Lectionary Commentaries for March 18, 2018
Fifth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 12:20-33

Mary Hinkle Shore

As with nearly every passage in the gospel of John, this reading uses simple vocabulary that is filled with theological content.

The words “see,” “hour,” “glorify,” and the reference to being “lifted up” renew the gospel’s earlier themes even as they move the story forward toward its conclusion.

“We want to see Jesus.”

In John, seeing and hearing are the ways people come to know Jesus, to believe or trust in him, and to recognize his unity and singleness of purpose with the Father. The opening verse of the gospel reading take us back to chapter one, when Jesus said to Andrew, “Come and see,” and to Philip, “Follow me.”

Here, some Greeks say to Philip, “We want to see Jesus.” (They may be Greek-speaking Jews of the diaspora or Greek proselytes to Judaism. Either way, they represent the breadth of interest in Jesus.) Just a verse before our reading, some Pharisees had wailed, “The world has gone after him!” Indeed, Greeks as well as Galileans and Judeans want to see — and by implication, believe in — Jesus.

“The hour has come.”

We do not hear whether the Greeks actually get to see Jesus. After Andrew and Philip speak to Jesus, Jesus speaks only of his death.

Earlier in the gospel, readers have been told that his hour had not yet come (see also John 2:4, 7:20, 8:30), and two of those references are in the context of Jesus’ opponents not being able to harm him because the time is not yet right. Now the time is right; the hour has come. The rest of the story, until Jesus’ arrest and trial, will have an urgency about it as Jesus tells his disciples as much as they can bear (see also John 16:12) concerning his death and the coming of the Spirit.

In the synoptic gospels, following Jesus requires self-denial, even a willingness to take up one’s own cross. Would-be followers are told that losing one’s life is the way to find (Matthew 10:39), or save (Mark 8:35), or keep (Luke 17:33) it. John 12:25-26 sounds like the synoptic gospels’ sayings relating discipleship and self-denial, but in the context of John, something else is in view.

In John, following Jesus is the path of abundant or eternal life (see also John 10:10 and 10:27f.). Also in John, the word “hate” means “reject”; it usually refers to what the world does to Jesus and by extension, to his disciples (see also John 7:7; 15:18-19, 23-25). So when Jesus says, “Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25b), he is encouraging others to follow his lead in hating (or rejecting) this world’s definition of life as a small and isolated existence. He will not — and his followers should not — grasp and hold the seed and thereby fail to bear much fruit.

“Father, glorify your name.”

Still, bearing much fruit means losing one’s life. This is not done easily or thoughtlessly. Jesus considers and rejects a prayer like that prayed in Gethsemane (“What should I say…? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No…”). He opts instead for the prayer, “Father, glorify your name,” and he hears in reply, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

To those with ears to hear, the connection between Jesus and the Father is steadfast even as the hour of his death approaches. In John, Father and Son are always on the same page (see also John 8:28): if you have seen one, you have seen and know the other (see also John 14:7-10). Furthermore, the glory of each is the love that they share, the same love that Jesus shares as he washes the disciples’ feet, the same love that he shows as he lays down his life for his friends (see also John 15:13) and as, lifted up, he draws all people to himself (John 12:32).

The problem, here as elsewhere, is that few have ears to hear. The people think the voice is thunder, or maybe an angel. They do not recognize that it is the unmediated voice of God and they do not know that it is for their benefit. The Father is bearing witness to the Son (usually in the story of Jesus it is the other way around), and that witness is mostly missed.

“When I am lifted up….”

Still, the story offers hope that those who cannot see Jesus presently will recognize him soon. Jesus will be lifted up (see also John 3:14, 8:28). As the result of his crucifixion (being lifted up on a cross), resurrection (being lifted up from death) and ascension (being lifted up from the earth to return to the Father), people will see that he and the Father were always one. Questions about who Jesus is, where he has come from, and with what authority he speaks will be answered. Jesus holds out hope that these events will reveal him to those who could not before recognize him as the only Son of the Father.

And he is right. His disciples were the first for whom this is the case. “They remembered,” John says (see also John 2:17, 22; 12:16). After Jesus was raised, after he was glorified, the disciples could see even more of who he was and what he had been doing. The end of the story helped them to see what they had been looking at all along. John writes so that it will be the same for us: “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God,” he says, “and that believing, you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).


First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Terence E. Fretheim

The images used in Jeremiah 31 are predominantly familial rather than political or military.1

Female images, especially associated with birth and new life, are prominent. God is imaged as a loving, nurturing parent (both father and mother), comforting those who sorrow and caring for the needs of a bruised community.

This passage is picked up in several New Testament texts (e.g., Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:5-14; Hebrews 8:8-12; 10:16-17) and has generated various interpretations, not always positive. Some have thought that the text, with its references to the law, fosters a kind of legalism. Others have interpreted it in supersessionist terms, with Christians becoming the sole people of the new covenant. Still others reject such interpretations and consider the text to be a theological high point.

It is important not to isolate this text from its context. The new covenant is to be accompanied by a repopulation of the land and a rebuilding of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 31:27-28, 38-40). The context is earthly, not heavenly. This covenant is given to Israel, not to some new people that God will create. Indeed, God will make a new covenant with all Israel, including Northern and Southern kingdoms. The promise is given to a dispirited people in exile. Unless the new covenant is God’s promise for this specific group of people, it is a promise for no one else. To interpret this text in individualistic, universalistic, or narrowly spiritual terms violates its context.

This is the only Old Testament passage where “new” modifies “covenant.” What is “new” about this covenant is disputed. This covenant is explicitly said not to be like the one that God made with Israel at Mt. Sinai (Jeremiah 16:14-16; 23:7-8). The new covenant is linked neither to Mt. Sinai nor to the exodus! The return from exile is a newly constitutive event for Israel and the new covenant is an accompaniment integral to that event. This covenant will be made by God “after those days” (Jeremiah 31:33), after Israel’s return from exile.

What this constitutive event entails for Israel was spelled out in Jeremiah 24:6-7; God will build and plant them and “give them a heart to know that I am the Lord” (see Jeremiah 32:39), replacing the “evil will/heart” so characteristic of Israel’s life before exile (see Jeremiah 13:10). The old covenant formula of relationship still applies, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33; 30:22; 31:1). But Israel will now be constituted as the people of God in a new way. God will give them a new heart so that they will know the Lord, indeed all the people will know the Lord. God will be their “husband” (ba’al, Jeremiah 31:32; recall Israel’s seeking other lovers among the Baals), evident in the phrase, “know me” (Jeremiah 31:34), but what that knowledge means for Israel will change (see Jeremiah 32:38-41).

The law remains a key point of continuity between old and new; but it will be written upon the heart, no longer a written Torah, and new in much of its content in order to fit the new living situation.

The repeated “for” in Jeremiah 31:34 gives two reasons why teaching will no longer be needed: they shall all know God and God will forgive their iniquity. That all will have a knowledge of the Lord and God will forgive are the center of this new covenant. Israel’s past becomes truly past; never again need they wonder whether God would remember their sins. Everyone, from whatever class or status, from priest to peasant, from king to commoner, from child to adult, will know the Lord.

A key question arises at this point. Inasmuch as the people broke the old covenant, what enabled the community to survive? When this breakdown occurred at Mt. Sinai, Moses appealed to God on the basis of the ancestral covenant (Exodus 32:13), an appeal that God honored. From this Mosaic intercession we learn that the Sinai covenant was not the event that constituted Israel as the people of God; they were God’s people from early in Exodus (Exodus 2:24; 6:2-8). The Sinai covenant was “under the umbrella” of the ancestral covenant. Hence, even though the people had “broken” the Sinai covenant, the ancestral covenant persisted so that Israel remained God’s elect and God’s promises continued to be a reality. God has made unconditional promises to this people independent of the covenant at Sinai.

Jeremiah nowhere refers explicitly to this ancestral “covenant,” but it is implicit in several texts. The heart of the promise in Jeremiah 33:13-26 refers to the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Given the connections between Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, it is notable that God considers the latter to be inviolable (33:14-26; see 23:5). The promises of God are grounded even more deeply in the covenant with Noah (33:14-26; see 31:35-37). God’s promises to Israel are as firm as God’s covenant with the entire creation.

Another link between the old covenant and new covenant is forgiveness. It was in the wake of the golden calf debacle that forgiveness emerged as a new reality for Israel. When Moses pleads for forgiveness, God responds with the making of a covenant (Jeremiah 34:9-10). Here forgiveness is made integral to the covenant. Similarly, God’s forgiveness is made the ground for the new covenant (31:34; “for”). God’s unilateral act of forgiveness for Israel (see Isaiah 43:25) is the basis upon which this new covenant is established.

This text also raises the question of fulfillment. Does the Epistle to the Hebrews present a supersessionist view? Though the word “obsolete” is used for the old covenant (Hebrews 8:13), Hebrews draws no negative conclusions regarding the relationship of the Jewish people to God. In fact, the promises to Abraham in Hebrews 6:13-20 are considered “unchangeable,” concerning which “it is impossible that God would prove false.” Hence, those who have been recipients of this Abrahamic promise remain the people of God, even though the Sinai covenant is broken or obsolete (so also Exodus 32:13). To those promises the faithful could cling.

Even from a Christian perspective this text has not been fully fulfilled. We still need to encourage others to “know the Lord.” And the claim that “all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” remains a promise for the future.


Notes

1 Commentary first published on this site on March 22, 2015.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 51:1-12

Elizabeth Webb

This is a text that must be handled with care.1

It is not one to be read lightly, and certainly not one to be preached on lightly. The voice that we hear in Psalm 51:1-12 is one of desperation, which could very well echo the unheard voices of desperation among our sermons’ hearers. It is these desperate hearers whom we must consider when preaching on a text such as Psalm 51: what word do those in despair need to hear, and what words do they not need?

The speaker in this Psalm is utterly engulfed by a sense of worthlessness, the stain of sin felt so deep as to be irremovable. The psalmist feels beyond mercy, and yet utters this prayer of desperation to the one from whom mercy is assured. Here is where we find the word for those in despair: despite our conviction that we are beyond mercy, the God who is mercy has bound Godself to us eternally.

The text begins with this cry for mercy, and is rooted in the speaker’s prior experience of who God is. The Hebrew word hesed, translated in verse 1 as “steadfast love,” refers to the covenantal relationship between God and the people of Israel. God has promised to be theirs and they have promised to be God’s; the covenant is a mutual promise to “be for” each other. The word translated “abundant mercy,” raham, is rooted in rehem, or “womb.” The speaker is calling on God’s “womb love,” the overflowing, eternally-connected love that a mother has for her child. Both of these refer to a love that can be counted on, rooted in, and rested in. The speaker knows who God is, and pleads for mercy from within the fold of God’s never-ending compassion.

Yet the speaker also seems to fear that sin has irreparably broken that unbreakable bond. “Against you, you alone, have I sinned,” the psalmist writes, addressing God (verse 4). This is not meant to imply that other humans are unaffected by this sin, but rather it emphasizes the writer’s understanding that all sin is a betrayal of God’s love for us. Such a betrayal is so egregious that the psalmist is convinced that God would be justified in removing the divine presence from the sinner (verse 4), and the speaker pleads with God not to be cast away (verse 11). The psalmist’s pleas for God to “blot out my transgressions” (verse 1) and to “hide your face from my sins” (verse 9) are rooted in the fear that if God sees the depth of the betrayal, that is all that God will see. It is as if the psalmist is saying, “Look at me, see me, your beloved, not the treachery that I have committed.”

The psalmist’s desire to be “washed” and “purged” of sin reflects an understanding of sin not only as treachery, but as a stain or corruption. The psalmist pleads multiple times for God to “wash me” (verses 2 and 7b), to “cleanse me from my sin” (verse 2), to be made “clean” (verses 7a and 10). Sin, in the psalmist’s understanding, is a deep-set stain on the soul, which only God can make clean.

This stain is so deep that the psalmist feels that it has always been present; “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (verse 5). This verse is not expressing a notion of the much-later Christian concept of original sin, whereby all human beings have inherited the depravity of Adam and Eve. Rather, the psalmist is seeking words to describe not only the depth of sin, but also the depth of the guilt that sin has engendered.

The plea in verse 7 to “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” probably refers to a cleansing ceremony for one who has been cured of a skin disease, as described in Leviticus 14:2-9. This ceremony, in which hyssop is dipped into the blood of a sacrificed bird and sprinkled on the person who has been healed, enables that person to be reintegrated into the community. Just as one with leprosy or a similar disease is exiled from community, the psalmist believes that the corruption wrought by sin justifies exile from God’s presence. The speaker is longing to be cleansed, so that communion with God can be restored.

“Let me hear joy and gladness. Let the bones that you have crushed rejoice” (verse 8). The rent that sin has caused in the relationship between God and the psalmist has drained all joy from the psalmist’s life. Joy is found in God’s “salvation” (verse 12), in the communion with God from which the psalmist feels exiled. Only when the corrupted soul has been purified, when God creates in the sinner “a clean heart” and “a new and right spirit” (verse 10) can the joy of salvation be restored.

The words of Psalm 51 are the desperate words of one who feels desperately cut off from the presence of God. The psalmist here is broken by sin and guilt, and is pleading with God for restoration. There are many among our congregants who share such brokenness. There are those who will hear the words that we preach who are convinced that God is justified in abandoning them, that sin has rendered them utterly unworthy of communion with God. What words do we offer to the desperate? Do we offer confirmation of their worthlessness, by driving home the destructive consequences of their sin?

Lent is a season of calling us back to right relationship with God. For some, even during Lent, repentance is not the path that leads to restoration. For some, especially during Lent, restoration is enabled when they are freed from the guilt that has for too long crushed their bones. The word that Psalm 51 offers to the desperate is the reiteration of the nature of the God to whom we pray: steadfast love and abundant mercy, a God who is eternally “for us” with the endless love of a mother for her child. The God who is everlasting love will never abandon us, no matter what our guilt says. Steadfast love and abundant mercy not only heal us of the stain of sin, but also of the lie of our worthlessness. Who among us doesn’t need to hear that word?


Notes

1 Commentary first published on this site on March 22, 2015.


Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 5:5-10

Jennifer T. Kaalund

There are many images of Jesus that have captured our imaginations — Jesus as a baby, a shepherd, a carpenter, and a teacher.

However, Jesus as priest would not likely make my top 5 list. Yet, here in Hebrews 5, Jesus is described as a priest, a high priest in the order of Melchizedek. God appoints him into a priesthood that endures forever.

Most scholars agree that the genre of Hebrews is a homily or a sermon as suggested by the writer who refers to the text as a “word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22). Knowing this is important to understanding the work the writer is trying to do. The writer is attempting to persuade or encourage the audience to remain faithful. Christ’s faithfulness becomes paradigmatic. The audience, then, should aspire to be like Christ. As such, remaining faithful particularly in the face of adversity becomes the overarching theme of the sermon.

The writer begins at the very beginning of time, grafting the audience into a lineage of kinship with the ancestors and appealing to Jewish history throughout the sermon. For example, throughout Hebrews the writer makes it clear that Jesus is to be read into particular psalms. In this pericope (Hebrews 5:5-10), allusions to Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 110:4 are apparent. Read through the lens of the sermon writer, “You are my son; today I have begotten you,” affirms Jesus as God’s anointed son. Similarly, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchezidek” affirms Jesus’ royal and priestly roles.

In fact, in Genesis 14:18-20, we encounter King Melchezidek. Here, Melchezidek, whose name means, “my king is righteous,”1 is described as “a priest of God Most High.” He pronounces a blessing over Abraham. Little more is known about Melchezidek in the biblical tradition; however, the sermon writer only introduces him here in Hebrews 5 and elaborates on his significance in Hebrews 7. What does his priesthood teach us about Jesus’?

The office of the high priest was held in great regard in antiquity. Priests stand between God and God’s people. They are mediators. In fact, “the Latin word for priest pontifex, means ‘bridge maker.’”2 I find the concept of priests or preachers as bridge makers to be appealing. Standing in a gap sounds passive. However, bridge building is a tangible image that elucidates the meticulous work of priests. This image enables us to visualize a process, one that takes time to complete and even when it is done, perhaps still needs revitalizing.

The sermon writer not only wanted his audience to understand Jesus as a bridge builder extraordinaire, but he also intended for us to understand Jesus’ priesthood as unique. As David DeSilva observes: “His goal is to display Jesus’ piety as an essential qualification for the high priesthood, which God confirmed through hearing Jesus’ prayer.”3 That is, Jesus’ faithfulness is demonstrated through his prayer.

Connecting the earthly Jesus to the heavenly Christ, the sermon informs us that: “In the days of his flesh, both prayers and pleadings, he offered up to the one who was able to save him from death, with a loud cry and tears he was heard because of his piety.” In the days of his flesh Jesus prayed fervently and once he ascends to heaven, the writer reveals that: “consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). These earthly prayers are pleads; Jesus is crying out to God. We recognize this Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane.

I would suggest that like the psalms to which the writer alludes, it is in the tradition of the psalmists that Jesus cries out to the God of our salvation for help. For the one who is able to save him can surely save us. Knowing that Jesus prayed and prays for us should be reassuring to an audience that is experiencing suffering.

Jesus was not only a pray-er; his prayers were effective and answered because of his piety. Jesus, the high priest, son of God, submitted himself and learned obedience in order to become “the source of eternal salvation.” We often associate the salvific work of Christ with the blood he shed on Calvary, and rightly so; but in this text we learn that Jesus learns through what he suffered.

To learn through what one has suffered is a Greek proverb pathei mathos4 similar to our adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Our hardships may not kill us, but they can certainly shape us. This is not to say that suffering is desirable or even necessary. In fact, there are situations, such as domestic violence, when it’s condemnable. Yet, as the ancient audience who heard/read this sermon, our lives’ challenges — (sicknesses, struggles, and wrestlings) whatever they may be — should not isolate us. They should usher us into prayer; as we pray we discipline ourselves spiritually.

It is not the suffering that develops our piety; it is the discipline of doing the work. We are called into relationship, through communication — after all, this is what prayer is — and as a result we move closer to the source of our eternal salvation. Prayer is the iron for that bridge that connects us to God.

During this Lenten season, as we anticipate the death of Jesus and resurrection of the Christ, perhaps we can invite the image of a pious pray-er upon which to reflect. As the example for us to follow, Jesus cried out not simply for himself, but for us all. In this way, Jesus did not only build a bridge connecting us to God (as a high priest), but he also builds bridges, connecting us to each other. For it is in community that our faith is established and affirmed; it is in community that our suffering is alleviated; and I believe that it is in community that our salvation will be realized.

Jesus, then and there, as well as here and now, prayed for us, makes intercession on our behalf. Having someone in our corner, being our rock when we find ourselves in hard places provides an example for how we are to act likewise. Can you be a rock? Will you build a bridge?


Notes

  1. See Hebrews 7.
  2. David D. DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle ‘to the Hebrews’ (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 187.
  3. DeSilva, 191.
  4. For a historical perspective, see https://perceiverations.wordpress.com/about-2/some-terms-explained/