Lectionary Commentaries for March 22, 2015
Fifth Sunday in Lent (B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 12:20-33

Karoline Lewis

This lectionary pericope is the opening section of Jesus’ final discourse for the world.

Greeks arrive on the scene, find Philip, and make one of the most extraordinary requests of the entire Gospel, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Jesus’ discourse that follows is, in part, a response to this request. If you wish to see Jesus, then this is what you will and must see. There is a reason this verse finds itself carved on or engraved in our pulpits. It is a summative theology of preaching, particularly for the Fourth Gospel. Any sermon on the Gospel of John has this as its goal, the very real presence of Jesus that needs to be experienced by any or all of our human senses. This semester, I experimented with some new exercises in my teaching of preaching. One I borrowed from Tisdale and Troeger’s A Sermon Workbook, where they suggest that students engage in imagining how theological concepts are embodied in our sermons. That is, take a theological theme present in the biblical text on which you are preaching such as sin, salvation, etc., and then describe it in relation to all five senses. What does grace taste like, smell like, feel like, look like, sound like? This gets to the essence of John’s theology.

Jesus’ response to the request of the Greeks announces that the hour has come (meaning the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension). In many respects, what follows is an interpretation of the hour for the world to hear. One way to view Jesus’ last public discourse is as an interpretation of the “final” sign in the Gospel: Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Both this discourse and the Farewell Discourse are based on the fact that the hour is here. These two discourses share that perspective and shape what Jesus will say and how he will say it in the chapters that follow.

A call to discipleship

An immediate example of how Jesus’ last public words foreshadow his personal words to the disciples is the image offered in John 12:24. The metaphor of bearing fruit will receive fuller treatment in the image of the vine and the branches in chapter 15. Verse 25 is further commentary on the agricultural metaphor presented in verse 24, but viewed through the lens of the Farewell Discourse has less to do with function of Jesus’ death as it does with the possibility of what the disciples will do when Jesus is gone. They will do greater works than these (John 14:12) because Jesus is returning to the Father. So much of this last discourse from Jesus is about discipleship. To serve Jesus (John 13:16) is to follow Jesus and to follow Jesus is to do the works that he did, to feed and tend his sheep (John 13:36-37; 21:15-19), to testify on his behalf (John 15:27).

Don’t forget who Jesus is

John 12:27 is demonstrative of how different the portrait of Jesus is in the Gospel of John. John’s Jesus would never ask for this cup to pass (John 18:11) but willingly lays down his life in the events that are to come. John 12:28-30 should be reminiscent of both the baptism of Jesus and the event of the Transfiguration in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-10; Luke 9:28-36), the latter omitted from the Fourth Gospel and the former, the baptism of Jesus, does not include the words from heaven, neither for the benefit of the crowd nor for Jesus. In the Gospel of John, Jesus does not need confirmation of who he is (John 12:30). He is perfectly aware of his origin, his relationship with God, and his identity (John 1:1). The voice from heaven does not confirm Jesus’ origin, his relationship to God, or his identity, but rather testifies that in Jesus, God’s name has been glorified (John 12:28-30).

A moment of decision

This section of John’s Gospel, particularly 12:31-33, is also the moment of judgment because this is the last time the “world” will hear Jesus’ words. To listen to Jesus is to believe in him and this, for all intents and purposes, is the last chance. The ruler of this world will be cast out, which will be acted out in the next chapter, with the departure of Judas to the dark side (13:27-30). This is another example by which to know that what Jesus says is true. Verses 32-33 at first glance seem to foreshadow the crucifixion. At the same time, literally, “what sort of death he was about to die” suggests that the “the sort of death” includes also that that death leads to his resurrection and ascension. When Jesus is lifted up from the earth to draw all people to himself, that lifting up is simultaneously all three events: crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. The Farewell Discourse provides confirmation of this in that Jesus’ parting words are not just in anticipation of his death, but in anticipation of his ascension, perhaps a far more difficult reality to face than his inevitability in a tomb. To what extent the ascension is even harder theologically because of the resurrection? Jesus must prepare his disciples for his twice departure, his death and his ascension.

As the Gospel lection chosen for the last Sunday of Lent, this passage might help our parishioners imagine a theological trajectory that fully realizes the implications of the crucifixion but also gives witness to what we know lies beyond — the resurrection and ascension. This is not to discount Good Friday or to suggest a fast-forward to the “good parts” of Lent. Rather, it is to acknowledge that the Jesus of John is preparing his disciples for more than his death. Let’s be honest. We know death. We know it all too well. Much, much harder is to imagine the truth of resurrection and the comfort of ascension.

(For further discussion, see Karoline M. Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries, http://store.fortresspress.com/store/search?ss=Karoline+M.+Lewis&c=-1)

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.

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.


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-12

Elizabeth Webb

This is a text that must be handled with care.

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, “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 heal us not only of the stain of sin, but also of the lie of our worthlessness. Who among us doesn’t need to hear that word?

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 5:5-10

Erik Heen

This text from Hebrews is part of an exposition on the high priestly character of Jesus that begins at 4:14.

The subject is picked up again at the end of chapter six and is the focus of a discussion that runs through chapter ten. The motif is, finally, incorporated into the end of the Epistle (13:10-16) in a stunning description of the sacrifice Jesus offered “outside the camp” on behalf of all. The sacrifice of Jesus did not occur within the holiness of a temple, but in a place all considered profane — a Roman killing field. If one reads to the end of this highly sophisticated rhetorical document, Hebrews’ ironic use of the cultic language of “priest” and “sacrifice” becomes apparent. Such terms are simply emptied of their common-sense “religious” meanings; they are “deconstructed.” What is “holy” after the cross? What is “profane” when the place of Christ’s own offering is Golgotha? What is a “sacrifice” after the body (10:10) and blood (9:22) of Christ atones for Sin (10:18) once and for all (9:26)? What is priestly service when the Son of God now appears “in the presence of God on our behalf” (9:24)? Such are the questions that crowd upon one when engaged in a close reading of Hebrews’ narrative use of “cultic” language.

The text for today describes two very different aspects of Jesus. Hebrews 5:5-6 indicates Hebrews’ interest in the Old Testament foreshadowing of Jesus’ messianic roles. He is here understood both as “King” and “High Priest” by means of two Psalms addressed by God to the Son. Psalm 2:7 (“You are my Son, today I have begotten you”), earlier quoted at Psalm 1:5, is also found in the gospel accounts at the baptism of Jesus. In its Old Testament context, it is a Psalm that celebrates the enthronement of a king. Psalm 110:4 (“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek”; see also Psalm 7:17), a text uniquely of interest to Hebrews in the NT, speaks of Jesus in terms of the mysterious Canaanite “priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14:18). In Hebrews, Jesus’ high priestly functions are understood in terms of Melchizedek and not that of the Levite order established by Aaron (Hebrews 7:11-14). Interestingly, Hebrews understands Melchizedek to be a figure of Jesus that foreshadows both roles of “King” and “Priest.” An etymology found in Hebrews 7:2 of melchi-zekek allows Hebrews to understand Jesus in royal terms: “His name, in the first place, means ‘king of righteousness’; next he is also king of Salem, that is, ‘king of peace.’”

If Hebrews 5:5-6 articulate Hebrews’ high Christology by means of the royal and high priestly attributes of Jesus, vv. 7-9 accentuate the vulnerability that is characteristic of his humanness during the “days of his flesh” (v. 7). Jesus suffers. Two issues present themselves in these verses. The first has to do with the nature of the prayer Jesus offered up and its response. The second concerns the notions of Jesus’ “obedience” and its connection with his movement towards “perfection.”

Today’s text appears two other times in the RCL. Hebrews 5:7-9 will reappear on Good Friday. A longer version (vv. 1-10) will come later this year in Proper 24. The choice of the text for the Fifth (and last) Sunday in Lent as well as on Good Friday is, no doubt, related to the way Hebrews speaks of Jesus’ prayer in v. 7: “He offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” One naturally conflates this expression with the gospel tradition of the Prayer at Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42; Matthew 26:36-46; Luke 22:39-46; John 12:27). In all versions, Jesus prays for deliverance, but places himself under God’s will. So, for example, in Mark one finds: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Scholars point out, however, that the wording of Hebrews 5:7 displays an idiomatic expression of earnest Jewish prayer. That is, Hebrews might not intend to evoke the Gethsemane tradition, but simply describe Jesus’ prayer in general (i.e., it is pious).

If that is the case, the next two phrases are puzzling. Jesus prays “to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” If the Gethsemane tradition is not alluded to here, the question is: “If Jesus prays for deliverance, and all things are possible with God, why is it that Jesus is crucified?” Verses 8-9 must supply the answer: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered;and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” Here Hebrews, I believe, is moving in the same theological territory that Paul explores in Romans 5. If the “obedience” of Christ is the answer, the problem is “disobedience” of human kind, epitomized by Adam. As Paul says in Romans 5:19, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Hebrews, however, goes one step further. Such obedience to — or perhaps better, “trust” in — God, Jesus “learned through the things he suffered” (emathen … epathen). “Suffering,” seen in this light, is understood by Hebrews as that which is most characteristic of human life. To repair the breech Adam’s distrust opened up in the relationship between humanity and God, Jesus entered into the “suffering unto death” that resulted from Adam’s sin. The obedience to (or trust of) God, lost by Adam, had to relearned. Such learning, Hebrews suggests, Jesus won through the things he suffered.

“Perfection,” in Hebrews, then, was not simply given to JeKCRsus; nor is it a “moral” category. Jesus became “perfect” only because he continued to trust in the goodness and mercy of God while suffering the full power and depth of evil. This way of salvation fulfilled by Jesus had, however, been prepared by the Word of God. “In many and various ways” (Hebrews 1:1), God had previously spoken of God’s mercy. Scripture had revealed that God is the God of life and wellness. The heroes of the faith (Chapter 11) had exhibited elements of a faith that was “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). It was in this God of goodness and mercy revealed in Scripture that Jesus placed his faith, his “conviction of things not seen” (nor experienced), through his passion and even his death on the cross.

Here, in these few verses of today’s lesson, we encounter the remarkable juxtaposition of Hebrews “high” Christology of the preexistent Son with a witness to the vulnerability of the man Jesus, who suffered a difficult life and a painful death. These two elements of Hebrews’ Christology (divine/human) set side-by-side, remain in paradoxical tension. One thing, however, is certain. The vulnerability of Jesus “in the days of his flesh” reveals a gracious God. As Hebrews states: “Having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey [or trust] him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” With Jesus’ elevation to the right hand of God, the demand for blood sacrifice is extinguished, as is the need for humans to suffer to perfection. Liberated from such obligations we are freed through Christ to trust anew in the mercy of God.

Trust in a gracious God, then, lies at the very heart of the “obedience” God now demands of us. From the perspective of my own Lutheran theological tradition, this demand is encountered more often in the gift of “faith”. Such faith is understood neither as the belief in the existence of God (“even the demons [so] believe and shudder,” James 2:19) nor merely in intellectual assent to the church’s doctrine. Rather, “faith” is understood in terms of a continually tested belief in God’s goodness and mercy. Doubt, then, is the mirror image of faith. Doubt is not disbelief in the existence of God, but the suspicion that mercy is not to be found in God’s innermost heart.