Scripture and the Liturgy

The New Covenant: 5th Sunday of Lent

In this Lent of Year B, we are taking a survey through the Old Testament of the great covenant moments. We have seen the Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, the covenant failure of Israel resulting in exile, and now finally, on this fifth week, we witness the promise of the New Covenant through the voice of the prophet Jeremiah.  In the Gospel, Jesus speaks in ominous terms about the coming suffering that will be necessary for him to undergo in order to establish that New Covenant. 

1. The First Reading is Jer 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.

This is one of the most famous and momentous oracles in all of the Old Testament.  It is quoted in full in Hebrews 8, and constitutes the longest quote of the OT in the NT.  It is the only passage of the Old Testament to use the exact phrase, “New Covenant” (Heb. berith hadashah).

Note that this new covenant is with “the House of Israel and the House of Judah,” in other words, both the north and the south, the ten tribes and the two, thus: all twelve tribes of Israel.  This is why Jesus appoints twelve apostles, and why he travels through Samaria (John 4) as do Peter and John (Acts 8), because the Samaritans are the remnant of the “House of Israel.”

Note that this new covenant is not like the Mosaic covenant, my “covenant which they broke” at the Golden Calf and many times thereafter. Our English says, “they broke my covenant, and I had to show myself their master.” This reflects the development of the covenant relationship between Israel and God in the Pentateuch.  At first, the covenant is very lightly legislated, mutual, and intimate (Exod 24:1-8).  But after the Golden Calf debacle (Exod 32), many more laws are added into the covenant (Leviticus 1-27), and after the rebellions in the wilderness, the final form of the Mosaic covenant (Deuteronomy) takes the form of a vassal treaty, a severe arrangement where a great king would impose legal bonds upon a rebellious servant. 

However, the Hebrew of Jer 31:32 permits a different translation: “my covenant which they broke, even though I was there husband.”  This sense of the text is also true.  The prophets regarded the covenant at Sinai as a betrothal between God and Israel.  Even though he entered into the intimacy of a blood covenant with them (Exod 24:1-8), they despised his affections and went back to the idols of Egypt. 

Jeremiah may well have intended both senses of Jer 31:32.  This is an example of what we call polyvalence or multiple meanings in Scripture.

In this new covenant, God will “put my law within them and write it upon their hearts.”  Writing in the ancient world often involved cutting into clay or stone.  This reminds us of Acts 2:37, where after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the crowds at Pentecost are “cut to the heart, and said … what shall we do?”  It is, after all, the Holy Spirit that is the new law of the new covenant.  Pentecost was the great liturgical feast which celebrated the giving of the law at Sinai.  But at Sinai, the law was external, written on tablets of stone.  At Pentecost, the law is internal, written on the heart.  As St. Paul will later say, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5) and “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom 13:10).

“I will be there God and they will be my people,” is called the covenant formula by scholars: the direct statement of the relationship being formed.  It may be that this phrase is modeled on the ancient Israelite marriage ceremony, which included a line spoken by the husband, “I will be your husband and you shall be my wife.” 

The statement that “no more shall a man teach his neighbor … for all shall know me,” does not indicate that there will be no need for catechetical ministry in the New Covenant.  Rather, we should recognize that Hebrew “know” often refers to personal knowledge, like the German “kennen.”  Thus, Adam “knew” Eve his wife and she conceived (Gen 4:1).  “They shall all know me,” means that personal, experiential knowledge of God is given to every member of the new covenant.  This personal knowledge comes through the sacraments, through which we truly encounter God and come to know him experientially, even if intellectually it is necessary to study the faith.

“For I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more”—the forgiveness of sins always accompanies the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 20:22-23). Necessarily so, because the Holy Spirit is incompatible with sin, and mortal sin drives out the Holy Spirit.  On the other hand, the Holy Spirit can drive out moral sin.  The two are mutually incompatible. 

P. Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 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.

David seems to have lived in the New Covenant in advance, because the Holy Spirit rushed on him from the day of his anointing forward, such that he seems to have had the stable possession of the Holy Spirit.  Here he prays, “take not your Holy Spirit from me”—in other words, he does not want to lose the Holy Spirit through mortal sin.  He wants the clean heart and faithful spirit that the prophets associate with the new covenant, in Jer 31:31-34 and Ezek 36:25-29. 

2. Our Second Reading is Heb 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.

This passage seems to reflect the agony of Our Lord in the garden of Gethsemane.  What does it mean, “he learned obedience from what he suffered”?  Did not the Son of God have perfect knowledge?  Here again I think we need to speak of experiential knowledge.  Of course, the Son of God knew what it was to obey; but neither his human nor divine natures had yet experienced directly the suffering that accompanies obedience, so in this sense he “learned” (i.e. experienced the results of”) obedience. 

How could Jesus be made “perfect”?  I think this is used as a reflection of ancient sacrificial terminology, where a “perfect” animal was one that was acceptable and ready for slaughter.  Jesus was made “perfect” on the cross, when his sacrificial self-gift was “perfected” by being actualized, by being brought to the highest form of expression.  When his self-sacrifice became a “perfect” self-sacrifice by culminating in his death, salvation was released upon all who cling to him. 

G. Our Gospel is Jn 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.

John 12 is a pivotal chapter in the Gospel of John where the ministry years of Jesus come to an end and the Passion week begins.  Jesus speaks of being “glorified” through the cross.  This is paradoxical, but the most glorious deed of God was the cross, where God demonstrated his love for his creatures by submitting to death.  Any god can overpower creatures, but a god that loves them to the point of submitting to their abuse is a truly magnificent God, a God worthy of worship. 

Jesus expresses the great paradox of the Gospel: the self-gift even to death will result in eternal life.  But just as Jesus consented to the self-gift of death, so must his disciples.  “Whoever serves me must follow me.”

Jesus also speaks of the cross as a judgement when the ruler of this world would be driven out.  This means that the power of Satan is definitively broken at the cross.  Yes, Satan still causing enormous difficulties for us, but he can only do so by our consent.  Every time we sin we give him consent to operate.  If we deny him consent, we have power over him through the Holy Spirit.  The Church has power over him and can drive him out through the sacraments and through exorcism. 

“When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself.”  Jesus looks forward to the last supper and the cross.  At the last supper, he will lift himself up in his hands and give himself under the form of bread to his apostles, establishing the new covenant by sacrament. At the cross, his body would be lifted up, as he confirmed the self-gift of the upper room by giving himself even to death.   At the cross, John bore witness to the flow of blood and water from his side (Jn 18:34), which is simultaneously a sign of the Holy Spirit flowing from his body—the Spirit that makes us children of God and fills our hearts with love—but also a sign of the sacraments (Eucharistic blood and baptismal water) which are a river through space and time bearing to us the gift of the Holy Spirit.

John is a Gospel that highlights paradox: Jesus’ greatest humiliation is his glorification; what looks like Satan’s triumph is a judgement on Satan and an exorcism; mankind’s rejection of Jesus on the cross will amount to his drawing all men to himself.

As we move into these last weeks of Lent, the Scriptures are calling us to ponder even more deeply the reality that embracing our own death—in the form of many little “deaths to self” in the daily acts of self-denial we have taken on during Lent—is the path to the New Covenant and to new life. 

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