A long goodbye

To me at least, it’s one of the most emotionally wrenching scenes ever filmed. In 2003, the Oscar for Best Picture went to Return of the King, the final installment of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. One of the emotional pillars of the plot is the loyal bravery of a hobbit named Sam, who for the love of his master Frodo is willing to risk anything to help him complete his quest to destroy the Ring of Power and save Middle-Earth and especially their homeland, the Shire.

At the end of the film, the four hobbits bid a tearful farewell to their guide and mentor, Gandalf. The wizard’s time on Middle-Earth has come to end, and he prepares to board a ship sailing for the Grey Havens. What the hobbits don’t know is that their beloved Frodo must also leave; the burden of carrying the Ring has taken its toll on his body and spirit, and he too is bound for the Havens.

Even viewers who had never read Tolkien’s masterpiece had three long films to learn to love the characters, their camaraderie, their noble heroism — and particularly, the deep friendship of Frodo and Sam. The farewell scene is difficult to watch. You know it’s right, you know it has to happen, but you don’t want it to. And if you have a heart and haven’t slept through the movie, you’re apt to shed a tear or two with Sam when Frodo says goodbye.

This is one of the things I think of when I read Jesus’ long goodbye in the gospel of John.

No, I’m not suggesting that Frodo is some kind of a Christ-figure. Tolkien is too much of a storyteller to settle for straightforward allegory. But we shouldn’t miss the human drama of the situation that John is narrating. Judas has just left the room to set his tragic plan in motion. Jesus knows what’s coming, but the disciples don’t. This is goodbye. And if we have a heart and haven’t slept through the rest of the gospel, we might understand a bit of the torture and confusion the disciples are facing as Jesus tries to prepare and comfort them.

The end of chapter 13 introduces what is commonly known as the Farewell Discourse. We’re familiar with farewell discourses in movies: the words spoken as a character dies or rides off into the sunset or returns to the battlefield. There’s precedent for such discourses in ancient literature, and we can find forms of these even in the Bible itself (e.g., Jacob’s farewell in Gen 49, or Moses’ in Deut 33). But there is no such discourse in the other three gospels. Only John gives us a peek into these final moments, and what Jesus says will have a profound influence on the letters that the apostle will later write.

As we’ll see, Jesus tries to reassure his men, to let them know that he’s not abandoning them or leaving them to fend for themselves. Indeed, he will send them his Spirit to comfort and guide them, and will eventually return himself to take them home to the Father.

But before he tells them that, he has an important instruction to give them, a “new commandment” that defines what will henceforth be “Job One”: “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other” (John 13:34, CEB). 

More on that in upcoming posts.