[Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 119:9-16, 17-22, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33]
Do you hate your life?
If you asked me to name some things I hate, I’d probably tell you that I hate collard greens. I hate parsing Hebrew verbs. I hate it when my professors don’t answer their emails. I hate the smell of coffee.
What do you hate? A certain genre of music, maybe? People who drive like they don’t have any sense? Having to wait in line at the airport? I bet you could come up with a few things. Right?
Or what about the kind of hate that people sometimes feel toward certain groups of people—that denial of the image of God in our fellow human beings that results in things like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia—that kind of bigotry is a particularly severe form of hate, and when it’s coupled with societal privilege, it is often deadly.
In any case, when we talk about hating something, we’re talking about things we despise, loathe, and abhor. They’re things that provoke anger—or at the very least, extreme irritation. They’re things we’d rather sit in a tub full of scissors than have anything to do with.
So, is this what Jesus means in verse 25, when he says that those who hate their lives in this world will have eternal life? It kind of sounds like it, right?
This is where knowing a little Greek comes in handy. The word for “to love” in this verse is a form of φιλέω (fuh-LEH-oh), which actually does mean to love, to enjoy, to cherish, or to feel affection for.
But what about when it talks about hating your life in the latter part of the verse? That word comes from μισέω (miss-EH-oh), and it doesn’t really mean “hate”, at least not in the sense that we use the word “hate” in English to talk about broccoli or bad drivers.
The real meaning of μισέω is something more like “to prefer less”, or “to renounce in favor of something else.”
So, let’s say your favorite flavor of ice cream is mint chocolate chip, and your second favorite is rocky road. Now, obviously, since they both made it into the top two, you like both flavors a whole lot, and you’d be very happy to see either one as a menu option if you were going out for ice cream. But, if you were using the word μισέω the way Jesus is using it here, you could say you hate rocky road. You don’t loathe or abhor it—you love it—but it’s just not your first choice. You wouldn’t pick it over mint chocolate chip, given a choice between the two. It’s not your number-one favorite. That’s what’s meant by the word “hate” here. Does that make sense?
So when Jesus says that, in order to attain eternal life, we have to hate the life we have right now, he’s not talking about hating our lives in an angst-ridden twelve-year-old girl sort of way. He’s talking about knowing that there’s something better out there.
That brings us to the bit about “eternal life”—and, while we’re on the subject of Greek, let me just say that I’m not crazy about how the word “eternal” is translated here, either. The Greek word is αἰώνιος (ae-OWN-ee-oss), and it’s related to the English word eon, meaning an age or an era—a long period of time, as opposed to something that’s brief, momentary, or fleeting. It’s usually translated as “eternal” in English. However, when we pair it with ζωή (zoe-ay)—“life”—it’s easy to misinterpret.
Yes, technically, ζωὴν αἰώνιον can be correctly translated as “eternal life”, just like μισέω can technically be correctly translated as “to hate”. But, in both cases, a modern English-speaker would be likely to read something into those words that isn’t there in the Greek. When we think of hate, we think of things that tick us off, right? But we just learned that μισέω means something different—the connotation is more like a second or third favorite ice cream flavor than that one vegetable that makes you gag on sight.
When we think of eternal life, most likely, we’re thinking about a quantity of life. We’re thinking about life that is infinite in its number of years—a life that never ends. We know that our lives in this world are finite in quantity—whether you die at seventeen, seventy, or a hundred and seven, your quantity of time on earth is limited. So… he must be talking about the afterlife. Right?
Well, not necessarily. This word αἰώνιος—eternal, infinite—doesn’t necessarily connote quantity of life. It’s not necessarily talking about an infinite number of years. It can also be used to describe the quality of one’s life as being infinite.
Have you ever heard that saying, “Life isn’t about the number of breaths we take, but about the moments that take your breath away”? Yeah, it’s cheesy, but it also does a good job helping us translate αἰώνιος. Rather than “eternal life”, we might use the words “abundant life” or “boundless life” to better get at the quality-centered meaning that Jesus is trying to convey here.
And if it’s not about quantity, then there’s no reason to assume he’s talking about the afterlife. In fact, I’m pretty sure he isn’t. I think that this eternal, abundant, boundless life Jesus intends for us is absolutely something that’s available to us here. In this life. On earth. Right now.
We just have to be willing to choose it. We have to love it and want it more than the life we have right now—the way of living we prefer less, our second-favorite flavor of life—a life mired in the things of this world, the things that this world tries to tell us are important and worthy of our adoration and love. We have to want boundless, infinite life more than we want that.
Because that’s what God wants for us, more than anything.
To paraphrase St. Irenaeus, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” God is glorified in us when we choose the boundless, abundant life that God intends for us, rather than what we’re capable of on our own. Two chapters earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us that he came “that [we] might have life, and have it more abundantly”. A life lived according to God’s purposes, an abundant life, is what God desires for each of God’s children.
So, how do we discern God’s will for our lives?
The ancient understanding of discernment was tied exclusively to scripture—namely, the Torah. That’s where the law was written—particularly in Leviticus and Deuteronomy—so, that’s where the ancient Jews went to discern God’s will. If you wanted to know what God expected of you, you’d open up the Torah and go down the list. That was all you knew about what God desired.
The Jews had an understanding of themselves as a chosen people. They chose their God—they didn’t believe their God was the only god out there, but he was the one they had a covenant with—and their God chose them as his special people. The laws found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy were written down during the Babylonian exile, when they were trying to desperately to distinguish themselves from the people whom they lived among. So, it makes sense that these laws focused on separateness and differentness, on distinguishing them from other people groups. They were all about doing things differently than their non-Jewish neighbors. Keeping this law to the letter was part of their covenant—the covenant God made with their ancestor Abraham.
But the prophet Jeremiah speaks, in today’s Old Testament reading, about a new covenant that’s in the works: not one scribbled on paper or chiseled in stone, but a covenant written by the hand of God in each of our hearts. This new covenant won’t be all about being different and separate from the rest of the world, or about being the one small segment of the population that God has chosen—meaning that we are no longer bound by the letter of a law meant to separate one group of people from everyone else. We will be able to discern for ourselves—individually and corporately—what God desires for us, because God’s new covenant will be written on each of our hearts.
This is something that should resonate with us as Anglicans. When we ask the big questions of life, where do we go to look for those answers? Many would say “sola scriptura”—scripture alone. Others would say “scripture and tradition”. But, as Anglicans, we believe scripture, tradition, and reason to all be sources of authority. If you think back to your confirmation classes, the idea of a three-legged stool was probably used to illustrate this. Scripture—when interpreted properly, in context, with at least a basic understanding of the original languages—can tell us a lot about who God is.
Tradition is important too—it directs our worship, encourages spiritual discipline, and gives us the examples of the lives of the Saints to follow. Because of the traditions of the Church, we have helpful resources like the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the catechism to help us make sense of what we believe. Our baptismal covenant tells us how we are to live our lives. We can learn much from what is passed down to us.
And then there’s reason. I heard a joke once that Episcopalians have two sacred traditions of BYOB, and the second one is “bring your own brain”. We understand that it’s important to use the logic, intellect, and common sense that God gave us—our “memory, reason, and skill”, as one of our Eucharistic prayers puts it. We don’t use our faith as an excuse to eschew modern medicine or reject the best of current scientific thought, and we know that ancient faith and modern science can absolutely get along. (After all, our Presiding Bishop has a doctorate in oceanography.) Reason goes beyond just intellect, though—it also has to do with discernment.
We already know that God desires for each of us to have life that is of boundless, infinite, eternal quality. And God tells each of us how to get there, too. Under this new covenant, Christians don’t just have the Bible and tradition to rely on—we also have the words that God has written in each of our hearts.
The United Church of Christ launched a campaign in 2004 which employed the slogan, “God’s still speaking.” I like that. It’s true: God is still speaking. Do you really think for a moment that God stopped revealing Godself to us as soon as the Bible was done being written? Do you think he looked at those seventy-two books and said, “Okay! All done!” and then retired? Of course not! No, God is still speaking.
God is still telling us how to get to that abundant, boundless life that God intends for us. God is still teaching us how to live a life that’s worth living and loving. God is still making covenants with us, inscribing them on each of our hearts with his own hands like a living, breathing book.
God is still writing.
Maybe it’s time we started reading.