Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33.
The Passion of the Lord sealed a New Covenant, to be realized through the suffering of the faithful one.
The series of covenant traditions during Lent continues with the most explicit statement of the expectation of a New Covenant to be found in the Hebrew scriptures.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of covenant in Israelite tradition, those in which the promise depends only on God and those in which the promise depends also on the human partners to the covenant. The first kind of covenant is made with Abraham, David, and Phinehas; the primary example of the second kind of covenant is the Sinai covenant based on the Ten Commandments. If the Israelites obey the requirements of the Sinai covenant, they will inherit the land and prosper in it. If they do not obey, they will suffer defeat and eventually lose the land; the covenant will be broken. That is the basis of all the Deuteronomistic writings (including this passage in Jeremiah) in the Hebrew scriptures.
Only a Sinai type covenant has laws and commandments; only a Sinai type covenant can be broken (the premise always being that God will not break a covenant that depends only on God). Thus, this New Covenant passage is discussing a Sinai type covenant, the type made with the ancestors when God brought them out of Egypt. The old covenant was broken (“a covenant that they broke,” verse 32), and Jeremiah has agonized for forty years over the stubbornness of Israelites and Judeans as they persist in disobedience to God. This irrational disobedience has brought final destruction upon the kingdom; only exile remains.
What was the problem of the old covenant? It was the human heart! Motivation. The great announcement in Jeremiah’s prophecy is that in the New Covenant, that problem will be solved. The law will not be written on stone tablets, or even on a Deuteronomy scroll (as in II Kings 22-23); it will be written directly on the human heart. From the inner springs of desire, those in the new covenant will want to do God’s will. No one will need to instruct and exhort, as the book of Deuteronomy does so urgently. People will know God, and God will have forgiven their past sins.
From this perspective, the ages of suffering and defeat under the kingdoms were but preparation for God’s new dispensation, the New Covenant.
[A fuller discussion of this psalm was given in the Biblical Words for Ash Wednesday, five weeks ago.]
The Psalm selection is one of the most moving prayers in the Penitential psalms. (Early Christians identified seven psalms as “penitentials,” for confession of sins: Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143.) The psalmist dwells especially on the enormity and totality of the sinful condition. One’s sin “is ever before” one (verse 3, NRSV). Sin seems so deeply implanted that one must have been born with it (verse 5). Whatever damage to other people one’s sinfulness may have caused, the burden of guilt seems to be toward God only (verse 4).
The psalmist prays for change. Change here means an inner transformation. What is it God wants? “You desire truth in the inward being, and will teach me wisdom in secret” (verse 6; the “therefore” of NRSV is a translator’s guess). And the climax of this request for change is, “Create in me a clean heart…and put a new and right [or firm] spirit within me” (verse 10).
This is a transformation that must come from God. That is the point of the prayer from beginning to end. If God will grant the prayer, the psalmist “will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (verse 13). The suffering of sin and guilt and the renewal that comes from forgiveness are sources of wisdom and grounds for teaching others about the deep secrets of the human heart before God.
The Epistle reading in Hebrews is from the center of an important passage about Jesus as the Great High Priest. The opening of Hebrews dwells especially on the royal status of Jesus the Anointed One (the Christ) as seen in the psalms (chapters 1-2 of Hebrews). It then moves on to the priestly work of this royal figure, applying to him the declaration in Psalm 110:4, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (quoted in verse 6, NRSV).
Melchizedek was a mysterious priest of Jerusalem (“Salem”) in primordial times, a priest who pronounced a blessing on Abraham and received tithes from him (Genesis 14:18-20). His priesthood was exercised long before the time of Aaron and the regular Israelite priests. Early Christians understood him to symbolize the priesthood that would be exercised by the Christ (developed in Hebrews chapter 7).
Normally, priests are humans chosen to exercise their office, which is to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins (5:1). The human side of the priestly office is retained by Jesus, though he suffered without sin (4:15). Our passage dwells especially on this humanness of Jesus: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up 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 reverent submission” (verse 7).
Later the writer will elaborate the nature of Jesus’ priestly function and sacrifice (chapters 7 and 9-10) and will quote at length the prophetic passage about the New Covenant (chapter 8). Here the reality of Jesus’ suffering and his Gethsemane-like agony are emphasized, to make clear that salvation from sin came through intense human cost.
The Gospel reading from John contains that Gospel’s closest thing to a Gethsemane scene, the scene of Jesus’ greatest and most human suffering, next to the cross itself.
Wisdom for the Greeks. The passage opens by introducing “some Greeks” who have come up to the Jewish festival. These are at least Greek-speaking Jews, and perhaps foreshadow the non-Jewish people (gentiles) who will come to believe in Jesus.
In response to them, Jesus speaks of the necessity of his death, that is, of the time for the Son of Man to be “glorified.” In a way appropriate for sophisticated Greeks, he adds a couple of proverb-like sayings about death: the seed must die in order to produce new life; those who love their life lose it; and, though not so proverbial now, whoever serves Jesus must follow him—apparently to death as the only route to eternal life (verse 26).
Jesus’ Hour. Then there is a kind of monologue in which Jesus seems to weigh the opposite sides: “…should I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour” (verse 27, NRSV). Jesus then prays that God’s name be glorified—and a heavenly voice answers that God’s name is being glorified in these events.
Thus John has replaced the Gethsemane scene (there is no prayer in the garden in John 18:1-3) with a kind of Jesus-baptism scene. The humanity of Jesus facing the agony of crucifixion is answered by the voice of God directly from heaven. And of this voice Jesus says to the people, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine” (verse 30). That is, the agony of Jesus contemplating the cross is not so much a trial for him as it is another challenge to the people to believe—to believe in Jesus’ death as a glorification of God. The agony is no longer a testimony to Jesus’ vulnerable humanity.
Nevertheless, the passion and the death are real, and in them occurs “the judgment of this world” (verse 31). “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (verse 32). The equivalent to a New Covenant, in the Gospel According to John, is access to eternal life provided by this “lifting up” of Jesus on the cross.
In that death, Greeks, Jews, and “all people” are included in God’s new dispensation.