Lenten Bible Blog, 5th Sunday of Lent
(Jer 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12 or 119:9-16; Heb 5:5-10; John 12:20-33)
The reading from Jeremiah includes yet another element in the covenant tradition: a new covenant (following the covenants involving Noah, Abraham, and, especially, the one made at Sinai). Instead of a covenant inscribed on stone tablets, it will be written on people’s hearts. What this means in concrete terms is less clear. On the one hand, humans will not need to teach each other what the torah means; they will “know me,” says the Lord. On the other hand, God will forgive their sin//iniquity, which suggests that even under this new covenant life will not be perfect. (For resonances of this text in early Christianity, see Lk 22:20; 2 Cor 3:6.)
Though Ps. 51 does not refer overtly to a covenant, it reflects the concerns of an individual who is deeply aware of his sins, acts violating ethical and religious norms of the Sinai covenant. The poet asks for forgiveness—and more: a clean heart//a new spirit. This request testifies to the difficulty the psalmist has experienced in living up to the expectations of the covenant. In contrast, the author of Ps. 119 holds out hope that she can hold God’s word in her heart and live in an appropriate way. These psalms reflect two different moods that the religious person can have--at one time, despondence over shortcomings and, at another time, optimism about living an ethical life.
Hebrew 5:5-10 reflects on Jesus as one who, through his life and death, was “made perfect.” As such, he can fulfill the role of the high priest in a new way. The high priest had been responsible for offering sacrifices for both himself and others (Lev 7:27). Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was “a single sacrifice for sins” (Heb 10:12). His sacrifice offers members of the Christian community the opportunity to share in that perfection (Heb 10:14). The author of Hebrews therefore claims that Jesus in the role of high priest, is “the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb 9:15).
Action in this Johannine scene is initiated by “some Greeks,” foreigners who had come to Jerusalem for Passover. Not only do they want to worship; they want to “see Jesus,” who, when he hears about their request, reflects about his death (v. 24), those who lose or keep their lives (v. 25), and the way of servanthood (v. 26). We do not know if the Greeks actually saw Jesus, but his three sayings offer a response to their quest. In the agricultural metaphor, they learn that Jesus death will lead to the fertility represented in the growth of the Christian community. In the second saying, they are told about the way to eternal life. And in the final statement, Jesus uses the language of movement—“following”—and place—“there”—to identify features of the servant life that will lead to being honored by God. Such is life in the new covenant.
David Petersen is Franklin N. Parker Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Emory University. While at Emory, he was also Academic Dean at the Candler School of Theology, where he received the Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award.