The “Mandatum Novum” : A New Way of Loving

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by Fr. Randy Flores, SVD

Fifth Sunday of Easter (C)

See how they love one another!


“See how they love one another!” a pagan would exclaim in admiration in the Third Century (A.D.) whenever he or she saw Christians (cf. Tertullian, Apology 39.6). “See how they hate each other!” a pagan might say this today when he or she sees the Christians in our country destroy each other due to the elections.

“Love one another.” This commandment, addressed particularly to the disciples, belongs to the first part of Jesus’ long Farewell Speech at the Last Supper (see 13:31 – 17:26). It is to be the response to the new reality that is to be brought about by Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. That is why before Jesus pronounces the new commandment (Mandatum Novum in Latin) he speaks of his “glorification”. For the writer of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ glorification is the one event of his passion, death, resurrection and ascension.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” (13:34). What makes this commandment “new” (13:34)? It seems this is not even original to Jesus. In the Book of Jubilees, a Jewish religious writing in Second Century B.C. which reworks the materials found in Genesis and Exodus, the patriarch Isaac leaves a farewell commandment to his sons, Esau and Jacob: “Love one another, my sons, as a man loves himself, with each man seeking for his brother what is good for him . . . loving each other as themselves” (Jubilees 36:4-5). In a similar manner, the Apostle Paul, writing in around 50 A.D. exhorts the Christians in Thessalonica: “Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for yourselves have been taught by God to love one another” (1 Thess 4:9). Similar exhortations are found in also in Sir 27:17; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; Mark 12:31. The commandment echoes as well a much older biblical text, Lev 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”.

The newness of this commandment can be understood better if we take into its background the theme of the “new covenant” in Jeremiah 31:31-34.

Writing at the end of the Babylonian Exile (ca. 531 B.C.), Jeremiah (chapter 31) prophesies a reunited people of God (Israel and Judah v. 31) under a new and unbreakable covenant:

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt– a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

Isaiah 31

God reminds the Jews of a broken covenant with him which resulted to the punishment in the Exile. That covenant was made with Moses at Sinai. It is the old covenant from the time of Moses to the Babylonian Exile. God’s own fingers wrote the covenant in stone tablets (Exod 31:18). It would be valid forever, for all places and for all times – a Berit Olam, “a perpetual covenant”. This covenant was broken, however.

A broken covenant does not mean it is the end of that covenant. A broken marriage vows, for instance, does not mean that the bond of marriage is broken as well. The marriage does not cease to exist, but it is in crisis. Everything depends on what the couple do next.

Even though Israel broke the covenant, it does not cease to exist. God does not make another covenant. God’s promise to be with his people remains valid. But over that broken covenant, God extends pardon. With it, God promises that the old covenant will be renewed. It will become “new” in the sense of better, different, no longer breakable covenant. It is to be written directly to the heart.For Christians, this promise in Jeremiah is fulfilled in Jesus (Lk 22:20; 1Cor 11:25; Heb 8:13; 12:24). The new covenant, no longer be broken, is written in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The Mandatum Novum (The New Commandment) in John’s Gospel is not new in the sense of being original. It is new because it is different; it is renewed by Jesus. The reason to love one another is no longer just to feel good and safe, no enemy to worry about, and establish a smooth interpersonal relationship with others. The reason for the love for one another is no other than Jesus.

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