Scripture notes – 5th Sunday of Lent – Year B – 17th March 2024

The liturgy begins the last days of Jesus life, with the feast of the Resurrection in a fortnight. The readings today reflect on Jesus’ dying and what that means for us.

The readings are available online here.

Jeremiah 31:31-34
‘Jeremiah lived through one of the most troubled periods of the Ancient Near East’ says Guy P. Couturier, CSC. Therefore, his prophecies were often urgent warnings and calls to repentance. He had to warn of the Exile of the Hebrews to Babylon, making his message often unwelcome. Our selection today comes from later time and has a more positive tone as he sees a better future with the promise of a new covenant to replace the one given through Moses at Sinai. At the Last Supper when Jesus gives the sacrament of his blood he calls it the ‘new and everlasting covenant’ – also spoken at the consecration of Mass.

The final words give us the comfort of knowing God is always at hand to show us how to follow his way and, as well, to forgive us when we fail in our attempts.

Psalm 50:3-4, 13-15
The prayer for mercy and a new heart and spirit gives us the necessary response to the promise in Jeremiah. Relying on the promise of God’s loving care and forgiveness, our part is to ask for a change of heart.

Letter to the Hebrews 5:7-9
The author of this letter is unknown, although it was in the past attributed to St Paul. Its central point is that the old covenant made with Moses at Sinai has been replaced by the sacrifice of Jesus, and the old priesthood by the new and everlasting priesthood of Christ. Today there are only a few verses from the Letter, to offer background to what we will hear from the Gospel. The author of Hebrews explaining that Jesus underwent temptations as we do, and therefore is able to sympathize with our weaknesses.

The entreaty ‘aloud and in silent prayer and tears’ may be a reference to Jesus in Gethsemane. It may seem puzzling that the author says Christ’s prayer to be saved from death ‘was heard’ when he did after all go on to die on the cross. The idea may be that the resurrection was the answer to Jesus’ prayer, for having submitted to death, he triumphed through that to the new life he lives ‘interceding for us in heaven’ (Hebrews 7:25). It can be a reminder that we may not always get exactly what we ask for, but God always knows what is best for us.

John 12:20-33
The setting is Jesus’ final Passover in Jerusalem. Immediately preceding this section in John is the ‘Palm Sunday’ entry into Jerusalem where the crowds acclaim Jesus as the one they have been awaiting. This is told with variations in all four gospels and we will hear Mark’s version next week.

Jerusalem was crowded for the Passover feast, and the Gospel tells of some other visitors for the feast, who are called ‘Greeks’ (Hellenes) and this indicates that they are not Jewish, although they would have had some devotion to the Jewish religion, and are observing this feast. Philip is a Greek name and this with his coming from a town near Gentile territory may explain why he was the one approached by these pilgrims. For Jesus here, they represent all the Gentiles who will come to Jesus as part of the new community in Christ. In the earlier part of his ministry, Jesus had emphasized his mission to Israel and that it will only be after his resurrection that the gospel will go out to the rest of the world. In earlier parts of John’s gospel, Jesus said that his hour ‘has not yet come’. Now he declares that it is here. After his death, his message will go out beyond the Jews of Galilee and Judah, so these Greeks coming to him symbolizes the end of his geographically limited ministry.

The translation of ‘all men’ is not accurate, as the Greek has just ‘all’ in the plural. That could mean ‘all people’, now including non-Jews. But another possible interpretation that ‘all’ means the whole of creation, like the vision of St Paul in Romans 8:19-25, which sees everything coming to fullness in the future under Christ and the Spirit.

The mood of these readings has darkened as we near Jesus’ Passion. Having emphasised God’s love in previous weeks, now the elements of suffering come to the fore, and the readings touch on a central paradox: that Jesus, Son of God, was humiliated as well as tortured. John grabs this paradox with both hands, and almost with irony dubs Jesus’ torture, humiliation and death as his ‘glorification’ – not just his resurrection. This fits well with the irony or paradox that appears in various forms in the different Gospels – loving your life and losing it; losing your life and finding it.

For John, the ‘glorification’ of Jesus begins on the cross, in what seems the lowest moment of his humiliation in worldly terms. He has previously told his disciples that they will have some share in the cross as well as the ultimate glory, so that is called to mind as well by these words.

The symbol of the grain of wheat would be easily understood in people close to an agricultural economy. A farmer keeps some of the year’s crop of grain to be used as seed for the next season. From one seed will grow a plant of many grains. There are several reflections we could take from this. At its simplest, it indicates that his death will mean a deeper life for many. It may also connect with his last ‘discourse’ in John on Holy Thursday in which Jesus says it is better for his disciples that he passes from his historical, individual life accessible only to few, to his glorified life when he sends the Spirit into the hearts of all his followers in all places and times.

The words, ‘my soul is troubled’ and ‘shall I say, save me from this hour?’ are seen by some commentators as John’s equivalent of the Gethsemane prayer in the other three gospels. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is nearly always seen as in full command of things (and himself), almost at times speaking as if in his post-resurrection ‘glory’, so that Jesus’ answer to his own question comes swiftly: it is the Father’s will and his own obedience that has brought him into the world to go to his death.

The words for the voice from heaven, Jesus says, have come for the benefit of those around him. Then why do the bystanders think it is thunder or an angel? My guess: those whose minds were closed to Jesus’ message could have blocked out the message. Sometimes when a message is unwelcome, it immediately slips past the intended hearer– ‘goes in one ear and out the other’. Some of the people there may have been open to Jesus, but it was clear that others are already plotting how to destroy him and do not want to recognise any heavenly voice affirming Jesus.

‘To be lifted up’, John explains, means on the cross where the saving power of his love and death will be the call for all to come to Jesus.

Joan Griffith/Gwen Griffith-Dickson

Suggestions for prayer or reflection:

    • Jeremiah’s prophecy boldly proclaims that there will be a time when we all know God for ourselves, not needing to gain this knowledge or experience second-hand. How true does this feel for you?
    • How do you need to ‘lose’ your life? Fighting for control, clinging to comforts, doubts, self-focus, fears…?
    • What life do you need to ‘find’?

Gwen Griffith-Dickson