change it should be. That question, what kind of change should we have, is asked by an organisation called Australia 21, a not-for-profit, non-aligned research company in a set of essays entitled: "Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?", published in February this year.

One contribution is by the Rev Elenie Poulos. She is a minister of the Uniting Church, National Director of Uniting Justice, a board member of the Australian Churches Refugee Task Force and a member of the World Council of Churches — Commission of the Churches on International Affairs.

In her essay Poulos observes a change in the role of society in the world from creation of community to the servicing of wealth generation; that systems and structures of world communities have become at their core, economic and rather than the economy serving people, people serve the economy.[1]

This is not an especially new idea. Jesuit theologian of the mid-late 20thC, Johannes Metz described the same thing calling the change bourgeois subjectivity. This terminology is foreign to us now, the principle needs to be restated each generation. Poulos goes on to argue that human well-being and what it means to lead a good life are now defined in primarily economic terms. My own observation is that our social and political conversation is almost always about economics in one form or another.

Two 'isms' undergird this shift: individualism and consumerism, and these in their own ways discount the value of community, of human relationship and of social justice. In an economically servile, consumption-based society the person is reduced to being a unit of consumption. The most valuable social member is the greatest consumer. If you cannot consume you are rejected. You need only to look at the Lazarus breakfast program at St Peter's to see, somewhat starkly, what I mean.

I worry that every aspect of community life becomes a financial transaction. In a community that is merely a bundle of economic exchanges, how can you participate if you are not economically able in the normal manner? What if you choose not to participate in the economy on the present terms?

The problem as I see it, is further compounded by the capacity of capital investment and management systems to deliver market efficiency, especially when it is operated using a skill set that is the preserve of only a few. Competition and greed result because efficiency and competiveness are richly rewarded, although they are not richly shared. Do we ever challenge the appropriateness of competition — no, it is taken as an economic good and therefore universalised. Do we ever challenge the modern concept of property rights on which competition and greed depend — no. Not even the church does this, even though the biblical understanding of property in Leviticus 25 restricts the period of exclusive ownership of property in order that fair redistribution may periodically take place, and that all are guaranteed their basic needs — unlike the guests of the Lazarus program.

Poulos says in our society the good of the whole community is, then, understood in particular neo-liberal economic terms of 'progress' and progress has become the default measure of community well-being. That this progress is shared unequally is not contestable, in my view. That the inequality is unjust, it seems is contested. This vision of community well-being leaves aside in Poulos' words, the values of equity, generosity, cooperation, empathy, respect for the person and for creation. These are dismissed as idealistic. And they are idealistic, they are the ideal of the Gospel. Ideal does not, however, mean out of the reach of change.

As Jeremiah says, we need a new covenant. We must place gospel values at the centre of community life. This is not, I must say, to overturn or punish capitalism, far from it, for capitalism has the capacity to drive incredible advances in human well-being. That is one reason my life is better now that when I grew up in the Mallee. But that ability of the capital economy to drive well-being does not qualify it to be at the centre of community life, nor is it to replace in community the social importance of the person and those things on which the person depends — community, justice, and creation.

Change is hard. We are always hesitant, we fear the unknown. Jesus himself was anxious to approach the Cross. But in faith we accept the necessity of dying to one life to live another. In order to secure a more equitable, just future that places the person at the centre of community life, we do have to die to some aspects of the old life.


Notes

  1. Poulos E (2015) Neoliberalism, values and the public interest. In: Douglas B, Wodak J, eds. Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia? Essays by notable Australians. Weston, ACT: Australia 21.


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