Many followers of Jesus read the promise of Jeremiah 31:31—which speaks of a “new covenant” with the people, Israel—as involving fresh opportunities for forgiveness (Psalm 51) and connection to God (Psalm 119), a priesthood based on the example of Jesus (the Epistle to the Hebrews), and the extension of God’s grace to all the peoples of the earth (the Gospel according to John). The Lectionary explores these themes on the Fifth Sunday in Lent.
The First Reading
A New Covenant
The prophet Jeremiah announces God’s persistent commitment to the people, Israel with a promise to move beyond prior betrayals and establish covenantal intimacy once again with those whom God had brought out of Egypt.
Look! A time is coming, says the Lord, when I will carve out with the House of Israel and with the House of Judah a new covenant. It will not be like the covenant I carved out with their ancestors—that day when I took them by the hand to bring them out from the land of Egypt, my covenant that they demolished, though I had made myself their master, says the Lord. Rather, this is the covenant that I will carve out with the House of Israel after that time, says the Lord: I will set my instruction within them and I will write it on their heart; I will be their God and they will be my people. A person will no longer continue teaching a neighbor or a relative: “Know the Lord!” Rather, they will all know me, from the smallest of them to the greatest, says the Lord. Indeed, I will pardon their guilt and to their sin I will no longer give a thought.
A Prayer for Forgiveness
Thematically appropriate to the Lenten season of penitence, Psalm 51 is also the psalm reading for Ash Wednesday. It presents King David’s plea for divine forgiveness. Central here is not just David’s desire to be cleansed of past wrong-doings, but also his hope for God’s help so that he might stop sinning and only teach and follow God’s ways. As presented here in The Revised Common Lectionary, the psalm ends with a request for God’s protection. In the psalm’s full form, its final verses—which are excluded here—pray that God rebuild the city of Jerusalem, allowing expiatory sacrifices again to be offered on the Temple’s altar.
To the conductor, a song of David, when Nathan the Prophet came to him after he had relations with Bathsheba.
- Have mercy on me, God, as suits your steadfast love;
according to the greatness of your mercy, wipe away my sins!
- Cleanse me thoroughly of my guilt;
purify me of my sin!—
- for I admit my transgressions;
my sin is ever before me.
- Against you, only you, I have sinned;
I did what is evil in your eyes,
so that your sentence is justified,
and your judgment warranted.
- Indeed, I was birthed guilty;
my mother conceived me sinful.
- Yet you desire the truth about that which is concealed.
Regarding that which is hidden, give me insight!
- Sprinkle me with a hyssop stem to purify me;
cleanse me whiter than snow!
- Make me hear sounds of joy and gladness;
let the bones you crushed rejoice!
- Hide your face from my sins;
wipe away all of my guilt!
- Fashion for me a pure heart, God;
renew in me a steadfast spirit.
- Do not banish me from your presence;
do not take from me the spirit of your holiness.
- Let me again enjoy your protection,
and may a willing spirit sustain me.
The Joy of Observing the Law
Psalm 119 is an alphabetical acrostic comprising 176 verses. Beginning with the Hebrew letter aleph and continuing through the Hebrew alphabet, the psalmist presents consecutive sets of eight verses that begin with the same Hebrew letter. Verses 9-16, found here, all begin with the letter beth, which in all instances except verse 12 is the Hebrew preposition meaning “with,” “in,” or “by.” Even within the semantic limitations imposed by the acrostic form, the psalmist presents a cogent message. Observance of God’s law is the foundation of a life of righteousness and joy.
- By what means does a youth follow a righteous path?
By observing your words.
- With all my heart I seek you—
do not allow me to stray from your commandments.
- In my heart I store up your words,
so that I never sin against you.
- Blessed are you, Lord—
teach me your statutes!
- With my lips, I recount all the ordinances that come from your mouth.
- By following your precepts, I became joyful, as over any treasure.
- I meditate on your decrees and observe your paths.
- In your statutes I take delight;
I will not forget your words.
The Second Reading
The Priesthood of Jesus
The Epistle to the Hebrews presents Jesus as fulfilling the role the Scriptures of Israel assign to the High Priest. In this passage, he is compared to Melchizedek, the priest who blessed Abraham in Genesis 14:18-20. The offering Jesus makes in his death, which involves suffering, however, contrasts with Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine.
In being made High Priest, the Anointed did not glorify himself; God did that for him when he said: “You are my Son; today I have become your parent.” God also said elsewhere, “You are a priest forever, following the example of Melchizedek.” In the days of his flesh he offered both prayers and entreaties, with a loud shout and tears, to the one who was able to rescue him from death, and he was heard as a result of this devotion. Although a Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and being perfected he became for all who are obedient to him the basis of eternal rescue, designated by God a High Priest following the example of Melchizedek.
Jesus and the Greeks
Early Christianity, although it originated within Judaism, emerged as a religion within the Greco-Roman world that was for the most part non-Jewish and Greek-speaking. In this passage from John’s Gospel, people from the Greek majority-to-be appear, approaching two of Jesus’ disciples who spoke Greek, but they do not contact Jesus himself. When the disciples speak to Jesus about whether or not he is willing to meet with these non-Jews, Jesus explains that, for events to unfold in a way that includes them, his Passion must first reach its end.
Among those who went up [to Jerusalem] to worship during the feast there were Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and made a request: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and spoke to Andrew; Andrew and Philip together went and spoke to Jesus. But Jesus replied, “The hour has come for this human being to be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains an isolated kernel. But if it does die, it produces much wheat. Whoever loves life, loses it, and whoever hates life in this world will protect it forever. Anyone who serves me shall follow me, and where I am, there also my servant shall be. The Father will honor whoever serves me. Now I am shaken to the core, and what should I say—‘Father, rescue me from this hour’? After all, I came to this hour for this. Father, glorify your name!” Then a sound came from heaven: “I have glorified, and again shall glorify!” Some of the crowd there heard and said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus replied and said, “This sound has not come for me, but for you! The judgment of this world is now: now the ruler of this world will be overthrown! When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw everyone in to myself.” He said this, signalling by what death he was going to die.