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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fifth Sunday In Lent - Year B
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) 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 
Lord."


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 
587/586 BCE.

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 
Ecclesiasticus 15:11-15.

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 
new relationship.  

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 interpretation. 

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 
purpose.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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