Lectionary Commentaries for March 21, 2021
Fifth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 12:20-33

Alicia D. Myers

As we near Holy Week, we arrive in Jerusalem with Jesus in the Gospel of John. 

Jesus enters to much fanfare, with calls of “Hosanna” from Psalm 118 and a re-enactment of Zechariah 9:9 marking the king’s arrival to the holy city (John 12:12-19). The crowd who meets Jesus is an extension of those who travelled to Lazarus’ house in Bethany to find him before Passover (John 12:9-11). As noted in the commentary on John 2:13-22, pilgrims travelled to the temple before Passover to purify themselves in order to participate in the festival (John 11:55). When they instead go to Jesus, they reflect the theme running throughout the Gospel that Jesus is the location of God’s glory and presence. 

When Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem in verse 12, he continues attracting a large crowd and, therefore, causes the Jerusalem leaders to fear a Roman retribution (John 11:47-53). In John 12:19, the Pharisees say in exasperation, “Look! The whole world went to him!” For John, Jesus’ mission is indeed this in-gathering of the world, but it will come about only through his death and resurrection. 

John 12:20-36 is Jesus’ final public teaching in the Gospel, and it is delivered to a group of both Jews and Gentiles. In fact, the arrival of the “Greeks” who “wish to see Jesus” in verse 20 seem to prompt Jesus’ comment that his hour has come in John 12:23. First-century synagogues welcomed gentiles, so it is not surprising to find Gentiles in Jerusalem for Passover as well, even if they were not proselytes or even monotheists. Their presence recalls the question from “the Jews” (including Pharisees) in John 7:35, when they wondered if Jesus’ upcoming departure meant he was “about to go out and teach the Greeks” in the diaspora (for example, outside of Palestine). 

Rather than going out, however, Jesus gathers others to himself (John 12:31-32). The larger context and Old Testament imagery used in John suggests our passage reflects the eschatological scene of the nations coming to the Jerusalem temple to worship found in many prophetic works, including Isaiah 56, which describes the arrival of foreigners, diaspora Israelites, and eunuchs to worship at the “holy mountain” (56:3-8). In true Johannine fashion, however, the Gentiles in John 12 are drawn to Jesus rather than the temple.

Looking at Isaiah 56 in more detail reveals additional connections to John 12. In Isaiah 56:7-8 the Lord promises: “I will bring them into my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer; . . . for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations—said the Lord, who gathers the dispersed of Israel—for I will gather to him a gathering” (NETS). We recognize Isaiah 56:7 as the text Jesus quotes when he first arrives in the temple in the synoptic accounts. 

In John, however, Jesus quoted Zechariah 14:21 during his first temple visit, even if Isaiah 56 runs underneath the account. Rather than the “house of prayer,” John’s Gospel focuses instead on the theme of “gathering.” In fact, the verb for gathering (synagō) occurs seven times in John, and Jesus prefigures this work when he receives the once-blind-man, who was cast out of his gathering (apōsynagogos, John 9:22), to join in worshipping the Son of Man (John 9:34-38). Continuing this theme, John 11:51-52 explains Caiaphas’ prophecy of Jesus’ death in the following way: “Now this one [Caiaphas] did not speak from himself, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die on behalf of the nations, and not only on behalf of the nations only, but so that the dispersed children of God might be gathered together as one” (my translation). For John, therefore, Jesus fulfills God’s promises from Isaiah 56 by gathering not only Israelites in the land, but those in the diaspora as well as gentiles; he is, indeed, bringing together the whole world (John 19).

Yet, Jesus’ gathering does not happen with this triumphal entry, but with his death. Jesus has already described this sign, albeit cryptically, during his first Passover in Jerusalem: “Destroy this sanctuary and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:20). In John 3:14-15 too, he told Nicodemus that “just as Moses exalted the serpent in the wilderness, thusly it is necessary for the Son of Man to be exalted, so that every one who believes in him might have eternal life.”

In John 12, Jesus again refers to his coming “exaltation” (verse 32) along with other imagery from the Gospel to reinforce his dramatic statement: “The hour has come so that the Son of Man might be glorified!” (verse 23). He is the seed who will fall, die, and yet produce much fruit (verse 24; see also John 4:35-38) and he is the one who willingly gives up his life (psychē) on behalf of others in obedience to his Father’s will (verse 25; John 10:17-18). Jesus is so sure of his mission that he undercuts David’s cry of lament in Psalm 6:4 for God to save him from this hour and instead cries out: “For this hour I came!” (John 12:27-28; compare Mark 14:36). John’s Jesus needs no reassurance, but a voice comes to help the divided crowd who surrounds him (John 12:28-29). Like the deaf and blind in Isaiah 6:9-10 (John 12:40-41), even those who come to Jesus need guidance “while the light is with them” (John 12:35-36; see also. 1:9-10; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:4-5; 11:9-10). 

For John’s Gospel, therefore, it’s not enough just to come to Jesus or “want to see” him; we must have our ears unclogged and our vision corrected by the trauma that is Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. As Jesus explains, we cannot avoid darkness and death, but instead, must trust that God will bring about life. This message is perhaps even more important this year, as we’ve all endured a time of pandemic and seemingly endless death. We may not be able to avoid the darkness, but we can, like those foretold in Isaiah 56, cling to Jesus’ promise that he will light our paths toward life.


First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Henry T.C. Sun

“You’ve got to have heart.” – Coach Jimmy McGinty, The Replacements.

Some biblical passages are difficult to preach because they are obscure. (That may have been the case with last week’s reading from Numbers 21.) Other biblical passages are difficult to preach because they are familiar, and we therefore “know” what the text means before we start preaching it.

That is the problem with today’s reading from Jeremiah 31. We “know” that Jeremiah’s prophecy looks forward to the New Testament church. We “know” that the new covenant refers to Jesus and his birth, life, death, and resurrection. We “know” therefore that the primary message of this text is to justify the theological conclusion that the New Testament church has replaced ancient Israel in the economy of salvation history. And because Jeremiah 31:31-34 is quoted several times in the New Testament (completely in Hebrews 8:8-12; partially in Romans 11:27; Hebrews 10:16-17; by way of allusion in Matthew 26:28, Mark 14:24, and John 6:45), for many Christians this meaning of our text is already and definitively known.

But that isn’t the message of this text in its ancient (late 7th century BCE) context.

Jeremiah 31 belongs with chapter 30, and these two chapters are often identified as the “Book of Consolation” or the “Book of Comfort” in the Hebrew version of Jeremiah.1 It is clear that these chapters have the Babylonian Exile in view, but there is some question as to whether the Exile has already happened (as with Second Isaiah) or is still on the temporal horizon. No matter how that historical question is answered, the text clearly envisions the period of time after the Babylonian Exile is over and the Hebrews are returned back to Palestine.2

What will happen then?

The return from exile will issue in a “new covenant” (berit chadashah), which according to verse 32 will “not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors.” It is often noted that this is the only place in the Hebrew Bible that mentions a “new covenant.”3 And this new, future, covenant is being compared to the old, existing, Mosaic covenant which they broke (heperu) even though the Lord was their husband (baalti bam).4

This isn’t the first time the concept of the broken covenant is broached in Jeremiah; In Jeremiah 11:10, Jeremiah proclaims that “the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken (heperu) the covenant that I made with their ancestors” and in Jeremiah 22:9, the nations affirm that Judah and Jerusalem are no more “because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord their God, and worshiped other gods and served them.”

The old, Mosaic covenant was conditional and transactional, as stated most bluntly in Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26. Both texts promise protection and blessing as the consequence of obedience, but judgment and ultimately exile as the consequence of disobedience. In Jeremiah’s view, and in the view of the other prophets, the exiles of the Northern Kingdom (721 BCE) and the Southern Kingdom (586 BCE) are God’s just punishment for the disobedience and idolatry of God’s chosen people.

But the new covenant that will follow the return from exile will not be conditional and transactional, full of rules that can be broken or followed insincerely from a sense of obligation or duty. Instead, we read in verse 33 that “I (that is, the Lord) will put my law (torati) within them, and I will write it on their hearts (libbam).”5 Note that the newness of this covenant is not its content but its internalization.6

Verse 34 gives us the result of this internalization of God’s covenant demands: there will be no need for religious leaders or teachers because everyone will know God “from the least to the greatest,” a Hebrew idiom for universality.7 Everyone will know God because God will forgive their iniquities (see also Jeremiah 33:8; 36:3) and not remember their sin anymore. That is a striking reversal from earlier statements by Jeremiah, such as what we find in Jeremiah 14:10 (“now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins”).

This section closes with the saying “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”8 The old, Mosaic covenant envisioned a relationship with God that was grounded in God’s act of liberating the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. That model was taken up by Second Isaiah, who viewed the return from the Babylonian Exile as a new, or second, Exodus.

Jeremiah’s new covenant goes in a different direction. There is no new act of political liberation that is in view here, but simply and only a divine act of forgiveness that in and of itself creates the new covenant that will be written on the hearts of the Hebrew people.9 In this new covenant, obedience to God’s Torah, and acting in accordance with God’s will, become part of our internal character and hence something that happens automatically and without conscious thought or effort.

Thus, the people now in exile can look forward to being part of a community of faith that is forgiven as an act of God’s pure grace; whose relationship to God is not formal and transactional, but like that of a married couple in which everything that is done and every word that is spoken supports their partner and their relationship; and where the formal trappings of traditional religious hierarchy are no longer needed.

The Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth put it this way: “‘I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts’ (Jeremiah 31:33). This and this alone is the basis of the love which is the fulfilment of the whole Law. And as God does this [God’s] Law, in virtue of which love is expected of [us], is the Law of the Gospel.”10

Notes

  1. See R. P. Carroll, Jeremiah (Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 568-70; W. Holladay, Jeremiah 2 (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 148; W. McKane (Jeremiah 2 [International Critical Commentary; Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1986], 749-51). Others see this as including chapters 30-33, as found in J. A. Thompson, Jeremiah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980).
  2. The Jewish Study Bible notes on verse 31 (“here it refers to the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian exile and the reconstruction of the Temple.”). In context, Jeremiah has the restoration of both the Northern and the Southern kingdoms in mind, as the reference to “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” in verse 31 clearly shows.
  3. See Carroll, Jeremiah, 610; Thompson, Jeremiah, 579; Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4:1088. On the wider canonical context for the idea of a coming new covenant, see the New Jerusalem Bible notes to this section.
  4. There are a couple of points the interpreter should be aware of in verse 32. The first is the unusual syntax of the second occurrence of the relative pronoun ‘asher (see Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 197-98); the second is the dual meaning of the verb b’l, which carries both the sense of “to be husband to” and “to be lord over” (see for example, Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, 127; Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 2:181-82; New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 1:682; Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, 2:237). The Septuagint has a different reading (elemesa, “I was unconcerned,” for the Masoretic Text ba’alti), a reading also present in Hebrews 8:9 (for discussion see Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 6:577-78).
  5. Compare, for example, Jeremiah 17:11 (“The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts”) for a similar metaphor used negatively. For the Ancient Near East background to this image, see The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible note on verse 33.
  6. For example, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament 4:237 (“The massive ‘new thing’ of this passage is the interiorization of religion”); Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 198 (“Yahweh’s new action will bring about a new situation wherein the people will obey freely and gladly, and rebellion will be a thing of the past.”).
  7. In this context, whether this is a reference to chronology (youngest to oldest) or social stratification (lowest to highest) is irrelevant.
  8. See also Jeremiah 24:7; 32:38; Ezekiel 11:20; 14:11; 37:27; Zechariah 8:8; and with the second person pronoun “your” instead of the third person pronoun “their,” Jeremiah 7:23; 11:4; 30:22; Ezekiel 36:28.
  9. Compare Jeremiah 24:7 (“I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart”), which proclaims a similar message but includes the notion of repentance, which is lacking in Jeremiah 31.
  10. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Volume 4, Part 2), 782-83; similarly, McKane, Jeremiah 2, 820. A lengthier exposition can be found in Church Dogmatics (Volume 4, Part 1), 32-34.

Psalm

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.1

Particularly if read in the context of Lent 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.


Notes

Commentary first published on this site on February 22, 2012.


Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 5:5-10

Adam Hearlson

Presumably, the lectionary intends the church to sit with and contemplate this image of the high priest and king Melchizedek. A relatively obscure figure in Genesis, Melchizedek is held up as an early prefiguration of Christ—a figure who can judge and intercede. But before we attend to Melchizedek, a word of caution is in order.

A passage like this, read within the church without explaining what comes before or after, can make a strong impact. Specifically, the connection of obedience, submission, and suffering demands some consideration in sermon preparation. Without attention, or by focusing solely on Melchizedek or the image of a high priest and king, the preacher might unintentionally support the notion that human suffering is a pedagogical strategy of God or that God only hears the prayers of those who are correctly submissive. I presume that this is not what the author of Hebrews intended, but authors rarely get the chance to be read as they’d hoped. Moreover, the power and danger of reading a text throughout nearly two thousand years of history require us to attend to how a text would be heard, in addition to what an author intended. 

This danger has been made real to me too many times to count, when my obliviousness failed to acknowledge the questions of those for whom the text felt too great to bear or too painful to believe. For some, the odd and wonderful image of Melchizedek will never gain a hearing surrounded by the questions of suffering, obedience, and submission. Churches have been ground zero for so much emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse, and quickly driving past ideas and texts that have been weaponized in that abuse is at least complicit in dismissing those experiences as irrelevant to the text. 

So tarry with the hard parts of the text so that you might read them against the hard parts of this world. This text might be an occasion to unpack and explain Christ’s kenosis—a humbling and challenging idea. It might also be an opportunity to examine Christ’s suffering as something besides a substitutionary sacrifice but as a moment of outpouring loving faithfulness on behalf of those who suffer. 

As for the text itself, we catch the author in media res. Before the invocation of Melchizedek, the author gives a long explanation about Christ’s role as a high priest. The first mention of a High Priest comes in Hebrews 2, but in Hebrews 4 and 5, the author gives a fuller explanation. Specifically, the author frames the role of the High Priest in terms of proximity. By what right are we—born of flesh and blood, sinners in need of grace—allowed to draw near to the ascended Christ? The answer: by Christ’s identification with human weakness and mortality. 

For most of history, artistic depictions of Christ have mostly come in two forms: Christ the Pantocrator and Christ the Man of Sorrows. Typically, in the Pantocrator (literally, almighty or all-powerful), Christ is shown ascended to a place of power and majesty. Risen from the earth, Christ has taken his rightful place on the judgment seat of God. In Christ’s left hand are the scriptures (or the Book of Life—scholars can’t seem to agree), and with his right hand, Christ is giving the sign of blessing. In Christ the Man of Sorrows, Christ is shown in his brokenness. He is typically bloody, worn, and twisted with a crown of thorns on his head and the weapons of torture surrounding him. Many medieval depictions of the Man of Sorrows look like a horror film—blood everywhere. The Man of Sorrows is Christ at his most lowly, sacrificial, and pathetic. In Christ the Pantocrator, we see Christ at his most exalted and powerful, and in Christ the Man of Sorrows, we see him at his most vulnerable—as the visual representation of his cry, “Oh God, why have you forsaken me.”

For the writer of Hebrews, these two depictions need each other. The only way you are allowed near the Pantocrator is because he once looked like the Man of Sorrows. We only know that this Pantocrator is the true Almighty because we have seen the Man of Sorrows. We only can recognize the ruling Christ because we have seen the broken Christ. The author Hebrews is trying to express that we can draw near because God drew near in sacrifice. 

The discussion then shifts to the image of Melchizedek, an idea that will center the book for the next few chapters. The image of Melchizedek provides a model whereby the priest might also sit rightfully on the throne of God. The text twice explains that Jesus is of the “order of Melchizedek.” Whether this means that Jesus is a vocational descendent of Melchizedek or the fulfillment of a priestly type is unclear.

More importantly, God has ordained that Christ remain a “priest forever.” That is, Christ occupies multiple eschatological roles—ruling and judging, sure, but also interceding. The dual role of Christ might seem paradoxical in practice, but in Christ, the dissonant finds harmony. It is no wonder that the author must reach for an obscure foreign ruler as an example of Christ’s purpose and role. Christ’s ability to fulfill multiple and somewhat contradictory roles is precisely what makes him Christ. Therefore, the contradictions are not a stumbling block but a confirmation that Christ is the ground of hope in a contradictory world.