Our text from the 5th Sunday in Lent (Year B) is located in the final section of the “Book of Signs” in the Gospel according to John. You can read a full commentary here. As a bit of refresher, the seven signs in John’s Gospel are:
- Changing water into wine at Cana in John 2:1-11
- Healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum in John 4:46-54
- Healing the paralytic at Bethesda in John 5:1-15
- Feeding the 5000 in John 6:5-14
- Jesus walking on water in John 6:16-24
- Healing the man blind from birth in John 9:1-7
- The raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-45
Through the story of the raising of Lazarus we already know that Jesus has power over death, but in this gospel account it is revealed that He will give life through death. A death that is quickly approaching as this gospel account occurs after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate on Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.
20 Now there were some Greeks among those who had come up to worship at the feast. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me. 27 “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. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder; but others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered and said, “This voice did not come for my sake but for yours. 31 Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” 33 He said this indicating the kind of death he would die. (John 12:20-33)
Just as in the gospel for Sunday, the message of Jesus points to death as the means by which He will redeem humankind – so too does the trajectory of the surrounding text. The entire flow of this section is moving towards an end as St. John explains and wraps up the Book of Signs. The text is often divided into six clearly distinct but interconnected segments:
- Introduction (11:55–57). Here we are told that we are in the time approaching Passover. The scene is being set as people wonder aloud whether or not Jesus is coming. Meanwhile (v. 57), the trap, too, is being set.
- The anointing (12:1–11). In this famous scene, while at supper, Mary anoints Jesus feet. The protest by Judas Iscariot allows the evangelist to put at center stage for just a moment this disciple who will be the tragic figure in the drama beginning to unfold. He steals from the poor; eventually he will lose his all. The key expression in this narrative, however, is that of Jesus in verse 7: “Let her keep this for the day of my burial.” The ointment is not simply cosmetic perfume; it is not simply preparation for death; it is burial ointment and fills the house with fragrance just as the scent of funeral oils pervades a tomb. This burial motif will surface again shortly.
- The triumphal entry into Jerusalem (12:12–19). The crowd takes over this scene as Jesus enters Jerusalem one last time. He comes as king (vv. 13, 15), a motif that will become very strong in the passion account. Though victorious, he rides, not the stallion of war, but the donkey of service. The crowds provokes the Pharisees’ reaction. Jesus’ gift of life to Lazarus is going to demand a frightening exchange: Jesus’ life for that of his friend. This segment concludes with the important phrasing: “Look, the whole world has gone after him” (v. 19). Part of this world is the Jewish crowd that we have observed repeatedly.
- Jesus’ hour (12:20–36). Our gospel
- The evangelist’s evaluation (12:37–43). The ministry in the Book of Signs has not been a great, overwhelming success. The sad comment of v. 40 was well known and often used in the early church (Mark 4:12; Matt 13:15; Luke 8:10; Rom 11:8; Acts 28:26). “He blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not see with their eyes and understand with their heart and be converted, and I would heal them.” (John 12:40). It is not a proclamation of predestination, but a summary evaluation. Isaiah’s text was meant to inform the prophet — and numerous preachers after him — that the comparative failure of his mission entered somehow into God’s plan and should not discourage him.
- Jesus’ summary proclamation (12:44–50). There is no attempt here to indicate an occasion or audience for these verses. What we have, rather, is a résumé of the salient points of Jesus’ teaching, in his own words: (a) the union of Father and Son (vv. 44–45); (b) Jesus as light of the world, come not to condemn but to save (vv. 46–47); (c) the inevitable judgment that depends on personal reaction (v. 48); (d) the identification of Jesus’ word with that of the Father and of the eternal life that it gives (vv. 49–50). These themes have been constant through these first twelve chapters.
At least that is the standard consideration – as though it is the end of Jesus’ public ministry. In regards to this larger context, O’Day  suggests the significance of chapters 11-12 is lost when they are taken as the conclusion to Jesus’ public ministry – the way John is commonly outlined. Rather, in her outline 10:22-42 forms the conclusion and chapters 11-12 “stand as a bridge between Jesus’ ministry and his hour. They belong neither to the public ministry nor to the story of Jesus’ hour, but constitute their own section within the Gospel narrative. John 11-12 move the public ministry into the context of Jesus’ death.”
Her outline of these chapters which she calls: The Prelude to Jesus’ Hour (11:1-12:50) is:
- Jesus’ Hour Prefigured (John 11:1-12:11)
- The Raising of Lazarus (11:1-44)
- The Decision to Kill Jesus (11:45-54)
- Jesus’ Anointing at Bethany (11:55-12:11)
- Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem (12:12-19) ending with “Look, the whole world has gone after him.”
- Jesus Interprets His Death (12:20-36) beginning with Greeks (representing the world) wishing to see Jesus.
- The Epilogue to Jesus’ Ministry (12:37-50)
- The Evangelist’s Commentary on Jesus’ Ministry (12:37-43)
- A Summary Discourse by Jesus (12:44-50)
End of public ministry or “bridge between Jesus’ ministry and his hour?” Always interesting to see the differing perspective.