The Hour Has Come: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Lent 5
1) According to John, this is Jesus’ last public teaching. What comes next is his private goodbye to his disciples (the so-called “farewell discourse”), followed by the passion narrative. Tensions have been rising, and now, as Passover approaches, those tensions reach the breaking point. Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead, and this astonishing act - along with the widespread excitement about it - has set in motion the religious authorities’ plot to kill both Jesus and Lazarus. Lazarus’ sister, Mary, has come to anoint Jesus for his death. And Jesus, enacting ancient prophecies in Zechariah and Psalms, has just entered Jerusalem on a donkey. John goes out of his way to underline that the crowds who gather along the roadsides waving palm branches are there because they had either seen Lazarus’ resurrection or heard about it. Looking at the crowds from a distance, religious authorities whisper to each other: “Look, the world has gone after him!” (John 12:19).
2) Stepping back to survey John’s Gospel as a whole, this is a crucial pivot point in the story. In the opening chapter, John writes, “No one has ever seen God” - but Jesus has come so that, in and through seeing him, God may be known (1:18). Initially, though Jesus is “in the world," "the world did not know him” (1:10). But here, in chapter 12, “the world has gone after him,” waving branches and singing praises, and two foreign pilgrims in town for the Passover festival approach Philip and ask “to see Jesus.” In short, the word is out, and spreading like wildfire. Jesus’ purpose - to make the unseeable God known - is at last being fulfilled, and for this very reason, storm clouds are gathering overhead. Remember, the rationale behind the religious authorities’ plot (11:47-53) is tied directly to Jesus’ growing fame: if the people believe in Jesus in great numbers, the commotion may well attract attention - and even provoke a preemptive attack - from the Roman imperial occupiers concerned about the potential for Jewish rebellion. Thus for the authorities, the more Jesus’ celebrity grows (and what’s more spectacular than raising someone from the dead?), the more the temple and the whole people are put at risk. Apparently sensing this tipping point when he hears that two foreign pilgrims want to meet him, Jesus declares for the first time that “the hour has come” (12:23). At several points in the story so far, beginning with the wedding at Cana (2:4), Jesus has said that his hour has not yet arrived - but now it is at hand. Now he will come fully into view, for all to see. Now he will be “glorified” - and exactly what this means is the subject of this week’s passage.
3) The broader section of Jeremiah (chapters 26-35) foretells the restoration of Israel, and this week’s passage is in the middle of what is sometimes called “The Scroll of Comfort” (30:1 - 33:26), a collection of short oracles. The phrase used here - “to make a new covenant” - is literally “to cut a new covenant,” with the notion of “cutting” evoking both (a) the ancient covenantal ceremony in which the covenant partners walk between the split bodies of sacrificed animals (e.g., Gen 15:7-21); and (b) the idea of inscribing the covenant on some material (e.g., the stone tablets in Exodus 31:18). Jeremiah transfigures these ancient archetypes, locating the inscription not on stone but on the human heart, then thought to be the center of a person's intelligence and will. This is the only mention of a “new covenant” in Hebrew scripture, and New Testament authors pick it up in connection with the Communion meal (“this cup is the new covenant in my blood,” 1 Cor 11:25; Luke 22:20). But while the phrase "new covenant" is unique to Jeremiah, the underlying idea can also be found elsewhere in the prophets: both Ezekiel and Isaiah refer to an everlasting, unbreakable covenant made possible because of a “new heart” and “new spirit” divinely given to human beings (Ezekiel 11:19-20; Isa 59:21). Even the Exodus covenant itself points in a similar direction: immediately after the famous line about loving God with all your heart, soul, and strength comes the verse, “Keep these words I am commanding you today in your heart” (Deut 6:5-6). In short, the essence of Jeremiah’s “new covenant” will be divine assistance for doing just that: keeping the law in our hearts.
1) The hour has arrived for Jesus to fully “come into the world,” as Martha has just put it (John 11:27), thereby making known the unseeable God (1:18). Two Greek pilgrims ask “to see Jesus” - and Jesus answers with his last public discourse, in effect a mediation on what it truly means to “see” him, and in that sense to know the One who sent him. The “Son of Humanity” will now be glorified. What will that look like? Jesus turns to an agricultural image: a grain that falls to the earth and dies, and then grows as a seed grows, bearing much fruit. In other words, it will look like a human life freed from self-centered isolation, a life lived for others in community, in which both self and others flourish. It’s worth noting that Jesus isn’t only referring to his death here, but rather to his death, resurrection, and ascension (“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:32)). The seed dies, yes, but then rises again and bears fruit. Jesus goes on to spell out this theme in his subsequent private farewell to his disciples, casting his ascension (i.e., his departure) as a way of making room for the disciples to do even greater things (14:12). This is why Jesus came in the first place, he declares, for this hour of his death, rising, and ascension. With the two Greek pilgrims, then, in this choreography we may “see Jesus.” God’s self-giving love for humanity is so strong that God will undergo our rejection, even to death, and then transform that rejection into new life and flourishing for the sake of “all people.”
2) There may be a veiled - or not so veiled! - rebuke here of the Gethsemane tradition in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in which Jesus asks God to “let this cup pass.” In John, Jesus dismisses this sentiment with impatience: “And what should I say - ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” But at the same time, for John, too, these events leave Jesus emotional and shaken. He has just wept for Lazarus, and now, even as he declares that “the hour has come,” he adds, “Now my soul is troubled” (12:27). He is courageously determined, but also vulnerable and distressed - evoking the idea that true courage does not replace or even diminish fear, but rather accompanies it. And Jesus suggests that genuine Christian discipleship likewise must be at once courageous and vulnerable: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also” (12:26).
3) In the passage from Jeremiah, God promises to “cut a new covenant.” But what’s “new” about it won’t be its content; this is not a new law, but rather a new ability to follow the law on humanity’s part, and in that sense a new ongoing intimacy with God. In short, what will be “new” (or renewed) will be the inner life of human beings: God will write the law within us, such that knowing God will be second nature. This interior transformation is what’s being referenced in the Christian Communion meal, not only by the term “new covenant” but also by the very act of eating, of God's body and blood going into ours. The gift of the law, already a pathway for living intimately with God, for knowing God in and through daily life, will become fully interior to us - and as a result, all teaching (including lectionary commentaries!) will be rendered unnecessary. On that day “surely coming,” everyone will know God already, sin will become impossible, and God will freely forgive and forget past sin once and for all.
1) Jesus says all this, John reports, “to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (12:33) - and so the passage invites a fresh look at how we understand his death. First, for John, the focus is not on the death per se but rather on what the death makes possible: the resurrection, the ascension, and not least, the bearing of “much fruit,” the birth of the church who will do even greater things (14:12). This is what Jesus has in mind when he says, “when I am lifted up” (12:32): a symphony in which his death is only the first movement, and which will swell to even greater crescendos on Easter morning and beyond. In this sense, John’s Gospel provides a helpful corrective against over-emphasizing the cross alone. And second, for John, the story of Jesus’ death is shot through with a kind of sacred, subversive irony. They thought they were burying him in a grave, but actually they were planting him like a seed. They thought they were killing him to ward off the Romans, but actually they were making possible a new harvest of “much fruit,” a “lifting up” through which Jesus will “draw all people to myself” (12:32). This kind of sacred irony is itself a comfort, since it suggests that God can work through even the worst we can do, redeeming and remaking what seems irredeemable into new life. Seen through this lens, the cross is an act of subversive, redemptive irony: one of the worst objects on earth remade into one of the best, a sword into a ploughshare. What kind of death did Jesus die? A fruitful death, a divinely ironic death, a death that subversively enabled even greater things, including a new community: men and women, young and old, Jews and Greeks.
2) Though Jeremiah prophesies a “new covenant,” there is no room here for supersessionist ideas, as if the Christian covenant replaces or surpasses the Jewish one. Jeremiah doesn’t speak of a new law, but rather of an upcoming era in which God provides new, merciful assistance to Israel, enabling human beings to follow the existing law by way of an interior transformation of the heart (or as Ezekiel puts a similar idea, a “new spirit” (Ezekiel 11:19-20)). This is a Jewish idea picked up by Jesus and the early Jewish-Christian communities that followed him, and what’s more, it’s an extension of an impulse toward intimacy and authenticity already present in earlier forms of the covenant with Israel (see Deut 6:6). Today’s Christians, like our Jewish brothers and sisters, seek that inner transformation that would render sin impossible and teaching unnecessary - but to put it mildly, that hour has not yet come (though it is, the prophet insists, “surely coming”!).
3) Finally, reading this passage from John 12 alongside Jeremiah 31 encourages us to interpret the cross in covenantal terms. The purpose of covenantal law is to know God intimately in our daily lives, and thereby to live with God in love and companionship. For Jeremiah, this is ultimately what the prophesied “new covenant” will allow: “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer 31:34). And for John, this is also the reason Jesus comes to dwell among us: so that the unseeable God be “made known” (John 1:18). Such knowledge is arguably the “greatest” of all the “greater works than these” that Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension will make possible (John 14:12): to give rise to an inclusive covenantal community, a community of continually knowing God in genuine, written-on-our-hearts love, justice, and humility, a community in which God may truly say, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33).