5th Sunday of Lent, Cycle B

1st Reading – Jeremiah 31: 31-34

Theologians have a lot to say about this passage of scripture because of the language around a new covenant.  What was wrong with the old one?  How is this fulfilled?  What does this say about how God works in our lives?  Are we puppets to God’s law?  What does this say about church hierarchy?

“You shall be my people and I will be your God,” is similar to the marriage contract of that time period.  It was found on papyri, “She is my wife and I am her husband this day and forever.”  It is a solemn agreement.  A sacred bond.  But the Israelites broke that bond with God.  So the Lord, through Jeremiah, is proposing a new covenant that will be written in our hearts rather than on stone tablets.  Instead of external instruction this covenant will contain an interior principle of personal regeneration; hence charismatic leaders such as prophets and priests, who instruct the people in the obligations of the law of Yahweh, will not be necessary in the new covenant (McKensie’s Dictionary of the Bible, p. 155-156).

For Yahweh’s law to lodge in the heart of the people is for the people to obey Yahweh not out of obligation at all but out of their glad free will.  Jesus is our example.  Jesus obeyed God not simply because he was obligated to, certainly not because he was forced to, but more profoundly because he wanted to, (Holladay’s Long Ago God Spoke, p. 33-38).  So we are not puppets.  Maybe there is no plan.  God has planted goodness in us.  It is up to us to live it.

But let’s be careful not to read Jeremiah’s prophecy as meaning Jesus is the new covenant, as that would displace Judaism.  For Jeremiah, the new covenant is with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In the end, Jeremiah is unclear about the future…Jeremiah ends up being killed by his own people.  What IS clear is that God will always prevail when all other forms of rule are exhausted.  Because of this, the future is open and awaits embrace, (Brueggermann’s Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 189-190).

2nd Reading – Hebrews 5: 7-9

Obey means to listen –       to listen with one’s heart.  This ‘letter’ is really a sermon rather than a letter.  It was probably written near the end of the 1st century when some Christians were tired of waiting for Jesus’ return – especially in the face of many difficulties.  This preacher seemed to be encouraging his listeners by saying: “Are you weary of it all? Look at Jesus. Drink deep of the blessedness of the Christ-event and then pull yourself together and get back to the challenge of trying to follow him. He wanted them to see their sufferings and struggles as the training ground for a renewed obedience to God.  Such obedience (from the Latin ob + audire) would mean that the weary must learn to listen once again and to open themselves to hearing the words and challenges of God.  As we also struggle to listen, to hear, and to follow Jesus, we also live as priestly people – offering ourselves as sacrifices — making (w)holy the world and those we encounter.  Like Jesus, we must learn from our listening to mediate God’s presence for others.  That is the ‘job’ of a priest to which we are called by baptism.  (Celebration, April 2000 & 2003)

Again, remember this from Richard Rohr:

All religion must ‘deal with’ suffering and give it meaning and hope. All religion is about this question: what are we to do with our pain? In and with Jesus we can face the reality of pain, suffering, rejection – even death – and then let this reality transform us.  This is the ‘Paschal Mystery’ of Jesus’ – the dying and rising that is a part of our lives. If we do not transform pain, we will transmit it.

This reading states that Christ became perfected through his suffering. The word, perfected, is a term that in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) was used to speak about the conferring of priestly power. Jesus became the eternal high priest through his sacrifice on the cross.  He became the pledge of God’s love and the one who makes it eternally present       for us. The Crucified One is the one who now sits exalted by God on his throne in heaven.   (Mary Birmingham, Word and Worship Workbook for Year B, 233)  The word used for perfect also meant, not moral perfection, but the reaching of a goal or destiny – becoming who and what one was called to be. (Reginald Fuller, “Scripture in Depth)

The Gospel – John 12: 20-33

Our lives give glory to God also when we like Jesus are willing to give of our selves for the good of others. This is a kind of ‘dying to self’ that brings new life. (http://liturgy.slu.edu)

From Bishop Untener in his Little Black Book, 2006:

The image of a seed is a good one. The seed when it ‘dies’ is not annihilated, It simply ceases to exist as it did in order to become something else, something fuller, richer, more vibrant, brimming with life. This theme of death in Christianity is never to be morbid. It is never dying or suffering for its own sake. It is not about being discarded or worthless or lost. We are born to love, to be outgoing, self-giving. It is only our fear and self-centeredness that needs to die. When we let go, ‘die’ to that, we find life brimming with goodness. When we give up being self-centered, clutching things, we open up to everyone, to life. It is a question of becoming what we were made to be. The seed is made to blossom and grow and bear fruit. So are we.

From Ronald Rolheiser, “In Exile”:

There is a suffering and loneliness that is not only beneficial, but that is, in fact, the only route to empathy, to selflessness, to compassion – to real strength and goodness. Our successes may bring us pleasure and glory, but they rarely bring us true wisdom. Suffering and loneliness give us this depth, but they can also deepen us in anger and bitterness rather than in gratitude and compassion. God does not take pleasure in this. God takes pleasure only when the suffering and loneliness bring us and others some benefit, some insight and strength. We need God’s help to undergo these difficulties in the right way. God rejoices when we do things right, when we exercise our talents, growing and maturing as we help ourselves and others to a fuller life. Like a good parent, God enjoys watching us, his children, develop and stretch our hearts in ways that make us more caring, more generous, more truly alive.           (http://liturgy.slu.edu)

Mary Birmingham, Word and Worship Workbook for Year B:

Jesus reveals to us what God is like.  God sent Jesus to be one with the human race – to save humanity and to show the world definitively and forever just how much he loves them.  Humans would never have believed God’s love had God not sent Jesus.  And, Jesus was true to his mission.  He stood with the poor and with sinners.  He was courageous, challenging all who refuse to love and to serve.

Jesus’ torture and death was a crime. It was murder. He was an innocent man.  Jesus himself renounced it as a sin, an evil.  Jesus’ death was a result of sin, hatred, prejudice, animosities, jealousies, fear, pride, power.  Yet, in his death he expressed the highest form of human love.

This is what was pleasing to God: Jesus’ inner disposition of faithfulness and love and his willingness to die for his people.  This is what God willed: love so deep that he was willing to sacrifice his own life for it.  In this way Jesus was able to reveal the love that God has for all of us –  a love that is willing to go to any length, even humiliating lengths, — even to death, itself.

From Carrie Newcomer, singer and poet:  Transformation is deeper than “the only way out is through”. At the growing edge…the only way through is in. That is where I begin to look at something I really don’t want to see, a place I do not want to go. It’s uncomfortable, and I have to sit in an uncomfortable place, process and uncover in what way this hard thing, the thing I did not want,has meaning for me. This is where I learn that this discomfort will not drown me, but transform me.  And yes, eventually, a lightness arrives. It comes with a deep acceptance of my own humanness, a clearer view to what comes next. The paradox that sometimes to get where we need to go, we have to travel where we did not want to go.

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