Lectionary Commentaries for March 25, 2012
Fifth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 12:20-33

Marilyn Salmon

Jesus has come to Jerusalem for Passover again, but for the last time (12:12).

As was the case on his first trip, he comes from an intimate gathering among friends to an urban setting in the midst of crowds (see 2:1-12; 12:1ff).  He has just visited at the home of his friend Lazarus and his sisters on his way to Jerusalem. The growing crowds and acclaim follow him from his last sign, the raising of Lazarus from the dead (12:17).

The Identity of the Seeking Greeks

Among those who went up to Jerusalem to worship for the Passover festival were some Greeks.  Who were these Greeks? And what is the meaning of their presence here? A common interpretation is that the Greeks were gentiles and their presence here points to the direction of the future of Christianity. For example, David Rensberger notes that they “may symbolize the future mission of Christianity to the Gentiles” and refers readers to 7:35-36.  This seems unlikely, however. The word here is “hellenes,” not ethne, the word usually used to refer to gentiles or nations. One must explain, too, what would motivate gentiles to travel a long distance to worship at Jerusalem for the Passover. A more likely meaning is that the Greeks are diaspora Jews. The reference to 7:35-36 supports this, for Jews ask one another if “this man” intends to go to the Dispersion among Greeks. The diaspora refers to dispersed Jews, not gentiles.

From the conclusion of the last sign, the raising of Lazarus, many Jews believed in him (11:45; 12:9-11). This “crowd of Jews” who witnessed the raising of Lazarus from the dead continued to testify (12:17). This is the crowd that continues to follow him. The crowds of Jews who are followers of Jesus are likely implied in 12:20 who are going up to Jerusalem and include the seeking Greeks. The narrative gives no clues that these Greeks are Gentiles. The seeking Greeks may indeed signal the expansion of the mission, but Greek-speaking diaspora Jews is the more likely meaning.

The seekers wish to see Jesus. They never do see him. They make a request to Philip who tells Andrew, and together they tell Jesus (verses 21-23). Jesus answered them with a discourse on the meaning of his death (verses 23a-33). Who is “them”? Is Jesus’ discourse spoken to Andrew and Philip, or are the seeking Greeks included?  In the narrative, Andrew and Philip and the seeking Greeks seem to serve as a prop, similar to Nicodemus in 3:1-21. The seeking Greeks, like Nicodemus, set up a discourse about Jesus’ death and glorification. When Jesus begins speaking, the narrative audience seems irrelevant. In a real sense, we are “them,” that is, anyone who hears or reads Jesus’ discourse according to John.

The Ruler of This World

Jesus’ discourse on the meaning of his death and implications for discipleship echo Mark in that followers must lose their life in order to save it (Lent 2B, Mark 8:31-38). John’s narrative focuses on the conflict between the life of discipleship and the ruler of the world. “The world” in this context does not have the same connotation as “the world” God so loves (Lent 4B, John 3:16).  Those who “hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (verse 25, italics mine). This world is under judgment, and the ruler of this world will be defeated (verse 31).  

Jesus’ speech prepares the reader for the passion narrative. According to John, Jesus’ death and resurrection is a judgment against the imperial powers and ultimately — and paradoxically — a victory over them. D. Schowalter observes that “this language of elevation and glorification is [also] reminiscent of Roman imperial propaganda.”  Indeed, this entire discourse about Jesus’ elevation “…might be seen as reference to an ironic enthronement in which Jesus by his death on the cross offers the ultimate challenge to Roman authority.

The use of irony to assert Jesus’ victory over imperial powers is prominent in the passion narrative. The gospel of John persists in ascribing to Jesus imperial titles, “king” in particular.  Pilate intends to mock “the Jews” by calling Jesus their King (19:14). The soldiers ridicule him by dressing him in royal garb and hailing him “King.”(19:2-3) Pilate orders the inscription on the cross to read “King of the Jews.”(19:19) Ironically Pilate and his soldiers speak the truth. For those who can see, what appears to be the devastating power of Roman authority is actually its defeat. Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate victory over Roman power. 

The seeking Greeks wish to see Jesus. The ability to see what is not accessible to ordinary sight is a theme in John. Also, it is not necessary to see in the literal sense in order to believe. This gospel concludes with Jesus’ words to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29). The purpose of the gospel is to record Jesus’ signs for those who have not seen yet come to believe. Perhaps the seeking Greeks represent those of us for whom this gospel is written. They do not receive a personal audience with Jesus, but the truth is revealed to them, along with us, in Jesus’ speech foretelling the meaning of his death.

The truth contradicts the accepted norms of this world. In particular, John alerts his readers to the seductive powers of the world. There can be no compromise. Jesus is King. The emperor is not.  As we walk the final days of Lent through Holy Week, this truth both sustains and challenges us as we contemplate Jesus’ death and exaltation.

1David Rensberger, commentary notes for John in the HarperCollins Study Bible, NRSV, 1993.
2Daniel N. Schowalter, “Fifth Sunday of Lent,” New Proclamation Year B 2005-2006 (Fortress Press, 2006), p. 198.
3 Ibid.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Mark S. Gignilliat

Hope for a renewed future is an apropos theme on this fifth Sunday of Lent.

We are in the season of the church where careful reflection and repentance are the call of the hour. In the rhythmic seasons of the church, we are now at the end of a long Lenten journey. We are filled with anticipation for Palm Sunday: the joy elicited from children waving branches because their King is coming. Holy Week is around the corner with the intensity, passion, and hope it brings. Good Friday yields to Holy Saturday which blossoms into Easter morning. “Behold, the days are coming,” says the prophet Jeremiah. Yes, these are the words we need to hear.

From a structural standpoint, it is interesting that Jeremiah 31:31-34, located in what scholars call “The Book of Consolation,” is in itself a word of hope nestled within the surrounding themes of judgment and retribution. Jeremiah is by and large not a “happy” book. There is a reason why he is called the “weeping prophet.” In other words, there are many Lenten themes in the book of Jeremiah: sin, the call to repentance, and the necessity of judgment in the face of broken promises. But as is most often the case with the prophets, though the sting of judgment is real, God does not allow this word to be final. Redemption, salvation, and future hope are.

Jeremiah looks forward here to the coming day of hope. “The days are surely coming,” he says. The unfortunate flip-side to such a claim from Jeremiah is that the days are not here yet. Nevertheless, in this time God will make a new covenant with his people. This is the only time such a collocation appears in the Old Testament, “new covenant.” Though the term itself is novel, the themes associated with it are not, e.g., a renewed heart, first-hand knowledge of God by all, and the forgiveness of sins (cf Joel 2).

The prophet is drawing a sharp contrast with the covenant God made with his people at Sinai: I will be your God and you will be my people. A great deal of covenantal water had flown under the bridge since the Exodus event. The covenantal promises of choosing life or death by attending to God’s solitary claim on them had gone badly in Israel’s life lived in God’s presence. The prophets are all too clear about the matter. Yahweh does not share his marital bed with anyone else. Unfortunately, Israel took to other lovers.

One recalls Yahweh’s insistence that Hosea name his first child: lo’ammi, “not my people.” Yahweh sent Isaiah to speak to “this people,” whereas the comfort promised in Isaiah 40:1 is directed toward “my people”: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” It is in this period of covenantal and relational breakdown between Yahweh and his people that Jeremiah announces this word of future hope. A day is coming in which a new covenant will be established and the failure of the old covenant made at Sinai will be a distant memory.

Why will this happen? How will this happen? These questions are important and straightforward ones flowing from this text. The how question is answered with attention given to the renewal of the heart. The law will not be written on tablets of stone but on the hearts of God’s people. God will affect the heart, writing his instruction, his law, on the heart with his own finger. This writing involves an erasure as well. “The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts…” says Jeremiah elsewhere (17:1). Where sin was once written, now God’s instruction, God’s own will and desires will be written on that fleshy organ.

This rewriting on the heart leads to the previous question, “Why will this happen?” Again, the text answers the question pointedly. “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (31:34b). “For” in English has a causative force to it, though it can often denote a logical or temporal connector. In other words, “For” potentially softens the Hebrew text’s causative emphasis. Why will they know me personally from the least to the greatest? Why will the law be written on their hearts? Because I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more. The syntax of this final verse reveals what makes possible this new order of affairs, this new covenant between Yahweh and his people. This all happens because God is going to forgive their sins.

The Christian connection to this text, especially in this fifth Sunday of Lent, are not difficult to make. It is in the person of Jesus Christ in his atoning work for humanity where forgiveness of sins is to be found and the new covenant is to be enjoyed. Even in the words of institution at the Last Supper, we drink the cup which is the new covenant in his blood. The forgiveness of our sins is what makes possible the renewal of our hearts. Or in sentiments we might find in Paul, we fulfill the law of Christ when our actions correspond to our true humanity that is found in our union with Jesus Christ. Who am I? I am in Christ. My sins have been forgiven. My humanity has been redeemed.


Commentary on Psalm 51:1-12

Matthew Stith

Psalm 51 is, by any measure, one of the best-known and most often read penitential texts in the canon, and, as such, presents both opportunities and challenges for the interpreter.

Particularly if read in the context of Ash Wednesday or some other occasion where sin and repentance are particularly in view, this text’s vivid exploration of the impact of human sinfulness and the desperate need for God’s forgiving intervention will strike at the heart of any congregation.

The preacher, however, must attend very carefully to what the Psalm says about these crucial topics in order to avoid presenting a distorted picture of the nature of sin and of penitence as described in the text. A text that admits “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” is not a simple call for a person to apologize to God or endure some penance by way of making up for particular transgressions. Psalm 51 is about the consequences of and remedy for sinfulness, rather than merely sins.

As described by the Psalmist, the totality of sin’s impact is stunning. That sin causes guilt and remorse in the sinner (verse 3) and leaves the sinner liable to judgment and punishment (verse 4) are hardly shocking insights in and of themselves. These are, indeed, almost commonplace, for any reading or hearing community with any notion of law or justice. What makes the Psalm’s enumeration of sin’s consequences noteworthy is what comes after these initial observations.

The text maintains that sin isn’t merely a matter of crime and punishment in prescribed, logical proportion. Instead, it is radical and universal, pervading every human life from its beginning (verse 5), which in turn means that its effects and consequences are unavoidable. And those effects, also, are spelled out in intimidating detail. Sin, we read, deafens the sinner to gladness and causes physical agony (verse 8). It at least approximates the experience of being cast out from God’s presence, rejected, and abandoned (verse 11). It impedes the enjoyment of the good news of God’s salvation and chokes off even the willingness to attempt to follow God’s law, thus perpetuating its own malignant influence (verse 12). Sin even prevents the offering of praise (verse 15) and perverts sacrifice (verse 16).

The magnitude of the problem presented by human sinfulness requires a solution of equal, or even greater magnitude, and the Psalmist has a very clear idea about where that solution must lie. Over and over, the Psalm expresses the absolute conviction that only God’s action can deal with the sources and consequences of sin. If every human being is born sinful, then only the creation of a new, clean heart within each human breast can possibly remove the taint. And, of course, only the creator God can do such a thing (verse 10).

And as for the root cause, so for the consequences: every mention of a remedy or answer for the miserable consequences of sin is couched in terms of God’s initiative and God’s execution. The Psalmist does not entertain any fancies about human ability to cleanse, to purge, to wash away, or to blot out sins—all any human being can do is to beg God to graciously do what is beyond us to do.

If our sin has cast us out from God’s presence, or caused us to feel as alienated from God as if we had been so cast out, it is only when God instead hides the divine face from our sins that the alienation is eased (verse 9). If our transgression and corruption have silenced our will to follow and to praise, then it is only God who can open our lips (verse 15). We cannot sacrifice our way out of the consequences of sin, because only a heart that has turned toward God in repentance and supplication is an acceptable offering (verse 17). Only God, the Psalm drives home with vigor, can deal with our sins.

The horrifying breadth and depth of sin’s undermining of human nature and the clear reality that only gracious, divine action can possibly arrest or repair the damage it does are evident in the Psalm. This Word is a clear denial of any notion of so-called “works righteousness,” any contention that human beings can somehow do something on their own to “make up” for even a portion of their sins. As such, it is a valuable resource to preachers whose communities are tempted to entertain such notions, a temptation that is surely heightened during penitential seasons. Psalm 51 reminds all that the true and valuable purpose of repentance is as a means for the sinner to entreat the gracious help of the only One who can do anything about sin.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 5:5-10

Susan Hedahl

Note:  Part I explores the biblical text and Part II discusses homiletical strategies for the text.

Part I

The Book of Hebrews is actually considered by many scholars to be a sermon!

Its language demonstrates sophisticated rhetorical strategies for convincing listeners that in Jesus Christ God is accessible and known.  This particular passage can be summed up in this way: the author uses an analogy to describe one of the roles Jesus engages as the savior of humanity.  He functions as a high priest on behalf of others.  Jesus’ intercessory work is a major emphasis biblically and theologically which mark the season of Lent.

To preach this passage effectively, one needs to glean background information in three areas.      First, Chapter Five discusses the role of the high priest: the priest’s selection, the necessary personal attitudes and pastoral work of the high priest.  Second, it is necessary to review the use of two of the Old Testament quotations in this passage.  The two Old Testament quotes in verses 5-6 are significant for discussing the divinity of Jesus and God’s plan historically through the functioning of priesthood.  Finally, it is important to research the priestly figure of Melchizedek.  He is mentioned twice in this passage as a specific and laudable human model for an effective high priest.

The role of high priest:

Old Testament books, such as Leviticus and Deuteronomy (e.g. Chapter Eighteen) are replete with discussions about the importance of priesthood.  In this particular passage, the writer describes Jesus as a high priest.  The preacher can consider extending the pericope text to include the first four verses of Chapter Five.

These additional verses describe what a priest — and therefore Jesus — does.  Beginning only with verse 5 omits this helpful background information.  These verses describe how the high priest represents God to the people, particularly regarding offerings and sacrifices for sin.  Verses 2-3 describe the high priest’s pastoral ministry as one sympathetic and empathetic in relationship to those he serves.  Finally, this priesthood is bestowed by God. All these functions apply to Jesus.

Old Testament quotations

Two verses are quoted in this text (their placement makes them appear as one selection!).  The first quote is form Psalm 2:7, one first stated earlier in 1:5.  This verse is well-known in ancient writings.  It and was often repeated to affirm the deity of Jesus.  This was a key verse in early Christological debates in the Church, which probed the question: Who is Jesus?  A blessed human?  A part of God through adoption at baptism?  A lesser version of God — or as true God?   Theologically, the quote invokes the Christology of John’s Gospel: Jesus was not a created being, a lesser form of God, but one who is “begotten not made” — as the Nicene Creed expresses it.

The second quote, Psalm 110:4, raises a number of historical questions.  It introduces a legendary figure, who is discussed in Genesis 14 in his dealings with Abraham.  Although adding more homiletical work, it is important that one also read ahead in Hebrews Chapter 7, where more details are given regarding Melchizedek.

What is unique about this figure, the author asserts, is the historical continuity of God’s plan in relationship to Jesus.  Melchizedek is a proto-type for what culminates in Jesus as God’s son, high priest par excellence for all humanity.  Helpful points to be made about Melchizedek — in relationship to Jesus Christ — are that the circumstances of his life remain obscure; he was prior to the Mosaic establishment of the Levitical clan, which administered the temple and priesthood; his origins are unknown.  Only his actions in blessing Abraham receive praise.  Hebrews 7:3 describes him in these mystical and ahistorical terms as: “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.”

Part II

However this passage is preached, the core should involve reflection on Jesus as high priest, both within the context of Israel’s historical framework of the high priest figure and more specifically as exemplified by the legendary figure of Melchizedek.  

There are several possibilities for organizing this text.  First, if the sermon’s question/focus asks in what ways Jesus acts as our high priest, the sermon can be divided into two parts.  If one uses the first four verses of Chapter Five, the sermon can start with reflections on the work of a priest, as historically understood.  Secondly, the preacher can then move to verses 7-10 and offer a specific look at how Jesus fulfilled and enacted the general roles specified in verses 1-4.  

Another approach to this sermon might involve asking what functions the two Old Testament quotations serve.  A sermon on these two verses can be constructed in two sections.  The first will look at what is at stake in affirming, prophetically speaking, Jesus as “begotten.”  Since even today many do not consider Jesus divine, this focus is not outdated or archaic.  Examples for this sermon are easily drawn for parishioners’ daily encounters with many other religious and cultic encounters.  The author is making the case for Jesus’ divinity. 

The second quote related to Melchizedek rests on the cusp of legend and proto-typical interpretation: exactly what kind of priest does this ancient figure mean, if Jesus exemplifies him as the ultimate high priest?  And yes, it is hard as preacher-leader to focus on this latter verse as it sets the contrast for one’s own modeling of priesthood to one’s listeners!

Another sermon approach can focus on verses 7- 10.  What actions and spiritual attitudes did Jesus manifest as God’s ultimate high priest?  The proclaimer can examine one or several of the words and phrases of this rich text: “submission,” “obedience,” “suffered,”  “loud cries and tears.”  The question for the sermon would be this: How did this (or these) activities of Jesus embody true priesthood — on humanity’s behalf?