Thursday, March 19, 2015

"A Grain of Wheat Falls and Dies": Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

This Sunday is the last Sunday of Lent before Holy Week. The readings, therefore, lead us into the heart of the mystery of the suffering and death of Christ.

Below are a few thoughts on the lectionary selections.

FIRST READING: Jeremiah 31:31-34
The days are coming, says the LORD,
when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel
and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers
the day I took them by the hand
to lead them forth from the land of Egypt;
for they broke my covenant,
and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.
I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts;
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives
how to know the LORD.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD,
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.
The famous "new covenant" prophecy of Jeremiah is found in Jeremiah 31. The prophecy appears in a section of the book of Jeremiah--chapters 30-33--that focuses on future hopes for the restoration of Israel. Some refer to this section of Jeremiah as, "the Book of Comfort."[1] Indeed, many scholars recognize Jeremiah 30-33 as a discreet literary unit within Jeremiah. Among other things, God's covenant oath to David is emphasized in this section of the book, pointing to messianic expectations. Marvin Sweeney, for example, writes:
"Despite the emphasis on the criticism of Judah in the message of Jeremiah, the oracles in Jeremiah 30–33 point ultimately to the restoration of the people to the land under the rule of a righteous Davidic monarch when YHWH makes a new covenant with the people."[2]

The new covenant prophecy presented in our first reading draws heavily from Exodus traditions, specifically, the account of the institution of the covenant at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19-24. The two passages overlap in a number of ways:
  1. Both passages speak of God establishing a covenant (cf. Exod 19:5; 24:7, 8; Jer 31:31-33)
  2. The language of "learning" is found in both contexts (cf. Exod 24:12; Jer 31:34)
  3. Exodus 24 and Jeremiah 31 both use the language of "giving" (=”putting”) in connection with the imagery of writing a torah (Exod 24:12; Jer 31:33)[3] 
It should be no surprise that there are so many points of contact between Jeremiah's vision and the story of the Exodus; Jeremiah's new covenant prophecy seems to evoke hopes for a "New Exodus". Put simply, just as God once brought Israel out of Egypt, the prophet announces God will one day lead Israel back from exile.

The new covenant, however, will be different from the covenant God established with Israel at Sinai--this covenant will be "written on their hearts". Jeremiah thus links the redemption of Israel to not only forgiveness of sins but also to a unique interior knowledge of the Lord. Similar language is used in the book of Ezekiel to describe how in the messianic age God will somehow enable his people to keep his law (cf. Ezek. 36:26-27).

Before moving on, we might also note one other interesting element of Jeremiah's prophecy. In the wider context, the passage specifically describes the way the Lord will one day, "gather them together. . .  a great company" (Jer 31:8). Notably, the term used here in Hebrew for the redeemed exiles is qāhāl, the term the Greek version of the Old Testament renders, ekklesia--the Greek word for "church". In fact, qāhāl is used throughout the Dead Sea Scrolls to describe the "new covenant" community (1Q33 IV, 10; lQ28a II, 4; CD-A VII, 17; XI, 22; XII, 6). 
RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Psalm 51: 3-4, 12-13, 14-15
R. (12a) Create a clean heart in me, O God.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
R. Create a clean heart in me, O God.
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
R. Create a clean heart in me, O God.
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.
I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners shall return to you.
R. Create a clean heart in me, O God.
In Psalm 51 we find a prayer that is presented as David’s song of repentance after his affair with Bathsheba. The title of the psalm reads, “A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba." The psalmist explains, 
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence,
and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
Restore [šûb] to me the joy of thy salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Ps 51:10–12)
Notably, however, the psalm concludes with a line (not read in the lectionary) that seems to come from a period long after the time of David. 
Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on thy altar. (Ps 51:18)
Here the walls of Jerusalem have been breached and, it seems, Israel’s sacrifices are not being presented to the Lord. These lines most likely reflect Israel’s situation after the exile. The last two verses of the psalm were thus likely intended to reveal that David's experience of sin and repentance should be viewed as a model for Israel.[5]

In other words, in Psalm 51, David serves as a kind of corporate representative for Israel.[6] Specifically the psalmist asks the Lord “restore [šûb] to me the joy of thy salvation”. The language here is evocative of Moses’ promise in Deuteronomy 30 that God would one day “restore” his people and “circumcise” their “heart”. 

The parallels here are not likely coincidental. David’s song of repentance is apparently being used as an expression for Israel’s longing for future reconciliation with God. As Hossfeld and Zenger observe, “The psalm closes with the vision of the eschatological renewal of Zion."[7]

Of course, the Psalm works well with the other readings chosen for this Sunday's liturgy. The first reading from Jeremiah announces God's forgiveness of sins in the new covenant, specifically highlighting the reconciliation of Israel and Judah to the Lord. The second reading, which, as we shall see, evokes Jesus' prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, fits well with the psalmist's insistence that the right sacrifice offered to God is a "broken and contrite heart"

SECOND READING: Hebrews 5:7-9
In the days when Christ Jesus was in the flesh,
he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears
to the one who was able to save him from death,
and he was heard because of his reverence.
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered;
and when he was made perfect,
he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
As mentioned above, the imagery of this reading seems to evoke the scene in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prays that the cup of suffering may pass from him (cf. Mark 14:32-42). It may also refer to Jesus' prayers from the cross (cf. Mark 15:34; Luke 23:34, 46).

In the writings of Maximus the Confessor (A.D. 580-662) this scene takes on special significance. Joseph Ratzinger explains his view more beautifully than I ever could:
The great Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) formulated an answer to this question by struggling to understand Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives. Maximus is first and foremost a determined opponent of monotheletism: Jesus’ human nature is not amputated through union with the Logos; it remains complete. And the will is part of human nature. This irreducible duality of human and divine willing in Jesus must not, however, be understood to imply the schizophrenia of a dual personality. Nature and person must be seen in the mode of existence proper to each. In other words: in Jesus the “natural will” of the human nature is present, but there is only one “personal will”, which draws the “natural will” into itself. And this is possible without annihilating the specifically human element, because the human will, as created by God, is ordered to the divine will. In becoming attuned to the divine will, it experiences its fulfillment, not its annihilation. Maximus says in this regard that the human will, by virtue of creation, tends toward synergy (working together) with the divine will, but that through sin, opposition takes the place of synergy: man, whose will attains fulfillment through becoming attuned to God’s will, now has the sense that his freedom is compromised by God’s will. He regards consenting to God’s will, not as his opportunity to become fully himself, but as a threat to his freedom against which he rebels.

The drama of the Mount of Olives lies in the fact that Jesus draws man’s natural will away from opposition and back toward synergy, and in so doing he restores man’s true greatness. In Jesus’ natural human will, the sum total of human nature’s resistance to God is, as it were, present within Jesus himself. The obstinacy of us all, the whole of our opposition to God is present, and in his struggle, Jesus elevates our recalcitrant nature to become its real self.[7]
In order for the human will to be redeemed, it must be subjected to the divine will. Jesus speaks of his willingness to do this in the Gospel reading. In this he serves as an example for believers.  

GOSPEL: John 12:20-33
Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast
came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee,
and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”
Philip went and told Andrew;
then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
Jesus answered them,
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat;
but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
Whoever loves his life loses it,
and whoever hates his life in this world
will preserve it for eternal life.
Whoever serves me must follow me,
and where I am, there also will my servant be.
The Father will honor whoever serves me. 
“I am troubled now. Yet what should I say?
‘Father, save me from this hour’?
But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.
Father, glorify your name.”
Then a voice came from heaven,
“I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”
The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder;
but others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”
Jesus answered and said,
“This voice did not come for my sake but for yours.
Now is the time of judgment on this world;
now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
And when I am lifted up from the earth,
I will draw everyone to myself.”
He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.
At first glance, Jesus' theologically rich response to the news that some Greeks have come looking for him, seems a bit odd.  One almost gets the sense that Andrew and Philip might respond to Jesus, "Lord, we simply said that there are some Greeks here who would like to see you."

What is going on here? Let's try to unpack this a bit. 

Jesus associates the Greeks' request to see him with the arrival of his "hour" in which "all men" will be drawn to him. In particular, this "hour" is linked with the moment when Jesus is to be "lifted up". The language here mirrors John 3:14, where Jesus also speaks of his being "lifted up", using imagery from the book of Numbers where Moses raises up a bronze serpent in the wilderness (cf. Num. 21:4-9).  

Since Jesus goes on to speak of his anxiety over the arrival of his hour ("I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'?"), there can be little doubt that his being "lifted up" refers in some way to his crucifixion. In fact, the evangelist makes it clear that Jesus was speaking of his death. In fact, his language may also allude to the description of the Suffering Servant, of whom it is said, "he shall be lifted up and exalted" (Isaiah 52:13). 

Jesus frankly admits experiencing fear at the prospect of his death. Here we see that while the Fourth Gospel highlights the divinity of Jesus, it does not do so at the expense of his humanity. Nonetheless, as we saw Maximus explain above, Jesus relegates his human will to his divine will recognizing that it is for the sake of this hour--his passion, death, and resurrection--that he has come into the world. 

Moreover, Jesus describes his death in terms of "a grain of wheat" that "falls to the earth and dies" in order to bring forth a harvest. Jesus' death is going to be "fruitful". Death is not the end of the story; he will be raised. In fact, whoever relinquishes their earthly life for God will find something greater, namely, eternal life. However, the cost of eternal life is high--one must completely give one's life over to God. 

It is only in doing this that one is truly a "servant" of Christ. 

Of course, within the Fourth Gospel, Jesus' speech is placed against the backdrop of the Passover, a harvest feast. It is worth noting, however, that Passover seems to have been associated with Jewish restoration hopes. 

In fact, in the Greek version of the Old Testament, Jeremiah's famous new covenant prophecy is specifically linked with the feast of Passover.[8] 

Jesus' death brings victory over Satan, the "ruler" of this world. Moreover, it brings about God's "judgment" on the world. Here we see what scholars have spoken of as "realized" eschatology. The judgment of the world isn't simply a future event--it is linked with the crucifixion of Christ. 

In fact, ever since the work of C.H. Dodd, scholars have recognized the way "realized" eschatology is seen throughout John's narrative. A classic example of this is found in John 5:25:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live"
The dead hearing the voice of the Son and being raised to life is, of course, closely linked with the end of time (i.e., the hope of the eschatological resurrection of the dead). However, here Jesus says that hour now is--i.e., the future glorification of the righteous is made present in the person and work of Christ. 

The readings this Sunday are preparing us to understand the significance of Christ's Passion. As Jesus explains in the Fourth Gospel, his crucifixion entails the arrival of the hour in which Satan is truly defeated. It marks the realization of the fulfillment of the eschatological hopes of Israel, in which the new covenant age will dawn. Jesus, the New Moses, ushers in the New Exodus, in which the people of God are delivered from slavery to sin. 

Following Christ who subjected his human desire to be saved from death to the divine will of God, let us prepare ourselves to enter into the mystery of his Passion, asking him to renew our commitment surrender our lives in serving him.

[1] See John Martin Bracke, Jeremiah 30-52 and Lamentations (WBC; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 1: "Jeremiah 30—33 is often referred to as the "Book of Comfort.' There is a dramatic shift of emphasis in these four chapters from Jeremiah 1—29. Although the first twenty-nine chapters of Jeremiah do contain some material that look to God's eventual restoration of Israel and Judah (for instance, 3:15–18; 12:14–17; 16:14–15; 23:1-8; 24:4–7; 29:10–14), the emphasis of these chapters is decidedly upon God's judgment. Jeremiah 30–33 assumes judgment but looks beyond judgment to the time when 'God will restore die fortunes' (30:3, anticipated in 29:14) of Israel and Judah." For further discussion see also Mark Biddle, "The Literary Frame Surrounding Jeremiah 30, 1–33, 26," ZAW 100 (1988): 409–13.
[2] Marvin Alan Sweeney, "The Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel)," in The Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 88. Likewise, see Clements, Jeremiah, 175: "Essentially the prerequisite of restoration is seen to lie in the message of 'return,' so that hope is wholly bound up with the idea of Israel as an independent nation with its own land and government in the form of the Davidic kingship being restored."
[3] That Jeremiah 31 refers to the covenant ratified at Sinai is widely recognized by scholars. See, e.g., John Arthur Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 580; Niels Peter Lemche, Early Israel: Anthropological and Historical Studies on the Israelite Society Before the Monarchy (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 320;  Scott W. Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: a Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises (AYBRL; New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009), 226; Hetty Lalleman de Winkel, Jeremiah in Prophetic Tradition: An Examination of the Book ofJeremiah in the Eight of Israel's Prophetic Traditions (Leuven: Peeters, 2000), 237. For an especially detailed look at the numerous intertextual echoes see, A. van der Wal, "Themes from Exodus in Jeremiah 30—31," in Studies in the Book of Exodus: Redaction, Reception, Interpretation (BETL 126; ed. M Vervenne; Louven: Leuven University Press, 1996), 559—67, especially 564, who lays out the points of contact below.
[4] See, e.g., Marvin E. Tate, Psalms (3 vols.; WBC 20; Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 2:29.
[5] See, e.g., Marko Marttila, Collective Reinterpretation in the Psalms: A Study of the Redaction History of the Psalter (FAT 2/13; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2006),158.
[6] Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms (3 vols.; Hermeneia; trans. Linda M. Maloney; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 2:22.
[7] Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 2: Holy Week - From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 160-61.
[8] LXX Jer 38:8 [=Jer 31:9] reads: "Behold! I myself am bringing them from the north, and I will gather them from the ends of the earth at the feast of Passover. . ."


phil said...

The fulfillment of the eschatological hopes of Israel. I never saw that. This truly is the covenant of covenants. And it has lasted as long as Israel. All that remains is the new heaven and new earth. Whoah!!! Hang on! Hang on! This is about to get amazing!

Annie2 said...

These weekly posts mean so much to me. Thank you.