Ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

Fifth Sunday of Lent, year B, March 17, 2024

Before the first reading:

In a time of deep distress, Judah, exiled from its homeland, despaired of its special election by God. Jeremiah realized that God's faithfulness was going to be revealed in a new and different Covenant, at a level deeper than anyone had yet imagined.

After the psalm, before the second reading:

When Jews expelled those who believed in Jesus, this letter assured Hebrew Christians that, in Jesus, they have something and someone superior to everything they enjoyed in their ancestral religion. Today the author shows that Jesus, even a suffering Jesus, makes obsolete the mediation of angels, and is a priest superior to the priests of Judaism.

Before the gospel acclamation:

Some early Christians were likely to renounce Jesus if threatened with persecution. Saint John's gospel gives us this portrait of Jesus meditating on his own suffering and that of his disciples.

First Reading, Jeremiah 31:31-34

The Historical Situation: Jeremiah lived from about 650 B.C. to perhaps 580 B.C. Most of his work was in Judah's capital Jerusalem. Here's what The New Jerusalem Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc, 1985) says about his life and times:

Called by God as young man in 626-627 BC, ... he lived through the tragic years preceding and succeeding the ruin of the kingdom of Judah. Hopes had been raised by Josiah's religious reforms and his rallying of the nation, but these were destroyed by the death of the king at Megiddo in 609 and the disruption of the balance of power in that ancient world by the fall of Nineveh in 612 and the expansion of the Chaldean empire. From 605 onwards Nebuchadnezzar imposed his will on Palestine; Judah rebelled, encouraged by the persistent intrigues of Egypt, and in 597 Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and deported part of its population. A second revolt brought back the Chaldean armies and in 587 Jerusalem was again captured, its Temple burnt and more of its inhabitants deported. Jeremiah lived throughout these catastrophic events, preaching, threatening, prophesying disaster, vainly admonishing the incompetent Davidic kings one after the other; by the war party he was dubbed a defeatist, persecuted and imprisoned. When Jerusalem fell, Jeremiah remained in Palestine with his friend Gedaliah whom the Chaldeans had appointed governor; the prophet could see, however, that all the hopes for the future lay in those who had been exiled. When Gedaliah was assassinated, a party of Jews, fearing reprisals, fled to Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them. It is probable that he died there.

Jeremiah tried to keep the people, priests and several kings faithful to God amidst an atmosphere of political intrigue and backstabbing like that which prevails in this writer's own capital today*. Jeremiah was blunt about what was right and what was not. And though a superficial reading makes his words in today's passage seem sweet, his firm confrontation of people, priests and kings is right below the surface. Why is there need for God to make a new covenant? Because the people, priests and kings had broken the original. How will the new one be different? It will be within the people, written on their hearts [and so immune to obfuscation and dilution by cowardly leaders]. Why will there be no need for teachers in the new covenant? Because the present teachers (priests and kings) failed so miserably.

Proclaiming It: In the first few verses, emphasize with your voice the contrasts between God's old covenant with the people, and the new covenant:

The last two sentences suggest that, with respect to the older covenant, not everyone "got it," and those who did get it had to teach and persuade those who did not. (Remember, Jeremiah is particularly fed up with priests and kings, and maybe he's attacking the distinction that those classes liked to make between themselves and their students.) In any case, Jeremiah predicts that the new covenant will overcome this distinction between those who "get it" and those who don't. So emphasize the sentence, "All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord" ...

A Theological Aside: Encapsulated in the famous key sentence,

"I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts,"

this passage is central to the movement that created religion as we know it, making religion a free, spiritual and personal choice and way of life, not just a matter of conformity to external standards and rituals. The sentence was unprecedented when Jeremiah spoke it. Try to make it sound new and revolutionary when you speak it. Will you pause? Will you be louder, or dramatically soft? How will you vary the pitch of your voice in order to emphasize it?
* The writer is happily a citizen and resident of the United States. From correspondence with readers and study of his website's logs, he enjoys the certainty that Lector's Notes are read internationally and ecumenically.

Second Reading, Hebrews 5:7-9

Our Liturgical Setting: Today's gospel, John 12:20-33, like last week's gospel, John 3:14-21, speaks of Jesus' being lifted up. Today's contains an even more ominous prediction of his passion, and a detail about Jesus' prayer to his Father. That may govern the selection of this passage as second reading.

The Historical Situation: The "Hebrews" to whom this letter was first addressed were Jews who, upon accepting Jesus as the fulfillment of their ancestral Jewish hopes, suddenly found themselves cut off from the ancestral Jewish institutions and rituals, because the mainline Jews kicked them out precisely for proclaiming Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. This grieved the Jewish Christians, of course, and to bolster their faith in Christ Jesus (literally, "Jesus the Anointed One," which is to say "Jesus the Messiah"), the author shows how they now have, in Jesus, all that they ever had before, and more. The issue in these verses is the loss of the ancient Jewish priesthood, and Jesus as superior priest.

The verses preceding these describe first the priests of ancient Judaism, then Jesus as the priest of the new covenant. They liken Jesus to the class of ancient priests, (sympathetic and patient, neither glorified himself), then distinguish Jesus from the others (the Father called Jesus his Son). Today's verses expand on that theme of Jesus as God's Son and at the same time emphasize his human nature (learning obedience through suffering, thus made perfect). They also clinch his superiority as priest to the ancient priests in that Jesus "became the source of eternal salvation" to others, more than the ancients could ever hope to be.

Proclaiming It: Most of the passage is about themes in the life of Jesus. But it switches emphasis at the end, to focus on those (us) who obey him, and receive eternal life through him. Make sure you note that change with your voice. You should give this proclamation a dramatic conclusion, because, for one reason, its conclusion leads directly to the gospel reading that follows.

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Links to other smart commentaries on this week's readings

Credit for the picture at the top:

Wheat, graphic illustrating an article in the online Encyclopedia Britannica, which credits Robert Glusic/Getty Images.

This page updated March 12, 2024