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The Coming of the Greeks

When my head is not buried in an old book or entangled with the intricacies of a ball of wool I like to listen to Radio 3 or as it was once known, The Third Programme. Last Saturday “Building a Library” a programme that I have been listening to forever reviewed recordings of Bizet’s Carmen. They play a range of short extracts under different musical directors principal singers and orchestras and compare performances. To appreciate the differences you do need an appreciation of the opera as a whole. Yes there is the gypsy cigarette girl of beauty smouldering with passion, a smitten soldier, a bullfight all leading to the heroine’s tragic death but where exactly does that tune I  played come in the sequence of the story?

It is like this sometimes with the readings we hear from the Bible on Sundays. Yes we remember the famous Toreador’s song but what is the context and how should we interpret what we hear?

“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. Those who love their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

This idea is one found in all the Gospels, but why is it here in John chapter 12? Just as in the opera we know where the plot is taking us but where are we?

Well, this scene takes place immediately following Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He has come through the gate riding on a donkey and been welcomed by the crowds gathering for the feast of the Passover with Hosanna’s and a carpet of palm branches. So rather oddly, to my mind, here in the middle of Lent a week before Palm Sunday we have a reading that to be properly understood needs us to place ourselves amidst this adulation and popularity and only a few days before Jesus death on the cross.

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.” The Greeks were probably gentiles, who though of course allowed to come to the festival were forbidden from eating the Passover meal. They were outside, shut out from temple practices but “they wished to see Jesus.” And set about trying to make that happen.

This is significant for Jesus’ ministry but also it confirms the worst fears of the Pharisees. Only in the line before, so John chapter 12 verse nineteen we hear the Pharisees saying to one another

“You see, you can do nothing; all the world goes after Him.”

Jesus’ reaction to the Greek’s request is joyous: “The hour has come.” For here is a turning point a fulcrum in His ministry – just at the moment that the Pharisees give up their persistent low level arguments  and attempts at simple entrapment and settle in their minds on execution for they are sure there is nothing they can do - the gentiles add their voices and presence to the crowds who have come to see and hear this great preacher and leader from Galileeand moreover particularly seek Jesus out . “Now is the time” says Jesus.

So that is why at this point he goes on to explain why he has to die: 

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains a single grain but if it dies it bears much fruit.”

And Jesus may be linking the idea of much fruit to that of the Greeks having come who point to the future great ministry of the church emphasised by his explanation of how he was to die and what the outcome will be:

“And when I am lifted up from the earth I will draw ALL people to myself” 

Accompanying this is the voice of God the Father saying: “I have glorified my name and will glorify it again.” This is the third time that we hear the voice from heaven, the first was at Jesus’ baptism, the second at the transfiguration and now we hear it again, when it is clear that Jesus’ earthly ministry has reached beyond the confines of Palestine to the whole world. 

“The hour has come.”


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