Sunday Scripture

By Father Paul Nord, O.S.B.

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B

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

Many parishes this Sunday will use the “Scrutiny Readings” of Year A in the Church’s three-year Sunday Lectionary Cycle (Years A, B, C). These Scrutiny Readings are connected to the RCIA/OCIA process of adults preparing to enter the Catholic Church at Easter. The “Scrutiny Readings” were also an option for the last two Sundays (Third and Fourth Sundays of Lent). 

By contrast, my commentary here concerns the “Year B” readings which may be proclaimed this year at Sunday Masses at which the “scrutinies” are not celebrated. In this way, our faithful readers will receive a wider variety of scripture commentary over the three-year cycle of Sunday Readings in Lent.

Today’s first reading, from Jeremiah 31, was written in a time of crisis. The Babylonian Empire had become the dominant power in the region, and the Kings in Jerusalem (descendants of David) were trying to preserve Judah from exploitation by the Babylonians. During the prophet Jeremiah’s life, Judah was first forced to be a “vassal kingdom” under the Babylonians – and later Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians. After the destruction, many Jerusalem residents were exiled to Babylon.

Thus Jeremiah’s first readers would have understood Jeremiah’s prophecy as anticipating God’s redemption of his people from Babylonian oppression. In this context, Jeremiah gives a prophecy in which God says of his people: “they broke my covenant” (Jeremiah 31:32). Jeremiah sees his people’s suffering to be a consequence of their sins against God’s covenant. But God promises to make “a new covenant” (Jeremiah 31:31) and promises to “place my law within them and write it upon their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33) in this future redemption. The Lord God contrasts this “new covenant” with the previous covenant – made by God through Moses – which “they broke.”

The first Christians saw this prophecy of Jeremiah 31 being fulfilled in a new, astounding way in Jesus Christ. Jeremiah’s prophecy anticipates God making a “new covenant” with his people. The Letter to the Hebrews twice cites Jeremiah 31:31-34 as having been fulfilled by Jesus Christ – see Hebrews 8:8-13 and 10:16-17. It is also possible that St. Paul is invoking Jeremiah 31 in 2 Corinthians 3:6 when Paul describes “a new covenant” in Christ Jesus. Language from Ezekiel 11 and 36 also seems to be used in 2 Corinthians 3:1-6 by Paul.

Next is a reading from Hebrews 5. The preceding verses (Hebrews 5:1-6) describe the role of the “high priest” in making sin offerings on behalf of the people at the Temple in Jerusalem. Then Hebrews 5:5-6 describes Christ as a high priest who is also God’s son. Next are the verses of today’s reading. These verses say that Christ “offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death” – which is God the Father. Next, our reading speaks of Christ’s obedience in suffering – thus “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” This is a description of Christ’s redemptive action in his crucifixion – and how we should respond in obedience to Christ. Recall the ancient prayer: “Ave crux, spes unica.”

The phrase “when he was made perfect” is notable here. Similar language is used in Hebrews 2:10. Mary Healy’s commentary on Hebrews notes three likely senses for this description of Jesus as “perfect.” First is “blameless” in a moral sense. Second is the transformation of human nature by divine glory in Christ. Begun in the Incarnation, this glorification of Christ’s human nature is revealed most fully in his Crucifixion and Resurrection. Last is the third sense, given by Healy, for describing Christ as “perfect” in Hebrews. This sense is used in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament to describe the ordination of a priest. This continues Hebrew’s depiction of Christ as the ultimate high priest who accomplishes his perfect sacrifice and intercession for humanity in his crucifixion.

Today’s gospel reading records a very important moment in Christ’s ministry, because he proclaims: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Jesus then clarifies his meaning with the image of a grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying, thereby producing much fruit. It is a clear anticipation by Jesus of his crucifixion, which he emphatically introduces with “Amen, Amen, I say to you...”  Furthermore, this is a call by Jesus for his followers to imitate his example: “Whoever loves his life loses it ... whoever serves me must follow me.”

What event prompts Jesus to make this declaration (“The hour has come”)? It is the arrival of “some Greeks” who had come to the Passover feast, and who asked Philip if they could meet Jesus. Most commentators understand these “Greeks” to be Gentiles – not simply Greek-speaking Jews. Thus Jesus is responding to Gentiles receiving his message as an indication that “the hour has come” for his glorification on the cross. Jesus’ gospel is for all of humanity, and so his crucifixion offers redemption for all humanity.

It is characteristic of John’s Gospel that Jesus’ crucifixion is seen as a “glorification.” This means that God’s glory and goodness are revealed to humanity in the crucifixion itself. In this way, we come to know the God who is willing to suffer and die in order to redeem us. God allows us to know Him. Thus we are enabled to enter into relationship with Him.

The next verses show Jesus “troubled” as he contemplates “this hour” of his crucifixion. But Jesus then states: “But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” The voice of God the Father responds from heaven: “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.” Jesus’ words and the Father’s words further emphasize that Jesus’ crucifixion is a revelation of God’s glory to humanity. Finally, Jesus says: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” The narrator emphasizes that Jesus is anticipating “the kind of death he would die” with these words.