Dying to Have Life

by Lois Tverberg

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. – John 12:24-26

In this passage in John, Jesus focuses on a seed, as he does in other parables about bearing fruit for God’s kingdom. But here, Jesus doesn’t just advise us to pluck out weeds of distraction that might choke the growth of our faith. He proclaims that the seed itself needs to perish in order to multiply and bear fruit; that we need to die to our basic desires in order to live for Jesus and receive life that endures for eternity.

Fishers of Men
The parable’s logic becomes clearer in light of the expectation of first-century disciples. A disciple was supposed to show utter dedication to his rabbi, acting as his “servant” and following him everywhere he taught. To do this one had to embrace a lifestyle of traveling, lack of comfort and sleep, as well as rigorous study of the Torah and the rabbi’s interpretation of it. Some quotes about it include,

This is the way [to acquire knowledge] of the Torah: eat bread with salt, drink water by measure, sleep on the ground, live a painful existence, and labor [studying] the Torah. (1)

The words of Torah are not retained by one who is lazy regarding them, and not by those who study surrounded by luxuries, food, and drink; but rather by one who ‘kills himself’ over them, denying himself physical indulgences; one who does not allow his eyes to sleep nor his eyelids to slumber. (2)

Other rabbis expected their students to “kill themselves” in their studies in their desire to learn the Bible. How much more should Jesus, our rabbi and Lord, expect that we sacrifice our time and lives to learn his words, and live by them too.

(1) As quoted in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Bivin, p 25.

(2) Maimonides, Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:12. (Commenting on Shabbos 83b, B. Talmud.)

Photo: Edith OSB