Those words from the Peace Prayer of St. Francis very aptly express the message of today’s gospel. The incident in today’s gospel took place right after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (which we will recall next Sunday). The authorities were greatly disturbed by the event. “We are getting nowhere; the whole world has gone after him,” bemoaned the Pharisees (Jn 12:19). As if to prove them right, today’s gospel tells us that some Greeks, pagans at that, showed interest in seeing Jesus. They did it in a way very familiar to us: They approached somebody who could help them.
We don’t know whether they actually got to see and talk to Jesus or not; the gospel does not satisfy our curiosity. We don’t know either whether Jesus’ words are addressed to them or not. But we do know that Jesus’ words are valid and relevant for all – including ourselves: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat.” What a simple image, yet so rich and profound.
Jesus was speaking for himself. He was just a few days away from his passion and death, and he understood fully well that he had to give up his own life in order to give life to the whole world. It was not easy. The gospel describes the inner crisis Jesus went through, and how he struggled with the specter of death: “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour.’ But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.”This inner struggle is John’s equivalent of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. It was not easy for him, but he submitted to the Father’s will.
The words of Jesus (“unless the grain of wheat…”) remind us, first of all, that we are the fruit and the harvest of other people’s toil and death, both as a nation and as individuals. We are what we are because of the death of the many unknown soldiers and unsung heroes;because of the sweat and toil of our ancestors. They died so that we might live. (See story of the bamboo.)
In the same manner, our toil and self-denial will bring about new and better life for others. Dying does not have to be taken literally, in the sense of losing one’s life. It can also mean dying to pride, selfishness, hatred, drinking, drugs, gambling etc. People “die” to different things for different reasons: Some people “die”to excessive eating and drinking for a better health. Students “die” to leisure and recreation for the sake of honors. Athletes “die” to comfort and pleasure for the sake of honors. And so on.
There was a married young man who had a drinking habit. He spent more time with his drinking buddies than with his family. Eventually, his marriage broke up and he lost his job. As life without his wife and children was unbearable for him, he sought to reconcile, but his wife would agree only if he stopped drinking and got a job. Swallowing his pride, he set on the path of recovery. He took all sorts of odd jobs to earn some money. Little by little he was able to rebuild his life and his marriage. It was by dying to his pride and to his vice that he brought new life to himself and his family.
The only way for us to make our life meaningful and fruitful is to spend it at the service of others. It takes great faith and courage to understand this – and even greater courage to put it into practice. But that is the way it is. That is the way the Lord Jesus did it. And that is the way he wants us to do it! This is what he meant when he said: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”