The upcoming lectionary text for Sunday contains one of my favorite metaphors:
Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.
We say the bit about wheat falling to the ground and dying during the funeral liturgy. The seed metaphor has been stated beautifully by poets, activists, and musicians: “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.”
A biologist would point out that a grain of wheat doesn’t technically die, but it’s a lovely description of the way we bury something in order to create more of it. Jesus lays the symbolism on thick, here: what he is doing will be replicated many times over. He will die, and create a movement. The members of this movement will do the same. All of this illustrates the love-it-and-lose-it paradox: that we only find meaning and purpose outside of ourselves. Our lives are fulfilled when we realize our lives are not the most important thing. We find our selves when we lose our selves for a greater purpose.
The “hate/love” language can be difficult for modern ears, but it was a staple of ancient rhetoric. Modern folks are also more aware of two great distortions of this teaching. The first is a social distortion: the church has sometimes used doormat theology to oppress others. It has said, “You should hate your life so you must accept unfair treatment. You are a sinner and deserve hell, so be grateful for what you get.” The second is a personal distortion: individuals use passive-aggressive selflessness to shame and humiliate others. In many toxic relationships, someone plays the martyr or hero. Both of these distortions, social and personal, involve self-deception and sleight-of-hand. We can use the language of selflessness to massage our own egos or build our own power.
It helps to place the metaphor in context: Jesus’ revelation about his identity and character. He ties it to the movement he births, he describes it in terms of a cosmic battle with the “prince of this world,” and he restates one of John’s favorite themes: that those who follow Jesus will be with him. If we give ourselves in love to others and to God, we will recognize Jesus is with us the whole way. Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. ” Jesus is about to voluntarily walk into a cosmic conflict with the forces of evil and oppression that will play itself out in his very body, and although it is terrifying, he is more alive than ever.
Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here:
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