Commentary on the Readings
5th Sunday of Lent – Year B – March 18, 2018
It is not easy to get along with God
A father who felt accused by the children of having deceived them, of not seeking their own good, but their downfall, would be seized by despair. He may be indignant, to vent his bitterness or quit, dejected, in a sorrowful silence.
This defamatory charge was often asked by the Israelites to Moses, “Why did you make us leave Egypt, to have us die of thirst with our children and our cattle?” (Ex 17:3). He also felt to direct it to God. At Kadesh-Barnea, the Israelites came upon a race of giants, and were frightened to the point of considering themselves locusts in front of them. They thought that God had deceived them, led them in that country to make them perish by the sword, and they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and return to Egypt” (Num 14:1-4).
Nothing could offend the Lord more than this lack of confidence on the part of his people. With a bold anthropomorphism, the sacred author puts in God’s mouth this reaction: “How long will this people spurn me? How long will they refuse to believe me, in spite of the signs I performed among them? I will strike them with a plague and destroy them” (Num 14:11). The language is very expressive: it shows how much God remains hurt if someone suspects that he desired the death, not the life of a person.
The paths indicated by the Lord seem, indeed, to flow into death, but the ultimate goal is life. We have every reason not to believe him, if he did not walk this path first, and if he had not given us, along with a new heart, the courage to trust and follow him.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Jesus, meek and humble of heart, give us a heart like yours.”
A brief historical introduction helps us to understand this oracle, one of the most famous of the Old Testament.
It was spoken by Jeremiah during the reign of the pious Josiah, one of the few kings the Bible rendered an accolade. He was the grandson of Manasseh, the most wicked of the kings who, during his nearly fifty years of reign, had introduced religious corruption and moral decadence in Israel.
Josiah was only eight years old when he ascended the throne. He was educated by wise guardians and grew up with a loving spirit, caring for the poor, respecting the law of the Lord. He carried out profound religious, political and social reforms. He thus awakened the dormant hopes of spiritual rebirth, a restoration of the glorious reigns of David and Solomon and a reconquest of the northern lands occupied by the Assyrians.
Jeremiah carefully accompanied the political choices of the young king and, while not openly siding in his favor, he agreed to the reforms.
It is in these years that the oracles of consolation contained in Chapters 30–33 were composed. Today’s reading is taken from it.
The prophet addresses the loving invitation the people who, for years, had endured many misfortunes: “Weep no more and wipe the tears of your eyes. There is hope for your descendants; your children will return to their own borders” (Jer 31:16). It is the announcement of the return of the Israelites deported to Nineveh by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.
In the first part of the passage (vv. 31-32) the error committed is denounced. It has caused the exile and the surprising response of the Lord to the sin of the people is reported.
At Mount Sinai, the Israelites had concluded an alliance: “Taking them by the hand” (v. 32), the Lord had brought them out of Egypt. He committed himself to protect and fill them with blessings. He had assured them a prosperous and joyful life, provided that they followed his advice, listened to his words.
Israel had solemnly pledged to remain faithful to this alliance but, unfortunately, her story was a series of betrayals and the consequences were catastrophic. It was not God who, repented of the failures of his people, punished them. The truth is that sin always brings with it the seeds of death which cause the ruin of those who commit it (Prov 13:6).
Can the Lord resign himself to the infidelity of his people, considering it inevitable?
He himself answered this question: “How can I give you up, Israel? My heart is troubled within me, and I am moved with compassion, for I am God and not human” (Hos 11:8-9). He will enter into a new covenant with Israel, different from previous ones that have proven to be unsuccessful.
The second part of the passage (vv. 33-34) explains, in detail, how he will act to involve his people in a response of faithful love.
At Sinai God wrote His ten words on the stone. They showed to Israel the journey of life, as the road signs showing the direction to follow. But the sign does not communicate the energy to reach the goal.
The old covenant, although based on just and holy laws, was doomed to failure, because people had not the strength to be faithful. With incisive expression, Jeremiah expressed himself thus: “You know, Lord, that man’s life is not within his own control and it is not for him to direct his steps” (Jer 10:23).
God has decided, therefore, to a new covenant, not a remake of Sinai’s, but a qualitatively different one. The radical change is in the newness of the law: no more a set of rules and prohibitions that the partner is required to observe, but an inner dynamism. At Sinai the Lord had engraved his words on tablets of stone. He now sculpts them in people’s heart.
For a Jew the heart is the seat of the will, passions and courage, knowledge and memory. All the senses of the body make reference to the heart: “My heart has seen much,” says Ecclesiastes (Eccl 1:16); “Give me, therefore, an understanding mind” is the prayer of Solomon to the Lord (1 Kgs 3:9).
It is the heart of stone that makes Israel numbed and unable to adhere to the word of God (Ezek 36:26); “Speak from a double heart” is the term used to indicate duplicity, insincerity of a person (Ps 12:3). Jesus also believed that all the choices of the person comes from the heart (Mk 7:21-22).
If God wanted to make his people faithful, he could not simply give orders, suggesting behaviors. Everything would have been useless until he had intervened directly on the heart. And so his promise: “I shall give you a new heart” (Ezek 36:26) and, in the words of Jeremiah: “They will come back to me with all their heart” (Jer 24:7).
In today’s passage the same message is conveyed through the image of the Lord’s law engraved in the soul, written on the heart (v. 33). It’s no longer an external imposition, then, but an inner need to behave well, a divine impulse that leads us to think and act according to God.
The commandments and precepts will then become superfluous, because all, from the smallest to the greatest, moved by God’s Spirit, will spontaneously adhere to the Lord’s will.
When will this prophecy be fulfilled? This is the question we ask. Who feels free from all weakness and fragility and deeply moved to be faithful to God? Who is more saddened by his moral misery?
“Those born of God do not sin, for the seed of God remains in them; they cannot sin because they are born of God” assures John (1 Jn 3:9). But who, even among Christians who have signed, in the Eucharist, the pact of the new and everlasting covenant, can claim to have done himself this experience?
What we check in ourselves and in others can lead us to pessimism. To many it seems that everything continues like the time in which the law of God was written on stone and the world appears similar to the one before the flood, when “the wickedness of man on earth and that evil was always the only thought of his heart” (Gen 6:5).
Even then, the promise of the Lord has already begun to be realized; but we should not expect a miraculous and immediate change of the human heart “that is set on evil from childhood” (Gen 8:21). The law of God is gradually engraved in the human heart, is located in the depths like a seed that, in a slow but irresistible way, develops and provides abundant fruit. The one who has received the divine seed of the Spirit is like a newborn baby (1 Pet 2:1-3), is fragile and in need of help, but he has in himself the principle of life that makes him grow spiritually and become an adult.
It would be difficult to follow the path suggested by Christ if he had merely indicated and urged people to follow it. The Letter to the Hebrews answers our doubts and uncertainties, recalling a truth easily forgotten: we are not alone in this journey; Jesus accompanies us. He lived our own experience and has passed through all our temptations (Heb 2:17; 4:15).
Today’s passage focuses mainly on his reaction to pain and death. Jesus experienced what every person experiences in similar situations. He turns to the Father asking for help, if possible, to spare him from suffering and death (v. 7). He prayed, called on God to reveal his will, the sense of what was happening to him.
The reading continues: “Although he was Son, he learned through suffering what obedience was” (v. 8). A few verses before the author had said: “He is able to understand the ignorant and erring for he himself is subject to weakness” (v. 2). These are moving statements. Jesus did not behave like those who give provisions, orders, carefully avoiding to become involved in the drama and anguish of those who have to perform them. He did not stay in heaven watching impassively human suffering. Instead he made himself a traveling companion. He was first to go the through the path of humiliation and death. That’s why one can trust him, when he calls to follow him.
Some Greeks were among the pilgrims who came to Jerusalem for the Passover. They have heard of Jesus and manifested their desire to meet him to Philip. Philip spoke with Andrew and together, they reported the request to the Master (vv. 20-22).
The fact itself seems trivial but the evangelist’s reference to it means that it contains an important message.
Who are these Greeks? This term indicated the pagans who cultivated sympathy for the Jewish religion or were converted to Judaism. Although they are not Abraham’s children, they were respected and loved by the Israelites. They considered these Greeks the first fruits of those peoples and nations that, according to the prophecies, would one day be rushed to Jerusalem to be trained in the ways of the Lord (Is 2:3).
Jesus referred to them when, shortly before, he had said: “I have other sheep which are not of this fold. These I have to lead as well, and they shall listen to my voice. Then there will be one flock, since there is one shepherd” (Jn 10:16-17). Here they are now the “other sheep” who come to him to receive his gospel.
They had come up to Jerusalem (v. 20), therefore they had already covered a good part of the spiritual journey, before meeting Jesus. They had learned from their fathers to worship idols. As soon as they discovered the God of Israel, they embraced the Jewish religion. They were desirous to become partakers of the blessings promised to Abraham. They had come up to Jerusalem to celebrate their new faith, but perhaps also to discover what was the next step that God expected of them. In the depths of the heart—they perceived, probably—of not having yet reached the ultimate goal to which the Lord called them.
Their spiritual restlessness is revealed by the need they felt to see Jesus.
This is not a trivial curiosity, a little frivolous desire to meet the star of the moment, to know him whom everyone is looking for because he has resuscitated Lazarus (Jn 12:9). In the Gospel of John, the verb “to see” is to grasp the intimate of a person. This is its meaning from the prologue of the gospel. When John says, “We have seen his glory” (Jn 1:14), he means to affirm his belonging to the group of those who understood who Jesus was.
These Greeks were not interested to what features Jesus had, how he dressed and presented himself. What they wanted was to find out his identity and to know whether he could give them a new role to their lives.
The Greeks do not go directly to Jesus. They go through his disciples because this is the only way. It is only by going through the community that one can come to Christ. They do not appeal to any of the apostles. They turn to Philip and Andrew, the only ones, among the twelve, who have Greek names and, perhaps for this reason, they are considered the most suitable to act as mediators.
Andrew has already appeared at the beginning of the gospel. He was one of the two disciples who were following the Baptist. They heard Jesus’ invitation: “Come and see” (1:39). They had gone to him, had seen him and immediately felt the need to talk about him to others. For this they are able to accompany anyone who wants to see him.
Now the meaning of the passage becomes clear. The Greeks who want to see Jesus represent the Gentiles. Their spiritual journey is the same as what every person, eager to become a disciple, must fulfill.
We do not know if they were then led to Jesus or not; John lets them out of the scene, as he did with Nicodemus. Their presence served as a ploy to prepare the ground to the topic that he wants to develop.
His aim is to show Jesus to his readers.
Here is why, instead of concluding the story, he introduces a discourse where Jesus makes himself really seen (vv. 23-32), showing his true face.
He begins with an image taken from the agricultural world: for the precious ears to germinate in the field it is necessary that the grains disappear in the earth. A hundredfold life can bloom only after their death.
The application is dramatic: the stakes are life and it comes to choosing what values should be the aim. Jesus makes his bewildering, absurd proposal: the only fully realized life is the one consumed by love. First he offers his own and this is his glory. This is the revelation of the glory of his Father. We are the antithesis of the Greek conception (and now we understand why John has staged the Greeks).
In Greece the term “aristoi” had been coined to indicate the best, the successful people, the “aristocrats.” Aristoi were those who were able to achieve a remarkable position in society, those who got what gives prestige, imperishable fame and honor.
Jesus believes this ideal of life a foolish proposal, a diabolic suggestion that—the evangelists remind—was also given to him: “Then the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain, and showed him all the nations of the world in all their greatness and splendor. And he said, ‘All this I will give you, if you kneel down and worship me’” (Mt 4:8-9).
Jesus explains to the Greeks the true glory: to fall into the ground and die in order to bear much fruit.
Now is the crucial moment of his mission and he was tempted to run away, to ask the Father to be saved from that hour. However, he knows that only through his death, the Father will reveal to the world his immense love for people. Behold the confirmation from the sky comes: in Jesus who gives himself, the Father declares himself perfectly reflected, to express the fullness of his glory.
There is no need to have known Jesus physically to see him. Anyone can contemplate his true face, the one that, through today’s gospel, he shows, a face “many have been horrified at his disfigured appearance” (Is 52:13); “He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows familiar with grief, a man from whom people hide their face, spurned and considered of no account” (Is 53:3).
In front of his proposal, the more subtle temptation is not that of refusal but that of falling into a religious practice in lieu of an authentic adhesion to Christ in faith. Recitation of prayers and participation in rituals and celebrations: yes; the gift of life… as little as possible and only with some doubt and hesitation.
The face Jesus shows to all the “Greeks” requires a total commitment. His proposal is “a great scandal for the Jews and nonsense for the Greeks” (1 Cor 1:22), but only one who, like him, dies for the brothers and sisters, is a successful person according to God.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: