Mar 18, 2018: 5th Sunday of Lent (B)

Introduction

From early times, Lenten preparation for celebrating Easter included recounting the history of salvation, which is exactly what happens in the lectionary readings on the Sundays during Lent.

Through our baptism we embrace the new and eternal covenant with God, which was brought into being by Christ’s death and resurrection. However, ours is not the only covenant God made with man: the covenants of the Old Testament are a great help in understanding what God has done for us in his New Covenant.

That is why, in her preparation for Easter, the Church remembers the covenants of the Old Testament: to remind us of the stages of God’s plan for our redemption and to instruct those to be baptized.

All the first readings on the Sundays of Lent recount episodes from Israel’s history that show God’s graciousness to the people. The passages from the epistles all highlight the role Christ played in our salvation. The Gospel readings reveal Jesus’ glory even in the face of suffering, as well as the compassion and mercy of God.

Although we regard Lent as a season for repentance, any call to repent in the Sunday readings is only indirect. The emphasis in the readings is to assure us how much God has loved us. Their message is: be grateful, trust in God, and if necessary, reform your life.

1st Reading – Jeremiah 31:31-34

The days are 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 I made with their fathers
the day I took them by the hand
to lead them forth from the land of Egypt;
for they broke my covenant,
and I had to show myself their master, 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 place my law within them and write it upon their hearts;
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives
how to know the LORD.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD,
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.

For nearly 75 years after the death of Isaiah, no great prophet arose in Judah. It seemed as though the work of the religious leaders of the 8th century B.C. had been in vain. During the reign of King Manasseh (693-639 B.C.), idolatrous worship was established more firmly than ever, and the morals of the people sank to their lowest ebb. The prophets of Yahweh who dared to raise their voices in protest and warning were either silenced or brutally murdered. It was only after a change for the better had been inaugurated under the successors of Manasseh, that the “men of God” again came to the front, and a second golden age of Hebrew prophecy began: the age of Jeremiah and Zephaniah, Nahum and Habakkuk, Ezekiel and Daniel. The greatest of these, and at the same time the most Christlike of all the prophets, was Jeremiah.

Today’s reading is a short oracle of salvation, a message which is both inspiring and challenging.

The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant 

The new covenant to be made with Israel is a common theme of the prophets, beginning with Hosea.

with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

Although Jeremiah was a southern prophet who prophesied long after the collapse of the northern kingdom, his message was full of promise for both the house of Judah and the house of Israel.

Here, Jeremiah implies promise of a restored Davidic kingdom, which God had said would last forever.

It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt;

A reference to the covenant at Mount Sinai, where the Ten Commandments were given.

Jeremiah will go on to outline the qualities of the new covenant that differentiate it from the old.  While certain aspects of this new covenant might resemble features of the past, others would be radically different.

for they broke my covenant and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.

The first departure from the old covenant is that the new one will not be broken; it will last forever.

But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.

“After those days” is a frequently used expression by Jeremiah – it generally indicates a sort of rupture in the course of Israel’s history.  Here, it may refer to the covenant not being entered into immediately, but only after certain events, such as the reunification of the tribes after their return from exile.  This is supported by only the “house of Israel” being referred to in this verse, whereas both kingdoms were mentioned just a few verses prior.

I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts;

Although it includes the idea of emotion, in Hebrew the word for “heart” (lēb) refers primarily to the mind or will.  It is the richest biblical term for indicating the totality of a person’s inner or immaterial nature.

The second difference between the old and new covenant is that the law of the new covenant will be written in the heart, not merely on tablets of stone.  The laws of the old covenant were entrusted to the community as a whole and preserved on external tablets, but the law of the new covenant is entrusted to individual members and preserved internally, in their hearts.  The old covenant required external conformity; the new will call for interior commitment and transformation.

The new covenantal relationship will be entered into freely, and each individual will be directed from within.  This requires total openness to God and the ability to discern his will amidst a myriad of possibilities.  The challenge required of the relationship will be greater than that required of the first covenant.

I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

This is covenant language; in fact, a technical covenant formula.  The words mark the specificity and exclusivity of this relationship: Yahweh and no other will be their God, and among all the nations of the world, they will be his people.

Because these are the words of God, they possess performative force.  That is, the very proclamation of the words effects the action they describe.  When God says it, it actually comes to be; therefore, the covenant has been established by these very words.

No longer will they have need to teach their friends and kinsmen how to know the LORD.

The last radical departure from the old covenant is that the knowledge of God will be so generally shown forth in the life of the people that it will no longer be necessary to put into words of instruction.  Now having the law of God on their hearts, the very inner nature of humanity is created anew.

In its fullest sense, this prophecy was only fulfilled through the work of Jesus Christ.

All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.

One of the most notable characteristics of this reading is the fact that the promise of a new covenant is made to a sinful people.  There is no mention of any prior repentance and reform on the part of the people, but only to the generosity of God.  The magnanimous compassion of God forgives the sins of the people and through this interior covenant recreates them as a transformed community.

2nd Reading – Hebrews 5:7-9

In the days when Christ Jesus was in the flesh,
he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears
to the one who was able to save him from death,
and he was heard because of his reverence.
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered;
and when he was made perfect,
he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

Today’s short second reading is confessional in nature.  Each of its three verses offers a slightly different view of biblical christology, and although some of the elements are straightforward, others are pretty ambiguous and difficult to interpret.

In the days when Christ Jesus was in the flesh,

An allusion to Christ’s humanity.  In the biblical sense of the term, the flesh (sárx) is not evil, but it is fraught with limitations and weaknesses.  Because it is subject to deterioration and death, it came to signify many things that were associated with human frailty, such as vulnerability and fear.  For Jesus to have taken on the flesh was to have taken on these limitations and weaknesses as well — meaning that he was vulnerable to everything to which everyone else was vulnerable.

he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.

This immediately calls to mind Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:35).  In the Synoptic tradition, before Jesus acquiesces to the will of God, he pleads that the chalice of suffering be taken from him.  If this is the allusion intended, there seems to be an inconsistency for we know that he ultimately did endure the death that caused him so much dread.

Mostly likely, the reference here is to the traditional Jewish image of a righteous person’s impassioned prayer.  Its sentiments are reminiscent of those found in the psalms that describe agony, terror, and depression (Psalms 22, 31, 38).  The emotion that is suggested demonstrates how thoroughly Jesus embraced his human nature.  He offered these prayers as a priest offers sacrifice, and he was heard because of his reverence, or godly fear.

Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered;

Though Jesus was the Son of God, he learned what every human has to learn, namely, acceptance of God’s will in the circumstances of life.  The surest way to learn this lesson, though perhaps the hardest, is through suffering.  This notion is not meant to cast doubt on the character of Jesus’ divine sonship; rather, it points once again to his willingness to assume every aspect of human nature, even those most difficult to bear.

and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

All of this becomes comprehensible when we examine Jesus’ role as mediator of salvation.  He has endured torment of body and anguish of soul.  He has known agony, terror, and depression.  His experience of being human is now complete: he can fully understand human distress and the desire to escape it.  He can speak to those in affliction as one who himself has been ravaged by human sorrow, but who despite it, has clung fast to God’s will.

From a human point of view, he is one with the human condition.  From God’s point of view, he is the one who can now show others how to accept with docility the circumstances of life over which they have no control.  Just as he learned to accept God’s designs in his life, so now he can teach others to do the same.

Jesus offered prayers and supplications, and he was heard.  Might it be that, like a mediator-priest, he offered these prayers for others?  Was the answer to his prayer perhaps the conferral upon him of the role of being the source of salvation for others?

Gospel – John 12:20-33

Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast
came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee,
and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”
Philip went and told Andrew;
then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
Jesus answered them,
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat;
but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
Whoever loves his life loses it,
and whoever hates his life in this world
will preserve it for eternal life.
Whoever serves me must follow me,
and where I am, there also will my servant be.
The Father will honor whoever serves me.

“I am troubled now. Yet what should I say?
‘Father, save me from this hour’?
But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.
Father, glorify your name.”
Then a voice came from heaven,
“I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”
The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder;
but others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”
Jesus answered and said,
“This voice did not come for my sake but for yours.
Now is the time of judgment on this world;
now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
And when I am lifted up from the earth,
I will draw everyone to myself.”
He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.

Our gospel reading today occurs during the first Holy Week.  Jesus has come to Jerusalem for his passion, death and resurrection. The verses immediately preceding this reading describe Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem; he has ridden into town like a king with the waving of palm branches and cries of joy.

Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast 

The reading begins with a report of the approach of “some Greeks,” the identity of whom is uncertain.  Since they came to the city to worship at the feast, they may have been Greek-speaking Jews.  However, it isn’t clear from the original text whether they themselves came to worship or merely accompanied those who did.  If it was the latter case, they might have been Gentile proselytes.  In any case, the term “Greeks” is not used here in a nationalistic sense.

came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee,

Bethsaida is technically in Gaulanitis, which is just over the border in Gentile territory; however, the Jews of Bethsaida were considered Galileans.

It’s possible that the Greeks knew Philip previously, and/or that they lived near Bethsaida, which would explain why it’s referenced here.

and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”

The text does not suggest missionary activity.  Neither Jesus not any of the disciples went out to these Greeks — they came on their own initiative.  Notice also how respectfully they inquire for him.

Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

Philip and Andrew are both Greek names; together with the mention of Bethsaida, these references indicate the Greek influence of the time.  Galileans were mostly bilingual, so it’s quite possible that they spoke Greek; if that is the case, it would have been natural for the Greeks to seek out someone who would understand their culture and language to act as an intermediary.

Philip and Andrew may have consulted with each other before approaching Jesus because there was no precedent for Jesus dealing with Gentiles.

Jesus answered them,

The “them” is Philip and Andrew. There is no indication that the Gentiles were with them during this exchange.

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

Jesus replies to Philip and Andrew’s information about the Greeks with an announcement: his hour has come.  As we will see, while this “hour” is the time of Jesus’ glorification, it is also the hour that he dreads.

Recall that the Semitic idiom “Son of Man” refers to a symbolic figure who will inaugurate the last days (Daniel 7:13-14).  Its inclusion here indicates that the glorification of Jesus inaugurates the final age.

Some commentators believe that the event of Gentiles respectfully coming to request and audience with Jesus signifies the reach of his ministry to the “ends of the earth,” therefore signifying that his public work was complete and his hour had come.  Others see Jesus’ response as a suggestion that only after the crucifixion could the gospel encompass both Jew and Gentile.

Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.

As the time of his passion and death draw near, Jesus again begins to explain what is to happen to him, using the image of a grain of wheat to convey his message.

If it seems strange that Jesus must die in order to bring life, remember that this paradox already exists in nature: the grain of wheat left to itself produces nothing – only when it dies as a seed and has been buried does it bring forth life, and in far greater abundance.

Whoever loves his life loses it,

Like the grain of wheat, only through the willingness to relinquish one form of life can there be hope for another.  Selfishness, man’s false self-love that will not permit self-sacrifice, ultimately ends in destruction.

and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.

In Semitic usage, “hates” means “loves less.”  Although the words “love” and “hate” are strong words for contemporary Westerners, they merely express contrasting attitudes and thus imply preference, indicating that there exists a choice.

Sometimes Christians are tempted to think in terms of the minimum that must be done to save their souls.  Here, Jesus is saying that there aren’t any minimums. The grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies gives everything. Jesus, who emptied himself and didn’t cling to all that went with being God, became obedient even to dying.

Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.

These references to death and subsequent fruition apply not only to Jesus but also to his followers.  They too must be willing to die in order to live.  They too must empty themselves, as Jesus did.

“I am troubled now.

In the face of an imminent and cruel death, Jesus can and does feel anguish.

Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.

The interior struggle Jesus endured is revealed in his prayer.  Should he ask to be preserved from this hour of anguish/exaltation?  But it was for this hour that he came into the world in the first place.  Therefore, he accepts it.

Father, glorify your name.”

Jesus prays that God’s name, the essence of God’s very being, might be glorified.  It seems that the glorification of God’s name will be accomplished through Jesus’ own death and exaltation.

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”

The report of this event is unique to John’s gospel. It brings to mind Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11) and his transfiguration (Mark 9:7).

The name of God had been glorified in the life of Christ, in his doctrine and miracles, and all the examples he gave of holiness and goodness. God’s name will be further glorified in the death and sufferings of Christ.

The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder; but others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”

God’s answer is directed to Jesus, but meant for the crowd.  The paradox is evident.

The people hear something, but they are not even sure what it is they hear.  Like the Israelites at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:19), those who were not attuned to the Word of God couldn’t understand it.

Some in the crowd believed it was thunder; others were able to plainly discern an articulate intelligible voice, but they think an angel has spoken to Jesus.  No one realizes that it is the voice of God, nor do they seem to have grasped the meaning of the words spoken.  However, they do believe that Jesus prayer was answered from heaven, even though they did not understand the specifics of that answer.

Jesus answered and said, “This voice did not come for my sake but for yours.

It is unclear whether this means that the voice was intended to encourage belief in Jesus as the Christ, or to comfort his disciples, who are to follow him in his sufferings.

Now is the time of judgment on this world;

The death of Christ was the judgment of this world.  Christ upon the cross was interposed between a righteous God and a guilty world as a sacrifice for sin, so that when the iniquity of sin was laid upon him, when he was wounded for our transgressions, a judgment for everlasting righteousness was then invoked — not for Jews only, but the whole world.

now the ruler of this world will be driven out.

A reference to Satan.  He is called the ruler of this world because he rules over the men of the world by the things of the world.  That is, he is the ruler of the darkness of this world.

There merit of Christ’s sacrifice broke the power of death, casting out Satan as a destroyer.  As promised in Genesis 3:15, the bruising of Christ’s heel on the cross resulted in the breaking of the serpent’s head.

Note that John doesn’t say that Satan will be destroyed, but that he will be cast out.  He will no longer rule the world except to the extent that man’s evil dispositions permit. Satan has no power except that which people give him.

And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”  He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.

John clarifies Jesus’ statement, lest we misunderstand.  By referring to his being lifted up from the earth, Jesus is referring to being lifted up on the cross — not to his being lifted from the earth in his resurrection.  It is on the cross that his salvific work is accomplished.

Note the universalism: he will draw everyone, not just the Jews.

Connections and Themes

In previous Sundays we have been offered several images of Christ for our meditation.  He has been presented to us as the new temple, the wisdom of God, and the power of God.  Like the serpent in the wilderness, he was lifted up and became the source of life to all who look upon him in faith.  Today we see him as the grain of wheat that dies in order to bring forth much fruit.

All of the readings together offer us three other themes for our consideration: the tension of time, the fruits of this hour, and the judgment that follows refusal to live in the hour of fulfillment.

The tension of time.   The moment of eschatological fulfillment gathers together the sense of the past (“the days when Christ was in the flesh”), the future (“the days are coming”), and the present (“the hour has come”).  We live in the time when the past and the future are made present; we live in the already-but-not-yet time of anticipation/fulfillment.  This is a moment of great ambiguity — of fear and trepidation, but of electric excitement.  It is a moment of decision.  We hover at the edge of dawn, weighing whether to step forward into the new day or to return to the darkness of night.

It is always difficult to leave behind what we know so well, even when we are trapped in the grip of some demon.  We say that we want a new life, and we probably mean this, but taking the first step into that life is both frightening and demanding.  So much is being asked of us.

The fruits of this hour.  What does this hour bring?  A new covenant, a deep interior relationship with God that is not based on law but that overflows from a commitment of the heart.  It brings an abundant harvest that springs from a simple grain of wheat.  It bring a promise from God’s own Son that those who serve him will be honored by God and those who obey him will enjoy eternal life.  Who would not want such favors?  Who would not run to accept them from the willing hands of a gracious God?

Although the hour brings all of these blessings, it does not do so without a price.  The new covenant could only be written on new hearts; the abundant harvest sprang from the dying grain of wheat; eternal salvation was won at the price of Christ’s blood.  The moment of eschatological fulfillment is also a moment of decision.  Will we step into the new day, or will we return to the darkness of night?

Judgment.  The refusal to live in this eschatological hour means that we choose to live in unredeemed time, in an unredeemed world, a world that belongs to the prince of darkness.  It means that we are satisfied to sit amidst the ruins of our broken covenants, to remain covered with the guilt of our sins, to continue to be enslaved by the addictions that cripple us.  As challenging as the message of these readings may be, the last note is one of hope.  Jesus has driven out the prince of darkness and has drawn everyone to himself.  The strength to step into the new life is offered to us.  It can overcome the demons that control us, because it is the power of the almighty God.

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