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Non sequiturs?

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Many times when we read the Gospels, we run into apparent non sequiturs. We might sit there puzzling for quite some time over what Jesus’ words mean and why he chose those particular words in response to that particular question or situation. Apparent non sequiturs are always a good place to dig in. Today’s Gospel is certainly one of those situations. Some Greeks, who were in Jerusalem for Passover, wanted to see Jesus, so they approached Philip. Philip then went to Andrew, and together they went to tell Jesus. In response, Jesus begins speaking about his "hour," how a grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die, how he is troubled at this hour, but how it is his very purpose for coming. He speaks of death and glory — very heavy stuff.

If I were in Philip or Andrew’s place, I might have asked with a puzzled look on my face, "So, is it alright if those Greeks come to see you, or not?" What about those Greeks?

The desire of those Greeks to come and see Jesus probably meant different things for different people.

What did it mean for Philip and Andrew? It’s no accident that these two apostles are the ones involved here. They both had Greek names and were from the town of Bethsaida, which had a strong Gentile influence. And so, it is natural that these visiting Greeks, who wanted to see Jesus first, would approach Philip. Philip and Andrew were both the type of people who wanted to introduce others to Jesus. When each one had first discovered the Messiah, Andrew was eager to bring his brother Simon to Christ, and Philip was eager to tell Bartholomew (Jn 1:41, 44). Now, perhaps, they were excited to use their Greek-influenced background to bring a new group of people to Our Lord.

What did it mean for the religious leaders? Word had been spreading about the signs worked by Jesus of Nazareth, and most recently, that he had raised someone from the dead in Bethany. Great crowds went out to see that man who had been dead for four days before Jesus brought him back to life. And those great crowds next lined the streets of Jerusalem with palm branches, shouting "Hosanna" to the king of Israel. The Pharisees noticed all of this increasing fame and wanted him arrested, but only could look at each other and say, "You see that you can do nothing; look, the world has gone after him" (Jn 12:19). They were right about this growing fame. Now, even a group of Greeks was interested in seeing him. It was not only large crowds, but people from different parts of the world. The Pharisees were understandably terrified. What would happen if all these people saw this as the moment when they, with their Messiah-king, would finally rise up and overthrow their Roman occupiers? The Pharisees feared the Romans would retaliate and crush them, and their temple and nation would be destroyed (cf. Jn 11:48). For the religious leaders, the interest of these Greek visitors in Jesus was just one more alarming stage of growth for this dangerous movement, and one more motivating factor in wanting Jesus arrested before the movement could get out of hand.

And what did it mean for Our Lord? He does not seem interested in whether those specific individuals saw him or not. Rather, their desire to see him signaled something greater. Commenting on this passage, St. Thomas Aquinas said that Christ’s glory is threefold: in his passion, in his resurrection and ascension, and in the conversion of the Gentiles. This last part cannot happen without the first two. Only after he has suffered death and has risen, and when he sits at the right hand of the Father, then "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2:10-11). The conversion of the Gentiles was not to happen until after Christ’s Passion, and the fact that Greeks already were being drawn to him was a sign that his hour had arrived. Now was his hour to be glorified. But this glory did not mean drawing large crowds to himself — not yet. It first meant his death. He is the grain that must fall to the ground and die in order to bear much fruit. That fruit would be the redemption of all — these Greeks and of the whole world — the purpose for which he came to this hour.

Fr. Oetjen is parochial vicar of St. James Church in Falls Church. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021