Reading I: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Jeremiah is prophesying to the Jews in Babylon. He interprets the unfaithfulness for which the Exile was a punishment as a breach of the old covenant made at the Exodus. The prophet looks forward to a new covenant that Yhwh will make with his people.
This time God will write his law, not on tablets of stone, but in the hearts of his people. All of them will then “know” him, that is, live in obedience to his law.
From the time of Paul, Christians have seen the fulfillment of this prophecy in the covenant that was established by the blood of Christ and that led to the outpouring of the Spirit into the hearts of believers (2 Cor 3:6ff).
As has often been pointed out, this is the one passage in the Old Testament where the idea of a New Testament is expressly mentioned.
This psalm, the Miserere, is the most famous of the penitential psalms. It takes up and turns into a prayer Jeremiah’s prophecy that under the new covenant the hearts of believers will be inwardly transformed, so that their sins will be forgiven and they may walk in the law of the Lord.
The letter to the Hebrews alternates between ethical exhortation (parenesis) and theological exposition, the one reinforcing the other. The theological exposition deals with Christ as the heavenly high priest. The author does not really get down to his major theological theme until chapter 7.
Before that he prepares the ground for his treatment. He must show that our Lord, despite his lack of Levitical descent, was indeed a high priest—a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
The author enunciates this theme several times before he develops it. The passage that forms today’s reading is sandwiched between two such enunciations (Heb 5:5-6, 10).
In this section the author wishes to prove that our Lord has the requisite qualifications for high priest. He does this by arguing that no high priest appoints himself to the office but is chosen by God. He takes the Gethsemane scene as an illustration that this is true of Christ.
At Gethsemane, Christ did not seek honors for himself but dedicated himself unreservedly to the will of God. But the Gethsemane prayer was heard. Not that Jesus was saved from death, as he prayed (“Father, let this cup pass from me”); rather, through death and resurrection he was made perfect—God brought him to “perfection.”
“Perfect” here means reaching a goal or destiny, not moral perfection. His destiny was to become our high priest. To this office he was divinely appointed at the resurrection. He thus becomes the source of eternal salvation to all who accept the gospel.
Like the story about Nicodemus that we read last week, a traditional incident is used today as a springboard for a Johannine discourse. We are not told what happened to the Greeks—whether they really got to see Jesus or not. Doubtless in the earlier tradition the story came to a natural conclusion.
The Johannine discourse, with its two great pronouncements, develops the theme of the cross: (a) a grain of wheat must die if it is to bring forth fruit; (b) only by being lifted up will Christ draw all to himself.
These pronouncements are not unconnected with the Greeks’ request. They cannot “see” Jesus—that is, experience messianic salvation—until after he has been crucified. Historically this was so.
The contacts of Jesus during his earthly ministry were almost exclusively confined to his own people (see Rom 15:8), and his contacts with Gentiles were strictly exceptional (the Greeks in this story, the Syro-Phoenician, a woman in Mark, and the centurion in Q—each time there is a reluctance on the part of Jesus to break the barrier). It was only later that Hellenistic Christians began preaching to Gentiles (Acts 11).
But there was also a theological reason why Jesus restricted his contacts to the Jews. It was only after the wall of partition had been broken down—that is, the Jewish law as a barrier between Jew and Gentile—that the Gentile mission could begin.
Thus, the grain of wheat has to die before it can bring forth fruit (win Gentile converts), and the Son of man has to be “lifted up” (Johannine language for the crucifixion-resurrection) before the Gentiles can be brought in.
The discourse is followed by a prayer of Jesus often called “the Johannine Gethsemane.”