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Gifts of Soil and Wheat — John 12:20-33

Kathleen Rushton —

Kathleen Rushton explains how the evolutionary process of death and resurrection seen in soil and wheat reveal the gift-giving God.

Jesus’ inherited belief in the gift of the land was the backdrop to his role in God’s call. The grain of wheat image in John is an example of how his imagination was grounded in the natural world and the human struggle with it.

Many who first heard this image would have known that wheat is listed in God’s promise — “a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in hills and valleys, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees” (Deut 8:7–15).

A rich scriptural tradition associates God and creation. The prologue of John inserts Jesus into this scriptural tradition: “In the beginning was the Word ... All things came into being through him ...” (Jn 1:1-3).

In cosmology at the time this gospel was written, the word for “all things” (panta) was one of the terms used for what we understand to be the universe. While this image of the grain had rich connotations for those versed in Scripture, it was a familiar natural image which also resonated with those who did not share that tradition.

Gift of long processes

Imagine you are holding a grain of wheat in your hand. Take time. Consider its size, shape, colour, texture, its potential for new life, its journey from the soil to your hand.

This gift of Earth evolved through long processes. Some 3.9 billion years ago, for example, photosynthesis emerged; 335 million years ago the first forests emerged; 114 million years ago flowers evolved with their colour, perfumes, nectars and seeds.

This grain is descended from the family of grasses which evolved some 50–70 million years ago and from which, about 20 million years ago, came the sub-family which includes wheat. The story of its ancestry is complex and includes gene flow from wild cereals.

The earliest evidence that hunter-gatherers collected and used this grain’s ancestors is on the southwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee about 19,000 years ago. The domestication of wheat took several thousand years as in many locations spike, grain and plant size evolved to enable cultivation some 5000–10,000 years ago.

For agrarian peoples, the repetitive organic nature of processes of planting and harvesting, grinding and milling, baking and cooking were linked inextricably to the natural world. In all this, God is in some way present and, too, is present in the organic processes of the cosmos which are controlled by the other-than-human.

Life was hard in the face of drought and famine. Farmers knew wheat depleted the soil. It needed to be grown in a crop rotation cycle and with other measures for restoring soil fertility. The cycle of the seasons — the death and renewal of nature — was a basis of local fertility and mystery religions, associated with the death and rising again of a god.

In her recent book, Fields of Blood, Karen Armstrong traces how settled agriculture introduced institutional or structural violence as elites began to control land and force others into subjection. As Thomas Merton pointed out, all of us who have benefitted from this systemic violence are implicated in the suffering inflicted for over five thousand years on the majority of people and, I add, the Earth.

Harvest imagery

The grain of wheat image is found in the gospel section which begins with two scenes: disciples networking to provide access to Jesus (Jn 12:20–22); the sayings of Jesus to those brought to him (Jn 20:23–26) and then two public prayers of Jesus (Jn 20: 27–33). The wheat verse has signals which alert the reader to significant threads in this gospel. The verse begins with: “Amen, amen I say to you ...” (Jerusalem Bible translates: “I tell you, most solemnly ...”) highlighting the authority with which Jesus was accustomed to speak (used 25 times in John). Demands for discipleship begin with “unless” and preface rites of transformation: the grain dies that it might live and bear much fruit (also John 3:3; 8:24; 13:8).

In the Scriptures, the image of harvest is used for several aspects of God’s intervention in the world. One related to John is when “the harvest” comes, God will gather, redeem and heal God’s scattered people (Isaiah 27:12–13). Harvest is evoked in three images by the gathering and bearing of fruit. The grain of wheat could bear “much fruit.” The vine and branches image refers to “fruit” (Jn 15:2, 4, 5, 8, 16). The fields, which Jesus declares are ripe for harvesting even though it is four months away, have a reaper who is “gathering fruit.” John’s community are reapers of a harvest sown by Jesus (Jn 4:35–38).

Down-to-earth God

Now in this United Nations International Year of Soils, hold a handful of soil. Take time. Touch and smell the soil formed by endless cycles of the weathering of rocks and necessary for all ecosystems. Into soil the grain of wheat falls. Jesus, the self-revelation of God in our world became "flesh" (John 1:14), a term which includes all living creatures.

The Holy One in embracing materiality enters into the evolutionary process of becoming, in which death is an integral part. God is with creation in process, in evolution and is revealed in humility, a word derived from the Latin humus, referring to earth, soil or ground. Humble, then, may mean “from the earth”, “down to earth” or “grounded.” God hears the groan of creation, embraces the world of all living creatures in the incarnation and the cross, and promises re-creation in the risen Christ. In Jesus’ resurrection evolution reaches a new stage.

The transcendent God enters into the evolutionary process in the unimaginable nearness of a down-to-earth, grounded God, imaged by the imaginable grain which falls to the ground and is separated from all in which it lived previously. The same act is on one side a sowing and on the other side a falling and dying. The Unshakeable One is shaken. Jesus’ whole being (soul) is “troubled” (Jn 12:27 cf. Jn 13:21; 11:33–34). In the Johannine agony in the garden, Jesus prays to be saved from “this hour” and then praises God. He is affirmed by a voice from heaven (Jn 12:28). Jesus enters into the evolutionary process of death and resurrection to finish the work of God. He proclaims on the cross: “It is finished” (Jn 19:30). The scattered people in the image of the harvest are gathered: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (Jn 12:32).

Mission is the work of God, the Son and the disciples as shown in Jesus’ prayer of Jn 17. All three parties are involved in “the drawing” of people (Jn 6:44; 12:32; 21:6, 11). This is also suggested in Jn 15:16: 

“And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.”

How does the down-to-earth image of the grain of wheat bring me to greater awareness of the gift of the Earth? How does this image help me as a disciple to enter into the evolutionary process of Jesus’ death and resurrection?

Published in Tui Motu InterIslands March 2015.