This week’s Gospel contains a phrase that can sometimes be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Placing it in its proper context in the Gospel of St. John, we have a section from Jesus’ farewell discourse (John, Chapters 14-17). Jesus speaks to His eleven Apostles after Judas had left the Last Supper to betray Him. Jesus states in His teaching “. . . The Father is greater than I.” (Jn. 14:2) In what sense is this meant? How can it be true?
There was a heresy in the early Church (4th century) called Arianism. A priest from Alexandria in Egypt, Arius denied the divinity of Jesus, basically holding that Christ was created by God the Father and not equal (consubstantial or of one substance) with the Father. This heresy was denounced at the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), from which we have the creed that we profess every week at Sunday Mass (Nicene Creed). In this creed we hear that Jesus was consubstantial with the Father.
Moreover, we read in St. John’s Gospel from its first verse: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (Jn. 1:1) The Word (Jesus) was God.
Later in the Gospel, Jesus identifies himself with the Divine Name for God (YHWH or I AM) rarely uttered by any Jew. “So the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.’” (Jn. 8: 57-58) They picked up rocks to stone Him because they thought He was guilty of blasphemy—making Himself equal to God.
Let’s read some further Scripture passages:
[Jesus] who “for a little while” was made “lower than the angels,” that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Heb. 2:8)
[Jesus] who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2: 6-8)
In His human nature, Jesus was lower than the angels, and now subject to suffering and death. He submitted His will to that of His Father as seen in the agony in the garden: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” (Mt. 26:39) From the perspective of Jesus’ humanity, the Father was greater than Jesus. However, Jesus never ceased to be fully God, fully divine and consubstantial with the Father.
Remember, there is no one exactly like Jesus (the God-Man). The Church had to find ways to explain the mystery of God becoming man with all of its implications, without teaching something erroneous.
If you think that theology is something easy to grasp and to teach precisely, try spending some time contemplating the various mysteries of our faith such as the Incarnation, the Trinity, Transubstantiation, the Virgin Birth, the Immaculate Conception, etc., and then present them to others without veering off into heresy.
It’s no small task!
Fr. Ed Namiotka