The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (firstname.lastname@example.org) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.
INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
The Fifth Sunday In Lent - Year B
JEREMIAH 31:31-34 Jeremiah's ministry from about 627
to 580 BC covered one of the most critical periods of Israel's history,
just before the exile in Babylon. He warned of the catastrophe about to
befall the nation because they had failed to live as God intended. His
words were not entirely without hope. He looked forward to a "new
covenant" - a relationship of the heart, not on stone tablets like the Law
of Moses. People would do intuitively what God requires of them. No one
would need instruction or an intermediary because everyone would "know the
PSALM 51:1-12 In the same spirit of repentance
and renewal, this psalm pleads for forgiveness and voices the longing of a
faithful soul for a new relationship with God.
HEBREWS 5:5-10 Hebrews is not a letter, but a
theological essay written to encourage Jewish Christians enduring
persecution, perhaps even rejection by their own families. It attempts to
answer whether it was worth holding on to their faith in Christ. The
writer assures the faithful that Jesus understands what they are going
through. He also suffered at the hands of his contemporaries. Through
suffering in obedience to God, he opened the way to God for all. The
image of Jesus as the high priest comes from the custom of the Jewish high
priest offering a sacrifice on the Day of Atonement that renewed Israel's
covenant with God.
JOHN 12:20-33 A group of Greeks came seeking
Jesus. John has Jesus predict his own death and resurrection, and makes a
deeper analysis of what this means. Through his sacrifice, like a seed
planted to grow and bring forth much fruit, a new relationship with God
would be established. His crucifixion would draw the whole world into
this new relationship with God.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:
JEREMIAH 31:31-34 Jeremiah, a member of a priestly family from the
village of Anathoth, a short distance north of Jerusalem. His prophetic
ministry from about 627 to 580 BCE covered one of the most critical
periods of Israel's history, just before the exile in Babylon. There are
also five chapters of the book (40-44) that describe activities of the
prophet after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Two significant events
marked the history of period: the break up of the great Assyrian empire
and the rise of the Babylonian power; and the resurgence of religious
nationalism in Judah during the reign of King Josiah, culminating in 621
BCE with the centralizing of worship in the temple in Jerusalem. After the
death of Josiah in the battle of Megiddo (609 BCE), a succession of weak
monarchs with anti-Babylonian policies forced the surrender of Jerusalem
in 597 BCE and the exile of the cream of Judean society. A further anti-
Babylonian revolt ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in
Jeremiah warned of the catastrophe about to befall the nation because they
had failed to live as God intended. His words were not entirely without
hope. They look beyond the national disaster to a new spiritual revival.
This theme can be found especially in chapters 30-32, frequently referred
to a "the book of consolation." The lectionary reading consists of a
prose exposition of that hope amid a collection of poetic oracles, some of
which reflect the oracles of both the earlier prophet Hosea (31:1-6) and
the Jeremiah's contemporary, Second Isaiah (31:10-14).
In this passage Jeremiah looked forward to a "new covenant" – a
relationship of the heart, not on stone tablets like the Law of Moses.
People would do intuitively what Yahweh requires of them. No one would
need instruction or an intermediary because everyone would "know the
Lord." According to Jeremiah, the heart of the covenant forged in Sinai
was an intimate, personal relationship with Yahweh, as close as that of
husband and wife (vs. 32). For Jeremiah, the destruction of the temple
symbolized the apostasy that ended the Sinai covenant. A new relationship
had become necessary, a covenant written "on their hearts."
As with all ancient peoples, the heart was the seat of all psychic life,
the centre of the emotions, the intellect, and especially, the will and
moral life. Thus, for the Hebrews it became the point of contact with
God. This "innermost spring of human personality is directly open to God
and subject to his influence," wrote R.C Dentan, professor of Old
Testament at General Seminary, New York, in his article on the heart in
*The Interpreter's Bible Dictionary*, (vol. 2, 550). But the heart is
also prone to evil and isolation from God. Both Old and New Testaments
present us with numerous passages of both response and rejection of
spiritual realities by the human heart. The phrase "hardening of the
heart" describes the drifting away from God so evident in the moral and
spiritual decline of any age.
Jeremiah's hope for a covenant written on the heart has an eschatological
element in that he sees it as a future rather than an immediate event. It
will also come about, not by human initiative, but by God's grace and with
divine forgiveness for the apostasy and sin of the past.
PSALM 51:1-12 In the same spirit of repentance and renewal, this psalm
pleads for forgiveness and voices the longing of a faithful soul for a new
relationship with God.
The superscript of the psalm relates it to King David when Nathan
condemned him for his adulterous assault on Bathsheba. While this is an
attractive viewpoint, it is also totally imaginary. At best, it is a
poetic attribution made long after the story of the sin of Israel's
greatest romantic hero had become common currency. It is now believed to
be the product of a Levitical compiler or editor of the Psalter in the
post-exilic period. One scholarly viewpoint regards vs. 4 as evidence that
it was not a Davidic composition because Bathsheba, Uriah and Joab were
also sinned against by David's duplicitous actions.
The powerful message of this penitential psalm is by no means diminished
by this exegesis. The psalmist pours out his guilt and shame in most
memorable words. His sense of sin is much more profound than is found in
many psalms of lament which express complaints against enemies and plead
for deliverance from afflictions. Here is someone who has been animated
by the teachings of the great prophets who denied the worth of animal
sacrifices and emphasized a spiritual reaction to personal affliction.
One of the most profound moral insights is the consciousness that sin is
not only against one's fellow human beings, but also against God. We have
here a somewhat truncated attitude that does not recognize the injury to
the former relationship, but focuses almost exclusively on the latter. He
desperately wants to get right with God, rather than restore whatever
human relationships his sin may have broken.
Many people find vs. 5 a problem. Careful analysis, however, does not
cast this as a condemnation of one's parentage. The penitent, not the
mother, is shamed and disgraced by whatever actions lie behind this vivid
expression of sin. A similar attitude is found in Ps. 58:3 and in the
later Jewish concept of evil inclination in the apocryphal book of
On the other hand, the psalm contains a highly developed spiritual sense
of what sin does to our relationship to God. The plea for a clean heart
and a new and right spirit (vs. 10) has few equals in either testament.
So also the prayer not to be cast out of God's presence or deprived of the
spirit of holiness implores the continuation of the state of grace in
which life must be steadfastly lived. Finally, the plea for restoration
of a willing spirit (vs. 12) brings the moral implications of grace to the
fore almost as clearly as do the Gospels and the Pauline epistles.
HEBREWS 5:5-10 *Hebrews* is not really a letter in the usual sense, but
more of a theological sermon or essay written to encourage Jewish
Christians under some unstated threat, perhaps persecution, or perhaps
rejection by their own families and community. It attempts to answer
whether or not it was worth holding on to their faith in Christ.
Scholarly debate as to who wrote *Hebrews* and to whom it was written
persists as vigorously today as a century or more ago. No one can be
precise in answering those questions, only uncertain and speculative at
best. The content of the document, however, defines the theological
relation between the old covenant and the new, drawing upon the Greek
version of the Hebrew scriptures rather than any particular historical
setting. On the basis of who the author and the recipients believed Jesus
to be, they can strengthen their faith and make their witness in the face
of whatever threat may endanger them.
The image of Jesus as the high priest in this passage comes from the
custom of the Jewish high priest offering a sacrifice on the Day of
Atonement which renewed Israel's covenant with God. In the mind of the
author, this is certainly the role which Jesus Christ fulfilled, not for
Jews alone, but once and for all. The quotation in vs. 5 comes from Psalm
2:7 which the apostolic tradition regarded as a messianic reference. In
vss. 6 and 10, the more obscure references to Melchizedek draw on Psalm
110:4 and a story in Genesis 14:17-20. In the latter perciope, Abram in
his wanderings in Canaan and conflicts with neighboring kingdoms received
the blessing of Melchizedek, the king and high priest of Salem (later
Jerusalem). This referred to the apostolic tradition that Jesus, as the
Messiah/Christ was both king of kings and God's high priest. In such a
role, he could be Lord for both Gentiles and Greeks.
The significant message of this reading, however, is in vss. 7-9. It
emphasizes both Jesus' own human nature and his divine mission as the Son
of God. It also summarizes the Passion narrative of the Gospels by
recalling the story of Jesus' at prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane in
particular, his suffering and death on the cross. The author assumed that
his audience would make the connection immediately. He is also saying,
"This showed how he obediently submitted himself to the will of God, and
so became the means of our salvation." Jesus is thus both the perfect
priest and the perfect sacrifice. What is more, as Christ, the Son of
God, he now reigns in glory.
The passage precedes a lengthy exhortation to give attention to this
difficult doctrine (5:11-6:20) because it is the foundation for their life
in the world in very trying circumstances. As such it provides a very
appropriate complement to the gospel reading
JOHN 12:20-33 A group of Greeks came seeking Jesus. John then recorded
how Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection, and made a deeper
analysis of what this meant: It is God's way of giving eternal life to all
who believe. Through his sacrifice, like a seed planted to grow and bring
forth much fruit, a new relationship with God would be established. His
crucifixion would become God's way of drawing the whole world into this
It would not have been unusual for Greeks (i.e. Gentiles) to seek out
Jesus in Galilee, but this meeting occurred in Jerusalem "at the
festival," one of the Jewish high holy days. We are not told why they
asked to see Jesus, but many Gentiles were attracted to Judaism for its
rigorous moral standards in an amoral civilization. As Paul later
discovered, it was the covenant symbol of circumcision that made Gentiles
hold back from a total commitment to the Jewish tradition.
Writing many decades after Paul's successful Gentile mission, John appears
to use this pericope as a means of including them in the Christian
community based on faith in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the
Christ/Messiah for all of humanity, not for Jews alone.
Throughout his gospel narrative, John has Jesus use the word "glorify" in
reference not only to his death but also to his resurrection. Perhaps by
the end of the 1st century early Christian art had already begun to
portray the crucifixion in more attractive ways than it must have been
experienced. Or perhaps knowledge of the resurrection had already caused
the dark horror of that scene to diminish before the brightness of faith
in the risen Lord. The tradition of the seed that dies to give new life
(vs. 24) obviously had been a strong apostolic tradition because Paul had
also used it in his letter to the Corinthians, as had Jesus in his parable
of the seed and sower. Here John tied it to Jesus' teaching about service
also found in the other gospels.
More difficult to understand, however, are the subsequent words John
attributed to Jesus. One commentary gives this pericope the title of "The
Agony and the Voice." (W.F. Howard. The Interpreter's Bible, vol. 8, 664.)
Howard also notes that this passage in John replaces the synoptic
narrative of the agony in Gethsemane, but closely resembles Mark 14:33-35.
The voice of reassurance (vs. 28) is similar to the voice in Mark 9:7 at
the Transfiguration. Three different interpretations are given to the
voice: by some of the disbelievers in the crowd who thought they had heard
thunder. Others said it was an angel, possibly recalling two stories from
Genesis 21:17 and 22:11 when God spoke to Hagar and Abraham in crucial
situations. The final word, however, came from Jesus. The hour of crisis
had come when people must decide between walking in the light or the
darkness (vss.35-36). Unfortunately, for some reason the reading excludes
This whole passage focuses on the meaning and cost of discipleship.
Without ever naming the crucifixion, it holds up the cross as the symbol
of the sacrifice that discipleship entails. More than likely John wrote
for a Gentile audience, so he used commonly recognizable metaphors such as
a fruitful seed of wheat and contrasting light and darkness to explain in
a positive manner, just what any Christian might expect in making such a
commitment at the end of the 1st century. In common with the other
gospels, he wove into this pericope elements of the apostolic tradition of
the words Jesus himself had used. John also ties these to his theme of
the mighty works of Jesus glorifying God. The effect is to lift the whole
experience of discipleship from the ordinary mundane level of suffering
and sacrifice to the sanctified holiness of accomplishing God's eternal
copyright - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.