Lent 5B

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This page is part of the Lectionary project of the FaithFutures Foundation.


Revised Common Lectionary
Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Psalm 51:1-12 (or Psalm 119:9-16
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Roman Catholic (1998 US) Lectionary
Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 14-15
Hebrews 5:7-9
John 12:20-33

Episcopal Church USA
Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Psalm 51 or 51:11-16
Hebrews 5:(1-4)5-10
John 12:20-33

In the older liturgical cycles, this Sunday marked the beginning of Passiontide. During this solemn period, veils of purple cloth or plain white linen were once placed over religious symbols that celebrated the victory of Christ. In many cases, even plain crosses and those with the image of the Crucified One on them, were also covered as the significance of the veiling was lost. While many parishes continue to veil their crosses from this weekend, contemporary practice treats Palm Sunday as "Passion Sunday," with red as the liturgical color.

As we get closer to Easter there is considerable convergence in the lectionaries:

  • Jeremiah 31 is a passage that speaks of a new covenant God and the people, one inscribed on the human heart with the divine law internalised and no need for an external religious teacher.
  • Hebrews 5 is one of the NT passages that makes use of the esoteric traditions concerning Melchizedek.
  • The passage from John 12 is one of the most enigmatic sections of John's Gospel, but includes the metaphor of the seed that generates a new head of grain only if it first dies and is laid in the ground.

A New Covenant

The OT reading concludes the series of covenant passages that has been a feature of the Lenten series:

  • Lent 1: Noahic covenant between God and "all flesh upon the earth"
  • Lent 2: Abrahamic covenant
  • Lent 3: Mosaic covenant from Mt Sinai
  • Lent 4: Covenant failure: punishment and restoration (Numbers 21:4-9)
  • Lent 5: The "new covenant"

The idea of a "new covenant" was to be especially significant in early Christianity, and eventually provided the name for the Christian set of writings within the Bible. Our focus, however, is better directed at the significance of this development in the Jeremiah tradition.

The "historical Jeremiah" appears to have lived through the implementation (and eventual failure) of the so-called deuteronomistic reforms that were introduced in the Kingdom of Judah during the reign of Josiah. For details, see 2 Kings 22-23. These reforms were inspired by the kind of traditions now found in Deuteronomy, with some scholars suggesting that the "book of the Law" found in the Temple during renovations to remove pagan symbols (such as the bronze serpent that featured in last week's readings) was more or less what we now have in Deut 12-26.

In supporting the reform agenda of Josiah (see Jer 11:1-17), Jeremiah seems to have fallen foul of the rural priests such as those from his home town of Anathoth (see 11:21-23). With the suppression of sacrifices outside the Temple, the rural clergy were deprived of both income and status. In the end the reforms failed and the southern kingdom was defeated by the Babylonians.

What is especially significant about this passage in Jeremiah 31 is the way it assumes and transposes the older covenant traditions.

Jeremiah had seen for himself that religious renewal was not a matter subject to official mandate, but rather something that had to come from within. He dreams of a time when the divine Torah will be inscribed on the hearts of people, rather than remaining an external influence. As part of that dream for a new kind of relationship with God and with one another, Jeremiah imagines a time when there is no need of priest or teacher, since everyone will know God directly.

It is a measure of Jeremiah's spiritual stature and maturity that he could even contemplate such a situation. Not many religious leaders since then have been able to embrace that vision of an autonomous laity. The idea of a "brokerless kingdom" is central to Jesus' vision of the divine commonwealth, but it put him into direct conflict with the religious authorities of his time. That was also the experience of Jeremiah, whose story seems to end with him being abducted by a group of refugees fleeing Jerusalem for safety in Egypt (see Jer 43:5-7).

Jesus in Hebrews: A priest like Melchizedek?

Hebrews is one of the most unusual documents in the NT. It consciously reinterprets Jesus in terms drawn from Jewish Temple ritual, and describes him as a priest. This is a revealing development, as it shows us how far from historical reality early Christians were willing to move in their desire to explore the religious meaning of Jesus.

More authentic Jesus traditions show him to have been something of a critic of the Temple and its related system of purity codes. He was executed partly because of his known criticisms of the Temple, including an ambiguous threat to destroy it and replace it with the "true" Temple expected to descend from heaven at the end of time.

Rather than presenting Jesus in his true colors as an apocalyptic prophet critical of the Temple establishment, or as a charismatic holy man renowned for his witty sayings and his skills as a healer/exorcist, Hebrews portrays Jesus as the mythical Melchizedek. This figure first appears in the story of Abraham (Genesis 14) as a local ("pagan") priest who accepts Abraham's offerings upon his safe return from a military campaign. His name occurs in Psalm 110, in an even more obscure reference that is then taken up by the author of this letter.

For ancient texts that mention this figure, see the Melchizedek page

Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls we now know that there was continuing speculation about this Melchizedek figure in Jewish priestly circles, including those such as the Qumran covenant community that was estranged from the Temple because of a dispute about calendar calculations, and other issues. In these circles, Melchizedek (= "king of righteousness," or "the just king") is an angel of light, and is sometimes opposed to an evil power known as Melchiresha ("king of evil," or "the evil king").

With the insights into esoteric Jewish speculation provided by the Dead Sea Scrolls, we can now appreciate how Hebrews represents a way of developing a Christology that is inspired by the special interests of the ancient priestly circles in Jerusalem. Like Christians of other times and places, the writer of Hebrews has imagined Jesus in the guise of the things most precious to him. We all like to imagine Jesus as being like us.

Unless a grain of wheat falls ...

In keeping with the ancient observance of this day as the beginning of Passiontide, today's readings begin to focus much more directly on the imminent liturgical commemoration of the suffering and death of Jesus.

GJohn treats the crucifixion as a moment of triumph, rather than a tragic turn of events. This will be "the hour" -- an important theme in GJohn: 2:4; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23,27; 13:1; and 17:1. This will be the moment of victory since a Jesus exalted on the cross will draw everyone to himself.

There is no sense here of the scandal of the cross, that Paul felt so strongly. Despite the presence of the "Greeks" in the episode, this is insider talk. Unlike Paul who knew the difficulty of seeking to sustain theological discourse with either Jews or Greeks when the question of Jesus' death was raised, GJohn seems to be talking to its own constituency here. We might well wonder whether they seriously imagined themselves in dialogue with outsiders, or whether their monologues and narratives are mostly for their own benefit. A kind of theological whistling in the dark, perhaps?

In a happy turn of events, even if written primarily for their own internal needs, GJohn has generated numerous expressions that have come to encapsulate core elements of Christian faith:

  • No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above ...
  • God so loved the world that he sent his only son ...
  • God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth ...
  • I am the bread of life ...
  • I am the light of the world ...
  • I am the good shepherd ...
  • I am the resurrection and the life ...
  • I give you a new commandment, that you love one another ...
  • I am the way, the truth and the life ...

Another of the great Johannine word pictures is to be found in this passage: the seed that falls (seemingly dead) into the ground and then bears much fruit. This image is taken up in the hymn, Now the Green Blade Rises, by John M.C. Crum (1872-1958):

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,

Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been;
Love has come again, like wheat that springs up green.

In the grave they laid him, Love whom hate had slain;
Thinking that he never would awake again,
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen;
Love has come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Up he sprang at Easter, like the risen grain,
He who for the three days in the grave had lain;
Raised from the dead, my living Lord is seen;
Love has come again, like wheat that springs up green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Then your touch can call us back to life again,
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been;

Love has come again, like wheat that springs up green.

The saying about losing or retaining one's life (vs. 25) reflects traditions that are also found in the Synoptic Gospels: see 063 Saving Ones Life. This can be a timely reminder that while GJohn has a distinctive perspective on Jesus and Christianity, it is not entirely cut off from the early Jesus traditions. John may well preserve authentic snippets of Jesus' sayings even if they are now embedded in a longer discourse created by the author or his sources.

The final part of the passage (vss. 27ff) has echoes of the Gethsemane prayer vigil prior to his arrest. When GJohn deals with the Gethsemane scene, we have a calm and confident Jesus reviewing his divine origins with his Father, and interceding for those later generations of Christians who would come to believe as a result of the preaching of the disciples. The conflicted and agonizing Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels has no place in GJohn, except for this episode here.

The incident then develops as something of a parallel to the Baptism and Transfiguration accounts. The heavenly voice assures Jesus that all is well, but this time the witnesses are not simply John the Baptist or even the inner circle of Peter, James and John. Instead, there is a crowd of bystanders who hear the divine voice, although only Jesus is said to have understood its message.

Jesus Database

For texts related to these readings, along with brief notes and commentary, see the following items in the Jesus Database:

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt's web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre: