31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”John 13:31–35 (NRSV)
What is new about the ‘new commandment’ that Jesus gave to his disciples? Is the ‘new commandment’ to love one another like the new wine in the old skin or the old wine in a new skin? How do we understand the politics of the ‘new commandment?’ The newness of the ‘new commandment’ given by Jesus, which is to love one another, is its celebration of life driven by the law of love. It is also new because it identifies the God of the commandments as the God of love, for such a God loved the world beyond all barriers. Finally, the commandment’s newness is in its testimony that Christian discipleship is all about love, loving the other just as Christ has loved the creation—even until the point of death, trespassing all boundaries.
As I initiate a conversation about the ‘new commandment,’ I want to acknowledge the commandments in the Hebrew Bible. The core event in the territorial founding of the Israelite people is the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. The ‘Ten Commandments’ or the Decalogue (Exodus 20:1-14) served as an ethic of life to the people of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, prescribing people’s relationship with God and people’s relationship with one another. The Decalogue served as a preface or a preamble to the fabric of social and religious life, as the Levitical law and the Holiness code followed the Ten Commandments. When the time for Jesus came to offer a ‘new commandment’ to his disciples, Jesus did not just repeat the Decalogue as his ‘new commandment,’ as old wine in a new skin. Rather, he reframed the commandments given to their ancestors as love. In fact, Jesus reimagined the entire commandments for his context, summarizing them as ‘love one another.’
Before I engage this ‘new commandment’ that Jesus gives to his disciples, allow me to discuss a previous conversation of a religious leader with Jesus about the ‘greatest commandment,’ for it informs and invites us to understand Jesus’ politics in handling the commandments.
In Matthew 22:36, we read that in the presence of the religious leaders of the temple and law, a certain lawyer was asking Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?” A question generally exposes the politics of the questioner. In this case, the lawyer’s question exposed that his politics were about power. Since the lives of the religious leaders of the temple were always conditioned by power, they asserted power in terms of religion and law in the society. They have always enjoyed being the ‘greatest’ with their religiosity and with their grip on the law. So in asking Jesus, ‘which is the greatest commandment?’ this religious lawyer was exhibiting the hermeneutic of power.
This question of ‘greatest’ reveals the longing and aspiration of the religious leaders of the temple to make temple laws ‘great’ again. One of the colonial rhetorics that thrived during the Brexit debate was the need to make Great Britain ‘great’ again. When conversations on ‘greatness’ take centre stage, be they in our society or in the scripture or in churches, the calling of political theology is to interrogate and expose the hermeneutics of power embedded in them. The hermeneutic of ‘word becoming flesh in Jesus Christ’ is all about de-powering, de-privileging, and de-colonising and is about being in solidarity with the margins and the subalterns.
When the lawyer asks Jesus about the ‘greatest commandment,’ this question is like a legal expert asking today among all the Acts of the Parliament (as the UK doesn’t have one codified written constitution like in other modern States), ‘Which Act is the greatest?’ It is surely difficult to pin down one particular law or Act and name it as the greatest, since each and every law or Act that was made has a particular history, context and situation. For example, in the UK, the Equality Act of 2010 protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in the wider society. It replaced previous anti-discrimination laws with a single Act, making the law easier to understand and strengthening protection in some situations (though discrimination done in the name of caste is not included in it despite research and advocacy done to include it.). By bringing this example, the point I am trying to make is that each Act or a law has a particular need that it attends to and one cannot pit one law against another law as ‘the greatest.’ The expert in Law who asked Jesus, ‘which commandment in the Law is the greatest?’ was exposing their power-thirsty attitude of privilege, was trying to trick Jesus with the Law, which the religious community held very sacred and dear to them.
There are 613 laws in the Torah, and to pick one law as the greatest law was not only a herculean task for Jesus, it was also an awkward task, for all the laws were important. Jesus, as always, rose to the occasion. Jesus replied to this lawyer, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22:37-40). For Jesus, when the lawyers, scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees and other religious leaders of the temple tried to trick him with the Law, Jesus always treated them with love, which is love for God and love for neighbour. He emphasised that these two commandments are like two pillars that support the entire law and prophets. The ‘greatest’ commandment is to love, which is about affirming the dignity of the other.
In contrast to the framing of love as the ‘greatest commandment,’ Jesus, after washing the feet of his disciples, offers them a ‘new commandment,’ which was to love one another just as Jesus had loved them (John 13:34). For the religious lawyer, his social location of power and privilege made him enquire about the ‘greatest commandment,’ whereas for Jesus his mission and ministry of offering newness and fullness in life gave him the impetus to offer a ‘new commandment.’ In the lawyer’s question of ‘greatest commandment’ we recognise a hermeneutic of power, for he looks for the ‘greatest’ in every aspect of life, which was reflected in his enquiry about the commandment. When Jesus offers a ‘new commandment,’ he accesses a decolonial hermeneutic, which is the hermeneutic of love, for there is ‘newness’ in serving his disciples and washing their feet, in contrast to the lawyer’s quest for power. However, in both cases, whether it was about ‘greatest commandment’ or ‘new commandment,’ Jesus’s response was only love.
What is ‘new’ about this commandment? All 613 commandments, which include 248 positive commandments and 365 negative commandments in the Torah, were summarised by Jesus in Matthew 22 as two, which were to love God and love one another. Likewise, here in John 13, Jesus offers a ‘new commandment’ which is to love one another. The newness of this commandment is in loving one another, which is not about do’s and don’ts, not about rules and laws, not about positives and negatives, but about love and love alone, which is the embedded principle in all the commandments. On the one hand, it is love and not law that makes this commandment new, and on the other hand, whenever a commandment is about love it will always be new.
Prior to Jesus offering this new commandment, he tells his disciples in verse 33, “where I am going, you cannot come,” by which he was saying to them, ‘where I am going you cannot come, but what I am doing you can do, which is loving, loving by trespassing all boundaries.’ The newness of this commandment is also found in Jesus’ words, “just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (verse 34b). For this commandment was not mere rhetoric, but an example to follow. Jesus demonstrates love for one another by washing the disciples’ feet—and then he offers the new commandment to them. This commandment was not just a prescriptive law, but a commandment that followed an exemplary action. Jesus demonstrated a love that inspires one to stoop down and wash the other’s feet.
The fulfilment of this new commandment becomes the mark of Christian discipleship, for “by this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (verse 35). The newness in Christian life is demonstrated and determined by loving one another. Though it appears to be simple, yet it is deep and profound. Jesus simplifies the complexity of the entire law and commandments into ‘love for one another.’ The politics of scripture, the politics of new commandment, the politics of Christian discipleship and the politics of Christian living is all focused on ‘Just as Jesus loved us, so should we love one another.’
In the UK, the government has passed a Nationality and Borders bill in the parliament which has hostile proposals for people seeking sanctuary. In recent weeks, it was also proposed by the UK government that people seeking asylum in the UK will be flown 4000 miles to Rwanda as part of the government’s crackdown on unauthorised migrants. Both of these proposals are unfriendly, unethical, unchristian and against the gospel of Jesus Christ. In such a context, what is the relevance of this ‘new commandment’ today? The newness of a commandment is in the love for the other, and the love for the other makes laws and commandments new. A political theological response to these legislations calls for governments to demonstrate love for the ‘other,’ in this case by offering welcome, hospitality, housing, refuge and sanctuary.
Inderjit Bhogal, the former President of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, has written a theological response on the Rwanda crisis and the passing of the Nationality and Borders Bill, in which I recognise the relevance of the new commandment today. He has written,
The gospel does not go from crucifixion to crucifixion. It goes from crucifixion to resurrection. Anything that goes from suffering to suffering contradicts the gospel. The Nationality and Borders Bill currently before the government is a case in point. It treats already suffering people with more suffering and humiliation. It treats people as deserving and undeserving refugees. The criteria to determine refugee status is not fleeing suffering but the means of travel and routes taken. Sending people seeking sanctuary to Rwanda is inhumane, cruel, morally bankrupt and theologically nonsense. It demonises harmless people, dehumanises human beings, sanctions hatred and hostility. It takes people from crucifixion to crucifixion. We need safe routes for all refugees, from anywhere in the world. Government has a duty under the UN Refugee Convention to provide safe care and hospitality for all refugees. Justice, mercy and humility, not injustice, cruelty and humiliation for all the crucified people of the world. This is the challenge of redemption, resurrection and restoration.
Let love be the hermeneutic that interprets scriptures, laws and life. Love should be the interpreting principle in every situation and to every person. Love for God is not expressed by hatred towards a neighbour based on any text. Scriptures need to be understood as love letters of God to faith communities in a given context, seeking relevance to the readers in demonstrating the love for God and love for neighbour. Anything that discounts love does not properly understand the commandments. Are Christians known today as disciples of Christ by the new commandment of Jesus? The world around us is longing for love, peace and justice. If followers of Jesus Christ in the twenty-first century don’t activate the new commandment of Jesus to love one another, they not only deny their Christian discipleship, but also run the risk of failing to transform the world into a ‘new heaven and new earth.’ The ‘new commandment’ that Jesus gave to his disciples is life-giving and love-centric.