“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” (John 12:24)
The Bible can sometimes confound us but so can nature. When Jesus speaks the words above, he draws from the natural world of agriculture, where germination and growth can only occur when seeds split open and die. Dig up a plant such as wheat, and you will not find a seed; it is dead, but the fruit of that seed is healthy and living. Jesus uses this lesson from nature to teach his followers the meaning of his upcoming death.
Just as the death of a seed is not the final act in the seed’s life, the dying of Jesus is not the final act in his life. It is a simple but profound lesson: life will come from death, and life will always have the final word.
St. Paul understands this deeply so he can write from prison, “Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain” (Philippians 1:20-21). Paul does indeed give his life over to executioners, but he is really giving his life over to Christ, who lives in him on both sides of the grave. Death and life work hand in hand for our salvation when we live in Christ and Christ lives in us.
What, then, are we to make of those places in the Bible where death is spoken of in a different way? For example, in the book of Deuteronomy, God’s people are urged to choose between life and death. In a lengthy address to the Hebrews journeying toward the Promised Land, Moses proclaims, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). And how do we manifest the choice for life? By loving and holding fast to God’s voice in a spirit of obedience (Deuteronomy 30:20).
Israel understood that obedience to the commands given to Moses was life-giving. Loving God (the first three commands) and loving neighbor (the last seven commands) require a certain dying to self (like that seed in the parable of Jesus) that leads to fullness of life. However, if our choices put to death those things upheld in the commandments, there is no life to come. When we lack compassion, reverence for God, respect for others, and honesty, we are not planting seeds that lead to life but seeds that will never produce healthy fruit.
Scholar C.H. Dodd once defined paradox as “truth standing on its head for attention.” The Bible’s handling of life and death, a topic much broader than this article can fully explore, draws us into the ultimate paradox that in giving of ourselves we find ourselves, in giving ourselves away we discover who we are, and in dying to self-centeredness we are born to eternal life. The life of Jesus, culminating in his death and resurrection, invites us to draw on the grace of God to imitate his son.
Catherine Upchurch is the general editor of the Little Rock Catholic Study Bible and contributes to several biblical publications. She writes from Fort Smith.
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