Reflections from Juan Jose Barreda
Note: We have modified this document to more closely reflect Juan Jose's orginal meaning as he talked about the owner/servant relationship.
In John 13:34, it is said that Jesus left with his disciples a new commandment, “ A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
The novelty of this command is not that the disciples love one another, but rather that they love as Jesus loved them. Mutuality or reciprocity was one of the essential values of the Mediterranean world at that time -- tied to the common relationships between servants (peasants, small artisans) and Landholders (wealthy, powerful families). However, this social system was founded on unequal (and inequitable) relationships between the landowners and their servants. The former were constituted as the agents of economic welfare for their servants/clients and were perceived as the ones ‘from above’ who provided protection from external threats. But all of this was done in exchange for receiving honor and unconditional loyalty from their clients. Their provision and protection made the loyal servants dependent on the owners. The constant preoccupation of the servants, then, was to please the owners and develop better mechanisms to achieve greater benefits from them.
The mutuality or reciprocity that Jesus desires for his disciples differs in that he commands his disciples to seek equitable relationships—between people who may not have equal social standing or material wealth, but understand their equal worth and dignity. In the Mediterranean context this form of mutuality would be shameful and humiliating for the individual of higher status. Equally it would have been seen as an act of arrogance or irreverence on the part of the “inferior” servants to relate ‘equally’ to those from the higher, powerful social class. Jesus, who was accepted by his disciples as the Son of God and Messiah, proposes to them to relate to one another in a new way, a way in which love dignifies instead of denigrates. And he goes even further in this direction when he calls them friends (John 15:13-15), because it meant that he didn’t hold back anything from them. He gave them everything.
The Word was made flesh (John 1), but not in just any particular socio-economic condition, he was made flesh in the context of the Nazarene, a backwoods ‘nobody’ from the periphery whose dignity was questioned by all who followed the discriminatory paradigm of the Roman Empire (John 1:46, “Can anything of worth come from Nazareth?”) So, Jesus came into the world marked by this unequal master/slave paradigm and develops connections in love in which dignity is emphasized for all of those giving and receiving this love. Thus, it represents a symmetrical mutuality instead of the status quo, asymmetrical reciprocity among unequals. Jesus, the Son of God, the Nazarene loved his disciples so much that he gave his own life for them. By breaking the accepted social class categories and treating his disciples as friends and equals, Jesus introduced a new kind of relationship that is itself the salvific message to the world (the act and new social relationship is the message). This very connection is seen in the Father/Son relationship being that the Father sent His only Son to the world so that those who receive the Son might have eternal life by following him (John 3:16).
Thus, Jesus exhorts his disciples to develop, among themselves and others, a liberating unconditional love that helps the excluded and downtrodden feel worthy and invaluable. As well intentioned as the system of reciprocity may be, it is no longer enough to ‘love the way the world loves’, because love shared on unequal ground just perpetuates the distorted “normal” of the world’s systems. Rather, the disciples need to love one another in the way Jesus demonstrated His love for them. The challenge is to avoid the “natural” benefactor/beneficiary patterns of “love” that produce dependency and servitude. The call is to develop relationships of mutual love and service, friendships that promote healing and wholeness in the community.
The vocation that Jesus promotes, then, isn’t merely a romantic ideal. His disciples know full well that this new way of love, if put into practice, will change everything. And they cannot arrive at this kind of mutual love without the presence of the Holy Spirit (John 14 and 16). The cost of following Jesus in this way meant that they must be willing to give their lives by way of their own death. And it is because Jesus knows what it means that he promises to his disciples a home in heaven with his father (John 14:1-2). That image, in sociological terms, alludes to losing one’s own home, comfort zone, status or position when the call to follow is embraced. His call to love also comes with the blessing of knowing him (Jesus, the Way) who is walking the road he calls us to (John 14:6), and as we follow, we do so in the company of the community of those freed from the systems to be instruments of liberating love.
So how then do we see and develop the relationships among equals who call themselves followers of Jesus coming from different contexts (North and South) within this new paradigm? Our current reality in Latin America is impregnated by this worldly system of clientelism (‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, rulers and subjects, developed and under developed). How do we as Christians that come from contexts of wealth and power, going to serve in contexts of poverty, love? Do our relationships pattern the worlds systems of inequality? How can we, as representatives of Christ and His Kingdom reveal the liberating love that is mutually edifying, promotes dignity and worth, and selfless service? I believe that we must live out our answers to this question by generating relationships of ‘truly’ mutual love and service as an expression of mission itself.