By Father Donald Dilger
Fifth Sunday of Lent
First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Response: Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 14-15; Second Reading: Hebrews 5:7-9; Gospel: John 12:20-33
The first reading is from the oracles of the prophet Jeremiah. His whole ministry was in and around Jerusalem, from 626 B.C. to a few years after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. When the city fell to the Babylonians, they gave Jeremiah a choice of remaining in Jerusalem or joining his fellow-citizens in exile in Babylon. He chose to remain. The Babylonian king appointed Gedaliah as governor of the remains of the former Kingdom of Judah. A group of hyper patriots assassinated their governor. Fearing reprisal from Babylon, they took Jeremiah with them and fled to Egypt. There Jeremiah disappeared from history. As background to our first reading, we take a look back to the more ancient prophet Hosea, 745-722 B.C. Hosea described the covenant between God and Israel as a marriage contract based on love. When Israel fell into idolatry, he described their sin as adultery. Adultery, a sin against marriage, broke the covenant.
A century after Hosea, Jeremiah is engaged in a struggle against forms of idolatry in vogue among segments of the Kingdom of Judah. The marriage contract, or covenant, between God and his people continued to be broken. In today’s reading, Jeremiah envisions a new covenant, (conversion and renewal of marriage vows), between God and a renewed Israel. Speaking for God, he proclaims, “The days are coming . . . when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” A new covenant implies an old covenant, so a reference to the covenant between God and the Israelites made at Mt. Sinai. “Unlike the covenant I made with their ancestors . . ., since they broke my covenant, and I had to show them who was in charge.” That covenant was written on stone. Not so with the new covenant. “Here is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel. I will place my Torah (law, teaching, word) inside them, written on their hearts.” A remarkable and risky statement follows, “No longer will they need to teach their relatives and friends how to know the Lord. All from the least to the greatest will know me . . . .” Would this work in a real world? No more need for religious instruction? An end to the RCIA? Jeremiah is envisioning an ideal world, not a real world. He knows sin will continue, but God is good. Therefore, “I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.”
Psalm 51 is one of the Seven Penitential Psalms. It is called ‘the Miserere,’ the first word of the Latin version, meaning “Have mercy,” or “Be merciful.” It is addressed to a forgiving God. There are echoes of Jeremiah’s oracle in our first reading. The Psalmist confesses his sin, his guilt, and asks God to wipe it out. These words echo that final consoling word noted above, that God will forgive and forget. “I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.” There is a plea that God create in a penitent a clean heart. The word ‘create’ means a totally new beginning corresponding to Jeremiah’s new covenant. That covenant was with a nation. The new covenant is personal, with every individual.
The second reading is from the Letter to the Hebrews. Though there seems little connection with the first reading or the response psalm, it does reflect the approaching commemoration of Jesus’ suffering and death to which today’s gospel reading refers. The author notes Jesus’ desperate prayer for deliverance from death during his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, yet without a response from above, at least that is so in Matthew and Mark. A remarkable mystery, “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.”
The gospel is part of the final chapter before the Passion Narrative begins. When Jesus was condemned, though absent, by the high court in Jerusalem, John notes that the high priest Caiaphas passed judgment that it is better for one man to die rather than the whole nation perish. The high priest meant this politically. But John has a different view, “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest . . ., he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation (Israel), yet not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children who are scattered abroad.” That can mean all nations to John. At the beginning of today’s gospel he writes that some Greeks asked to see Jesus. These are non-Jews, Gentiles. Many devout Gentiles participated in Jewish ceremonies and festivals. In John’s mysterious mind, the request to see Jesus is a request for faith in Jesus. When the disciples inform Jesus of his visitors, he does not say, “Bring them on!” He gives a mysterious answer, “Now is the hour for the Son of Man to be glorified.” For John, the process of Jesus’ glorification begins with the betrayal, includes his torture and death, and ends with the resurrection/ascension.