Studying the Lectionary: Lent 5B
 (originally written for April 9, 2000)

Felix Just, S.J.
published in Homily Service 33.1 (2000), pp. 17-21

Book of Common Prayer
(Episcopal: BCP)
Lectionary for Mass
(Catholic: LM)
Revised Common Lectionary
(Ecumenical: RCL)
Jer 31:31-34
Ps 51  or  Ps 51:11-16
Heb 5:(1-4).5-10
Jn 12:20-33
Jer 31:31-34
Ps 51:3-4, 12-15
Heb 5:7-9
Jn 12:20-33
Jer 31:31-34
Ps 51:1-12  or  Ps 119:9-16
Heb 5:5-10
Jn 12:20-33

On the fifth Sunday of Lent, only one week before Passion/Palm Sunday, the readings focus on the upcoming death of Jesus, which is interpreted not only as a priestly sacrifice (Heb 5) but also as the moment of his "exaltation" and "glorification" (Jn 12). From a Christian viewpoint, Jesus' death is also seen as the fulfillment of the promises of the First Testament; it is the means by which our sins are "washed away" (Ps 51) and the "new covenant" is established forever (Jer 31).

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Jeremiah had begun his prophetic ministry around 627 B.C.E., during the reign of King Josiah, who had given the people much hope by undertaking a major religious reform.  After Josiah's death in 609, however, the next few kings of Judah led the people back into idolatry, worshiping foreign gods and relying on foreign kingdoms, despite Jeremiah's prophetic warnings (esp. Jer 7-29).  Eventually, the Babylonian army under King Nebuchadnezzar conquered their land, forcing some of the Jewish people into exile in Babylon in 598 and even more of the people in 587 B.C.E.  Jer 30-33 was most likely written in response, to give the exiled people hope by speaking to them God's promises of restoration and renewal.

Today's first reading is a key passage within this section of Jeremiah (it is also quoted in full in Heb 8:8-12).  In verse 31, God promises to restore not only the "house of Judah" (the southern kingdom of Judah, conquered by the Bablylonians), but also the "house of Israel" (the northern kingdom of Israel, which had already been conquered by the Assyrians back in 721 B.C.E.).  God's promises, therefore, apply to the entire people, all twelve of the tribes of Israel who had been led out of Egypt by Moses (v. 32).  Jeremiah contrasts the "covenant" God made with the people through Moses on Mount Sinai (i.e., the Law or Torah, esp. the Ten Commandments at its core; Exod 20; Deut 5) with a new covenant.  Although the people soon broke this covenant, it was immediately and continually renewed (Exod 32-34).

In contrast to this old covenant, which was written on stone tablets (Exod 31:18; 32:15-20; 34:1), the "new covenant" promised by Jeremiah is to be written directly on the people's hearts (Jer 31:33; cf. Deut 30:14; Ezek 11:19-20; 36:26).  However, the essence of the covenant always remains the same, as God here says: "I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (v. 33; see also Gen 17:8; Exod 29:45; Lev 26:12; Jer 7:23, 11:4, 24:7, etc.; 2 Cor 6:16).  Thus, it is really more of a "renewed" and internalized covenant, rather than a completely "new" and different covenant intended to supplant the previous one.  Moreover, once the people have internalized the central idea of their proper relationship with God, no one will have to teach this to anyone else, since everyone will be personally familiar with God (v. 34).  The concluding phrase emphasizes that even if people have broken their part of the agreement, God does not hold this sin against them.  Instead, God promises, "I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more" (v. 34).

Psalm 51

The different lectionaries choose different verses from this well-known penitential psalm (but note that vv. 3-4, 12-15 in the LM, using the numbering of the NAB, are equivalent to vv. 1-2, 10-13 in the numbering used by the NRSV and most other Bibles, and followed by the RCL).  As its ancient introduction directly says, this psalm expresses David's plea for God's mercy and forgiveness after the prophet Nathan made him aware of the great evil of his sins: committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband Uriah (cf. 2 Sam 11-12).

In this psalm's first stanza, David pleads for God to "wash" and "cleanse" him of his sin (vv. 3-4 LM or vv. 1-2 RCL).  The middle verses, which are omitted in the LM and in the BCP's shorter option, express more directly David's admission of his sins and his recognition of their effects: "Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment" (v. 4 NRSV).  Not only does the last stanza repeat this plea (vv. 12-14 LM or vv. 10-12 RCL), but the LM and BCP also add David's promise to teach other transgressors about God's ways, so that they too shall return to God (v. 15).  Despite these differences, all the selections include the verse that most directly connects this psalm to the theme of today's first reading: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me" (v. 12 LM or v. 10 RCL).

Psalm 119:9-16

The alternate selection in the RCL is the second stanza of the longest of all the psalms (with 176 verses total!). While all of Ps 119 is an extended praise of God's Law, this selection focuses especially on the psalmist's desire to remain pure and whole-hearted in keeping God's commandments and proclaiming God's decrees.

Hebrews 5:1-10

One of the major themes of the Early Christian sermon that we usually call the "Letter to the Hebrews" is comparing the person and actions of Jesus with those of the Jewish temple, priests, and sacrifices.  In particular, the section from 4:14 to 5:10 focuses on the prayers and sacrifices offered by the "high priests" on behalf of all the people.  Heb 5:1-4 (optional in the BCP only) points out that every other high priest has to offer sacrifices "for his own sins as well as those of the people," also stresses that no one can presume to do this on his own authority, but must be called by God.

Verses 5-10 then apply these ideas to Jesus.  The author (traditionally thought to be Paul, but almost certainly another early Christian leader) first stresses that Jesus did not take this priestly role upon himself, but that he was appointed by God.  Two biblical texts are cited in support of this idea: "You are my Son, today I have begotten you" (v. 5; cf. Ps 2:7, also cited in Heb 1:5), and "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek" (v. 6; cf. Ps 110:4).  Verse 7 then focuses on Jesus' own actions, offering "prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death," alluding to the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (which is also alluded to in today's reading from Jn 12; see below).  It may seem strange that the author of Hebrews claims that Jesus "was heard because of his reverent submission" (v. 7), since Jesus' crucifixion would seem to prove that God did NOT hear Jesus' plea to "save him from death."  To understand this, however, we need to recall what was explained earlier in this sermon about the relationship of Jesus and other human beings:

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. (Heb 2:14-15)
Today's reading emphasizes even further that it was Jesus' obedient suffering and death that made him "perfect" and thus "the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" (vv. 8-9).  Verse 10 again mentions that Jesus' appointment as high priest is "according to the order of Melchizedek."  Who is this, and why is he important?  To understand this properly, we need to recall that all priests in ancient Israel had to be members of the tribe of Levi, and that no one who belonged to any of the other eleven tribes could ever be considered a "priest" (cf. Exod 28-29; Lev 1ff; Deut 18).  Since Jesus was a "son of David" and a member of the Tribe of Judah, he could not be considered a priest at all by normal Jewish standards.  Thus the author of the Letter to the Hebrews bases the priesthood of Jesus on Melchizedek, a mysterious figure from the days of Abraham (that is, long before the Jewish priesthood was even established, about 500 years later in the days of Moses).  This Melchizedek is not only called a "priest of God Most High" (Gen 14:18), but he performs such priestly actions as blessing Abraham and accepting tithes from him (Gen 14:19-24). His importance in Christian theology is explained in greater detail later in Heb 7.

By selecting only verses 7-9 in today's second reading, the LM avoids all mention of Melchizedek and of the "priestly" aspect of Jesus' actions.  Nevertheless, it does retain the essential core of the reading, namely the focus on Jesus' obedient suffering and death as the source of salvation for believers, a theme central to today's Gospel selection also.

John 12:20-33

This passage, which comes near the conclusion of the "Book of Signs" within the Fourth Gospel (John 1-12), is a pivotal text for Johannine Theology.  We should not be distracted too much by the appearance of some "Greeks" and of a few named disciples of Jesus in the introduction of this passage (vv. 20-22).  Much scholarly ink has been spilled debating who these people were historically, why they are mentioned here, and why Jesus responds to their request in the way he does.  Any preaching on this text should probably focus instead on what Jesus says here: "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified" (v. 23).  Up until this point of John's Gospel, both Jesus and the narrator have frequently said that the "hour" has not yet come or that it is still coming (2:4; 4:21; 5:25; etc.).  But 12:23 is the first time that Jesus says his hour "has come."

What exactly is this "hour" and what is supposed to happen then?  It obviously refers to Jesus' upcoming crucifixion and death; this is made plain through the saying about the grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying (v. 24; cf. 1 Cor 15:36-38).  Moreover, the same idea is applied to the lives of the disciples: "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (v. 25; cf. Mk 8:35; Mt 10:39; Lk 17:33).

It is important to note that John 12:27 is the only verse in the Fourth Gospel that seems to allude to the so-called "Agony in the Garden" of the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 14:32-42; Mt 26:36-46; Lk 22:39-46; cf. also Heb 5:7 from the second reading, above).  Although the Johannine version of Jesus' arrest in the garden (18:1-11) is preceded by a long prayer (17:1-26), nowhere in this Gospel does Jesus ask God to spare him from having to die on the cross.  The Johannine Jesus does say, "Now my soul is troubled" (12:27), but he explicitly refuses to ask his Father to "save me from this hour."  Rather, Jesus boldly asserts, "No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour" (v. 28).  That this "hour" refers to Jesus' crucifixion is made even more explicit through the image of Jesus being "lifted up from the earth" (12:32; cf. 8:28).  The same image is also found in Jn 3:14-15, which was read at the beginning of last Sunday's Gospel (Lent 4 in Year B).  And just in case this connection is not yet obvious enough, the evangelist adds even more plainly in the last verse of today's reading: "He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die" (12:33).

All this talk of crucifixion, suffering and death, however, should not cause us to forget that the very moment of Jesus' death is also the moment when Jesus is "glorified" (12:23, 28).  Moreover, in John's view the "judgment" of the world is not so much something that God or Jesus will carry out directly, but rather is something that people bring upon themselves (Jn 12:31).  Since the Greek word "krisis" not only means "judgment" but also implies "decision" and "separation", we ourselves are faced with a decision when we look upon the crucified Jesus, when we see the one who is "lifted up" from the earth.  Do we choose to believe and thus gain eternal life, or do we refuse to believe and thus merit condemnation (cf. 5:24-30; 12:44-50)?

Finally, as we approach our celebrations of Holy Week and Easter, we should remember that the crucifixion and resurrection are really, according to John's Gospel, a single unified event.  Being "lifted up" refers both to Jesus' painful crucifixion and to his glorious exaltation.  Thus, Jesus is "glorified" not only after his resurrection, but already in his sacrificial death.

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