Lectionary Commentaries for March 29, 2009
Fifth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 12:20-33

Audrey West

Matters of life and death have a way of focusing one’s attention.

It has not been long since Lazarus, still wrapped in grave cloths and smelling four days dead, stumbled out of the tomb and into the waiting arms of his sisters and friends. Now that life is getting back to normal (can life ever be normal after somebody is raised from the dead?), one might expect the focus to turn to the impending feast of Passover. However, even that greatest of festivals cannot hold a candle to the Light of the World, who has, after all, just brought his friend from death to life with only a heavenward glance and the strength of his voice.

That is precisely what troubles the Pharisees. They and the rest of the religious establishment are powerless against this Galilean man who claims to have come from the Father in heaven.

Already many of the Jews are believing in him. Before too long, the Pharisees fear, everyone will follow after him, causing the Romans to come and destroy their temple and the nation (John 11:45-48) and strip them of their authority. Their worst fears are confirmed when the crowds who had been at Lazarus’ tomb begin to testify. “Look,” the Pharisees exclaim, like the representatives of a failed ad campaign, “the world has gone after him!” (John 12:19).

We want to see Jesus
In our pericope the world is focused on Jesus to such an extent that even some Greeks – could they be among the sheep who are not from the fold? (10:16) – are anxious to lay eyes on him. They engage in a little first-century social networking with Philip, the disciple with the Greek name, a person whom Jesus had “friended” near the start of his earthly ministry (1:43). And it is no wonder they want to see Jesus. After all, he has been inviting folks to “come and see” from the very beginning (1:39).

Plus, there is the matter of all those signs, of which the raising of Lazarus is only the most recent. It is easy to imagine how seeing water turned to wine or a man given his sight would lead people to believe in and follow One who can do such things (see 4:48; 6:30; 11:45). Seeing is believing in this Gospel (6:14, 30; 19:35; 20:27), so when the Greeks ask to see Jesus, they are, perhaps, expressing their desire to believe. Whether they are successful in meeting Jesus we are not told, but Jesus’ response to their query refocuses the terms of the discussion.

No longer is it enough to come and see Jesus; from “this hour” forward his followers are invited to come and be with Jesus.

Whoever serves me must follow me
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus invites his disciples to “follow me” (1:43), and he promises the “light of life” to those who do follow (8:12). However, on more than one occasion, he tells some of “the Jews” that they cannot come where he is going (7:34; 8:21). Later during this Passover festival, he says the same thing to his disciples (13:33). Nonetheless, it is clear that a time will come when they will be able to follow him (13:36). Indeed, he says, he will go first “and prepare a place for you,” and then “come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may also be.” (14:3).

Making it possible for his followers to abide together with him seems to be a core purpose of Jesus’ ministry, as he prays to God that “I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am” (17:24).  

Where I am, there will my servant be also
Where is Jesus? He is with the Father (1:1; 14:11), and he dwells among us (1:14; 14:23). He is leading his followers to eternal life as he moves toward the hour of his death (12:32-33). Before much longer he will be “lifted up” on the cross (12:32, 34; 8:28) where he will lay down his life for his friends (15:13). Even as a grain of wheat falls to the earth in order to fulfill its true purpose, Jesus is lifted up from the earth in order to fulfill his, so that he may draw all people to himself. (12:24, 32). It is there, at the cross, that we will see his glory (17:24).

The hour has come
Following Jesus is a matter of life and death. Or, to put it another way, life and death matter to those who follow Jesus.

During this season of Lent we follow him all the way to Golgotha, all the way to the cross, where we will stand beneath it, together with those followers who asked at the beginning of his ministry, “Where are you staying?” (1:38). It is there, in the face of the world’s many ways of death (e.g., poverty, economic collapse, hunger, sickness, war) that we are drawn even closer to Jesus. It is there, in the light of the stark reality of life at its end that we begin to catch a glimpse of life at its fullest.

Jesus promises, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (12:32). It is for such a time as this that Jesus has brought us to this hour. There is nothing like impending death to focus our attention.


First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

In the first chapter of this book six verbs define the ministry of Jeremiah: pluck up, pull down, destroy, overthrow, build and plant (1:10).

Throughout much of the book, the prophet has plucked up, pulled down, destroyed and overthrown as he accused the people of violating the covenant that God had established with them (especially chapter 11). Beginning in chapter 30, the so-called book of consolations, the prophet builds and plants (31:4). These words, whether from the historical prophet or not, were most relevant to the dispirited exiles who desperately needed to be built up.

Among the consolations were the promises that God would relent of anger (30:24) and return the people to their home (31:8). God’s love and faithfulness will be manifest (31:3). The people will experience prosperity (31:5) and joy (31:13). All of these are comforting promises to people who need to hear a good word. Such promises would be remarkable enough just by themselves. However, this particular passage promises even more.

Here, Jeremiah promises a new covenant between God and the people. The offer of a renewed covenant is itself a manifestation of God’s forgiveness.  These words here push the promise even deeper and in a new direction.  Through the words of the prophet, God promises to write the law on the hearts of the people. 

Even if God restores the people to the land, enables them to experience prosperity and joy and shows love to them again, that will not be enough. Something must change within the people themselves. Here God promises to heal them from the inside out. God will change not only their outward circumstances, but their very hearts.

The passage contains some technical language that can be unpacked. A covenant is an agreement between two parties. God is in the position of determining the conditions of the agreement. Usually a covenant involved promises from the superior party in exchange for the proper response from the other party. Here God takes responsibility even for the response from the people. God will empower the people to uphold their end of the agreement.

The word for law can also be translated as teaching or instruction. The usual translation of law is technically correct, but does not carry the sense of grace that the translation “teaching” conveys. The “law” teaches the people how to live in harmony and stability.

As Augustine suggested, the law teaches us how to love. Psalms 19 and 119 reveal the proper attitude toward the law. “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Psalm 19:7). Psalm 119 proclaims that the law is a delight leading to success, even in competition and conflict (Psalm 119:98). Jeremiah recognizes that something deep within us resists the law and teaching of God. We embrace the foolishness of resistance to God’s will. By writing the law/teaching on our hearts, God will bypass that resistance, enabling us to experience the delight, prosperity, joy and harmony that the law provides.

Along with the author of Psalm 51, who implored God to create a clean heart within him and put a new, upright spirit in him, Jeremiah and the psalmist knew that change comes only from the inside out. But, God must take the initiative. We are not as wise as the psalmist so we ask for God to work within us. The psalmist asked only on his own behalf, whereas the prophet envisions God writing the law on the hearts of the whole community. Only when the whole community relishes the law/teaching of God can everyone live in harmony and peace.

This is the reading for the last Sunday in Lent. It may be a time when we are most aware of our inability to follow God’s teachings and God’s will. If we have been trying to use Lent as a genuine time to grow in obedience, we will realize our weakness and powerlessness to be what God calls us to be. If we have let Lent slip by without a thought to our spiritual growth, then we know we are unwilling even to make the effort.

This promise of God doing for us what we cannot or will not do on our own can then become a welcome word of refreshment. God will write the law on our hearts. Our growth, our sanctification is not all up to us.

We might ask what the prophet had in mind for this passage. When did he think that God would act in this way? Did he think that God’s initiative to write the law/teaching on our hearts would be part of the return from exile? Did he have any eschatological expectations? Did he simply hold out a promise of God’s sanctification, knowing our weakness and God’s power?

We do not have definite answers to those questions. We can affirm only that our obedience is God’s will for us. God will accomplish God’s purposes. We claim the gift of the resurrection when God will accomplish God’s will for us and for all creation.

We are most ready to hear these words when our own efforts are exhausted. When we are weary of our inner turmoil we are ready to hear Jeremiah. When we are weary of broken relationships and the uncertainty of trusting others, we are ready to hear Jeremiah. When we are weary of our intermittent relationship with God, occasionally close but more likely far away, we are ready to hear Jeremiah. If we have tried to shake off a bad habit or we are tired of trying to improve ourselves, we are ready to hear Jeremiah.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 51:1-12

Robert L. Hubbard, Jr.

A single voice speaks to us in this text.

Its words ring of agony, pain, desperation, brokenness, and great remorse. The speaker directly addresses God himself, but God says nothing. Instead, this text invites us to eavesdrop on one side of a two-party conversation with God.

Who is speaking? The psalm title identifies the person as David, writing sometime after Nathan condemned him for adultery with Bathsheba (see 2 Samuel 12:1-14). This is possible, but a later editor probably penned the connection between the psalm and that seamy episode. Whatever the case, the title at least offers a powerful and infamous example of the kind of sin the psalm has in mind.

Structurally, the voice opens with heartfelt pleas for mercy and cleansing from sin (verses 1-2) and supports them with a long confession of sin (verses 3-6). A series of pleas for radical renewal (verses 7-12) gives its desperate outcry a powerful, closing crescendo.

A Black-and-White Negative

What immediately grabs my attention are the striking contrasts the speaker’s words paint. Before the digital era, cameras shot film, and photos were copied from “negatives” – film with the light/dark polarities reversed. Like the negative of a snapshot, the psalm pictures everything as starkly black and white, the polar opposite of what it should be.

  • The dark side of his/her experience – where s/he is now – features “sin(s),” “iniquity,” “transgressions,” and “evil.”
  • S/he feels “dirty” and “sinful,” i.e., grimy, filthy, and stained.
  • The light side of her/his experience–where s/he wants God to take her/him – features “truth,” “wisdom,” “purity,” “cleanness,” and “joy.”
  • S/he pleads to be “clean,” “pure,” “washed,” “cleansed,” and “purified.”

I imagine dear Pigpen of the “Peanuts” cartoons and guys in movies who’ve just brawled in slimy mud and soggy manure. It’s an ugly, smelly, foul scene. Emotionally, I feel grimy, filthy, and in desperate need of a bath, too. Whoever the voice is, I know s/he’s talking about me!  I desperately need cleansing and renewed joy, too.

Full Disclosure

I confess that I’m not a big fan of Lent. Give me Christmas and Easter and I’m a happy Christian! The reason is that I wasn’t raised in a Christian clan that observed Lent. Ironically, however, every Sunday was like Lent, calling me to “get right with God.” I took God very, very seriously, but the week-after-week drumbeat gave me a spiritual inferiority complex.

Twice a year, I see my doctor for a physical checkup. He monitors my vital signs and points me in the direction of good health. Today I embrace Lent as an annual spiritual checkup to see where I’m at and to renew my relationship with God. But, please, annually, not weekly!

Getting the Color Back in Life

The stark contrasts drive home another point: the impossibility of self-reformation drives me (with the speaker) back to God. I (and he) do so for two reasons:

  • Because God is the one I’ve (s/he’s) so horribly offended (verse 4), the dear, long-time friend with whom I (and s/he) crave reconciliation.
  • Because only God can do the “blotting-out,” “cleansing,” “ignoring,” and “purifying,” etc. In computer terms, only God can hit the “restore” key.

Hit “Pause” to Ponder

At this point my mind hits the “Pause” button to ponder what kind of God I (and the psalmist) face. God has said nothing, so I search the psalmist’s words for a theological straw or two to grasp.  My eyes drift between two key phrases: “Have mercy on me!” (hanani, verse 1) and “Cleanse me” (tehatte’eni, verse 7).

The first cry reminds me that God is a God of mercy. My mind replays tapes of sinful humans like me voicing that truth:

  • That’s what Moses tells Israel camped near the Jordan (Deuteronomy 4:31).
  • That’s why a guilty David casts his fate in God’s (rather than his enemies’) hands (2 Samuel 24:14).
  • That fuels the climactic cry of hope by the prophet Micah (Micah 7:18-20).
  • That’s why God sent Jonah to Nineveh (Jonah 4:2).
  • That underlies Jesus’ climactic cry on the cross for forgiveness (Luke 23:34).
  • That drives Paul’s dramatic declaration about “no condemnation” (Romans 8:1).

In short, God’s ears eagerly scan the world’s chatter to hear someone cry “Have mercy, O God!”
The second cry reminds me that God is a God of restoration. “Cleanse” (verse 7) puns on the root hata’ (“to sin”) and its multiple appearances in the psalm. In verse 4, the voice confesses “Against you… have I sinned” (hata’ basic stem), but in verse 7 it pleads “Cleanse me” (hata’ intensive stem). The pun works like the English words “contaminate” and “decontaminate.” The biblical speaker pleads: “I’ve sinned, so please de-sin me.”

That de-sinning has huge results:

  • The stains and grime are “blotted out” – no longer visible, and no longer offensive.
  • The grime is gone, replaced by vivid color – bright snow-like “whiteness” (verse 7b).
  • God need no longer “hide [his] face” from their offense (verse 9).
  • I feel the promised “joy” and “gladness” alongside the “cleanness” (verses 8a, 10a).
  • Once “on the outs” (verse 11a), God and I are friends again.

“Lent For Dummies”

I may not like Lent, but this is what Lent does for me: I humbly hand myself over to God – to be sure, filthy, broken, and in despair – and he lovingly “restores” me to his favor. I feel good about myself, and life gleams with joyous, bright, vivid color! I bask again in the warm sunshine of his love and glimpse afresh the cheery radiance of his smile

That’s something worthy doing every year – but not every week!


Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 5:5-10

Dwight Peterson

While Hebrews will be read three times during Holy Week, and then for several weeks beginning with the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost,

this is the first Sunday this year where we encounter Hebrews in the lectionary. It’s a good idea, then, to remind ourselves about some basic issues of introduction.1 

In spite of the fact that the King James Version ascribes Hebrews to Paul, it was almost certainly not written by him. Indeed, the identity of the author is a puzzle about which no consensus exists (this lack of consensus is no modern invention; it goes back to the early centuries of the church).

Hebrews seems to have been written sometime in the last third of the first century A.D., and while it is often called “The Epistle to the Hebrews,” it is not, in fact, a letter. Instead it is a sermon – its unknown-to-us author calls it a “word of exhortation” (13:22).

It looks like the author might have had a particular community in his sights when writing this sermon (see 13:22-25), but it’s not at all clear where that community was located (Palestine and Rome are the most prominent alternatives). What does seem clear is that the original audience had suffered some persecution (10:32), and some members either had or were considering turning their backs on the faith (see 6:4-6). This portrait of the original community, suffering in some way and in danger of wavering in their faith, may provide a point of contact with our own communities.

The Greek of Hebrews is particularly fine. The sentences can be long and complex with lots of grammatical subordination. Because English has a harder time than Greek in dealing with this complexity, most English translations are forced to obscure the complexity of the Greek by dividing its long sentences into shorter ones. This makes for a more readable translation; but it can get in the way of interpretation.

The complexity of the Greek of Hebrews mirrors the complexity of its argument, which is intensely exegetical and beautifully non-linear. In other words, it interprets passages from the Old Testament in sometimes thrilling and often mystifying ways, and its topics are treated in multiple places. The final effect is less like connect-the-dots and more like an intricate tapestry. It’s important, therefore, to situate our passage within a larger context.

Hebrews 5:5-10 is the second half of a larger unit that begins at 4:14. This larger passage looks backward to passages earlier in Hebrews. It expands on the idea of a “merciful high priest,” introduced in 2:17. And the quotation from Psalm 2:7, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you,” reprises the first Old Testament quote in the book (1:5).

In Hebrews 4:14-5:10, Christ is compared to the high priests from the Old Testament and shown to be like them. The high priest makes atonement for sin (5:1), is able to sympathize with the people because he shares their weaknesses (5:2-3), and becomes a high priest by being called by God (5:4). Christ is like the high priests in all these ways. He was appointed by God (5:5-6). He sympathizes with our weakness (4:15). And, presumably by making atonement (see Hebrews 9), he gives us access to mercy and grace from God, eternal salvation (4:16; 5:9). The only difference between Jesus and the high priests is sin. Jesus is without it (4:15) but they have to make atonement for their own sin (5:3).

The passage also looks forward, especially by referring to Melchizedek in 5:6, 10. The author of Hebrews doesn’t do much with Melchizedek here. Indeed, the quotation of Psalm 110:4 in Hebrews 5:6 serves as a proof text supporting the claim that Jesus was appointed high priest by God and did not thrust himself forward on his own account. But this little seed, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek,” grows out of all proportion in chapter 7 when Hebrews contrasts Jesus to the Aaronic high priesthood and finds Christ superior to Aaron.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. At this point in the argument, Christ is more like the high priest than unlike. Contrasts, both to the high priest and to the whole system of sacrifice, will follow in later chapters.

Perhaps the most significant characteristic of this particular passage – and what makes it particularly apt for the fifth Sunday in Lent – is its emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. Verses 7-10 in Greek are a relative clause, a clause that begins with the word “who.” The person to whom the “who” refers is “Christ” in verse 5. In other words, verses 7-10 describe the Christ who did not glorify himself in becoming high priest, but was instead appointed to that position by God.

These verses are a single sentence in Greek (note that the NRSV has it divided into two) with two main verbs: “learned” in verse 8, and “became” in verse 9. Jesus, the eternal Son of God, “learned obedience through what he suffered,” and as a consequence “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” Jesus Christ, whom Christians would later call the Second Person of the Trinity, “learned obedience through what he suffered!” This is how God works in the world through Christ: not by overpowering his enemies with force and victory, but by suffering.

As Lent approaches its climax in Holy Week, the story of Jesus descends into suffering of the most intense kind: betrayal by friends, conviction by an unjust court, torture and execution by the cruelest of methods. Christ truly did learn obedience through what he suffered. And in so doing he “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” This is the heart of the Gospel. And the author of Hebrews knew it.


1Of many places to find discussions of introductory issues to Hebrews, a particularly good one is Harold W. Attridge. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.