The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 18 March 2018

March 18, 2018 | by Robert McDonald

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Jeremiah 31:31 – 34 Psalm 51:1–12 or 119:9–16 Hebrews 5:5 – 10 John 12:20 – 33

Discussion of the Texts: As I write this week’s Lectionary commentary, our country (the United States) — if not the whole world — has been left reeling from yet another schoolhouse shooting, leaving seventeen persons dead.  Occurring on Ash Wednesday in Southern Florida, it has set a particularly mournful and somber tone for the Lenten season.  How do we make sense of such heinous acts?  We could write-it-off as a mental health issue, poor parenting lack of communal support, or any number of other possibilities.  Most likely it is due to a multitude of factors.  For some, such events as this most recent attack on a school point back to the problem of evil; I even recall a friend telling me that this problem was the “definitive problem” for any belief in God.  Conceding some points, I promptly disagreed.  Regardless, many have turned toward prayer and Scripture as the means for grappling with such traumas witnessed.  We can do likewise on this Fifth Sunday of Lent.

We begin with a reading from the prophet Jeremiah.  Within the short text we are informed of God’s intent to establish a new covenant with the people of Israel, one which is to be a covenant unlike those we have been hearing about for the last several week.  Rather than written in stone or taught to one another, God declares:

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jer. 31:33 – 4; emphasis added)

Subsequently, we will hear from one of two Psalms — 51 or 119.  Within the former the Psalmist is crying out to God to have their iniquity washed away or ignored, to have their sin blotted out (Ps. 51:2; 9), to be given a “clean heart” (51:10) despite their knowledge of their own sins (51:3).  But if we turn toward the latter Psalm, we are met by a different character:  compared to Psalm 51, which was penitent, the Psalmist in 119 declares that they seek God whole-heartedly (Ps. 119:10), that they declare the ordinances of God (119:13), and that they “will delight in [God’s] statutes” without forgetting a single word (119:16).

Thus we come to the second reading, today from the Letter to the Hebrews.  Within the letter1, a literary form common to the ancient Mediterranean world, we read of the priesthood of Jesus as being “according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6, 10; cf. Genesis 14:18 – 20, Ps. 110:4), high priest and king of Salem (see also Ps. 76:3).  We hear from the author of Hebrews that Jesus offered up prayers and cries to God which were heard — due to his submission and obedience to God (Heb. 5:7).  In particular, Jesus learned and was glorified through what he suffered (5:8; cf. Philippians 2:7 – 9).

This second reading ties well into the Gospel passages from John 12, wherein we read/hear the story of a group of Greeks, in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, express to Philip their desire to see Jesus (John 12:20 – 1).  Philip, speaking with Andrew, informs Jesus (12:22) who, true to form, proceeds to discuss a topic other than the Greeks who wish to meet him, stating:  “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23).  The author of John is frequently quick to point out such statements as foreshadowing, such as they do in verse 33 of this chapter (“He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die;” see 12:32), and we the readers know where the narrative is leading — as does the Jesus of John’s narrative:  “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour” (12:27).  This leads us to read at the end of the passage that Jesus is aware of his impending crucifixion (12:32 – 3).

Process Theology and the Texts: Psalm 51:10 is an excellent jumping-off point for exploring how today’s readings are connected to process theology:  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”  Without delving into the intervening Psalms, we can readily discern that a shift has occurred between Psalm 51 and Psalm 119:  whereas the first is one of supplication and penitence, the Psalmist of 119 is one who seems to have had a μετάνοια (transliterated as metanoia), a change of heart.  Consider:  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10); and, “With my whole heart I seek you; do not let me stray from your commandments” (Ps. 119:10).  The paralleled verses aside, we find that the Psalmist does indeed possess a renewed heart.

For the process theologian, this points toward a fundamental aspect of reality, which is the realization that everything changes.  This insight antedates such early process thinkers as Henri Bergson (c. 1859 – 1941), Alfred North Whitehead (c. 1861 – 1947), and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (c. 1881 – 1955) by several millennia in the thought of Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535 – 475 BCE) through an oft quoted fragment of his writings/sayings:  “It is not possible to step twice into the same river according to Heraclitus, or to come into contact twice with a mortal being in the same state” (Plutarch; quoted in Daniel W. Graham, “Heraclitus” 2015, §3.1).  Being a member of the larger conversation regarding the ground of existence — the ἀρχή (transliterated arche), or “source” — Heraclitus is considered to be the first to discern that reality is in flux.

This insight ties into a verse from today’s Gospel:  “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  From the process perspective, entities (being occasions of experience) are caught-up in a process of perishing and “rebirth,” every moment being one of the death of one occasion which is itself the birth of another occasion.  We (as relational individuals) are different-yet-connected all through our lives.  We could then say that very entity is the grain of wheat which falls to the earth and must die to bear fruit, as Jesus states.  Our persistent perishing is part of the necessary process by which we move toward and foster the true, the good, and (ultimately) the beautiful.

Preaching the Texts: Returning to the theme of my introduction above, can we find solace and guidance in the passages we have read and/or heard today?  In face of such acts as I have referenced, in light of the banality of evil (or triviality), what can we glean from today’s readings?  From the process perspective, we are aware of the interconnected, interdependent nature of reality; given this, we may be inspired to enquire after what role we have played in shaping the cultural climate which allows for such acts to occur, whether through our actions or (as is perhaps more likely for the majority) inaction.  Whatever the answer, knowledge is not to rest unused:  how may we learn from the past and the present?  Perhaps we ought to echo the words of the Psalmist from both Psalms:  create in us clean hearts, and with these hearts we shall seek God.  Still more, given our interdependence upon others, as well as their interdependence on us, we can look to act in such ways as will foster a renewed culture of life, love, and community, rather than our present culture of violence, greed, and isolation.

Of course, the Ash Wednesday shooting may not be the most apropos topic upon which to preach.  As such, other themes certainly present themselves.  One such theme is that which I have highlighted in the last section, the changing nature of all entities.  Once again, we may consider the change undergone by the Psalmist.  Additionally, we may consider the changes undergone even by God, as alluded to by the reading from Jeremiah:  throughout Scripture we read of God establishing and re-establishing covenants with the people of Israel, as well as establishing new covenants with both Israel and with new peoples.  We may infer, as such, that God has learned from these earlier formulations of these covenants to then work out a renewed covenant.

Such a reading can make sense in light of a notable parallel from John 21:  Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him.  Not only do we find here a parallel with the threefold denial by Peter in John 18 (verses 17, 25, and 27), we also know that the Greek text of John 21 uses two different words for “love,” specifically ἀγαπάω (transliterated as agapaō) and φιλέω (transliterated as phileo)2, the first often being interpreted to signify total self-sacrificing devotion and the second a deep friendship (cf. Jn. 15:11 – 17).  What is more, and connected to the matter of God changing, it seems that regardless of our Christology God is speaking through Jesus when he asks Peter about his love.  Recognizing the limitations of Peter in-his-humanity — who could be said to prefigure those of us reading the text in 2018 — God-speaking-through-Jesus choses to use a different word for the third questioning.  From a process perspective we may interpret this to mean that God-through-Jesus is inviting Peter (and vicariously us) to a love no longer as Creator and created, nor even of a kind as shared between parent and child; rather, here we are called to a love shared between intimate friends.

Finally (though certainly not limited to this and the last two points of departure for preaching), we could also consider the imprinting of God’s law upon the hearts of the people.  Understood from a process perspective, we can interpret this to mean that God not only has entered into our lives and surrounding, but that God has entered into us.  God is not only with us, but in us.  As such, we have similarly become living temples, our hearts being the Holy of Holies.


1    While authorship has traditionally been attributed to Paul, scholarly consensus now suggests another author.  What is more, the “letter” does not generally follow the same motifs as other letters placed within the canon, leastwise those attributed to and confirmed to be of Pauline authorship.  See Jerome H. Neyrey, “The Letter to the Hebrews:  Introduction,” in The Access Bible:  New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition, ed. Gail R. O’Day and David Petersen (New York:  Oxford University Press, [1999] 2011), 2006 – 8.

2   Scholars can debate the distinction between these two terms for love, especially as they are used by Jesus in John 21.  Some may even suggest that they are synonymous within the passage.  Prescinding from this debate, I have chosen to take the prima facie and classical reading, one which suggests that there is a philosophic distinction being made between love as ἀγαπάω and love as φιλέω.

Robert McDonald

Raised Roman Catholic, Rob is a first year PhD student with the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology.  Having studied philosophy, theology, history, and public policy/administration at the undergraduate and graduate levels at both Gannon University (Erie, PA) and Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA), his specific research interests with the Center and CST (to hopefully culminate in a dissertation) are the ethical implications (especially environmental and social) of a comparative analysis/integration of the lives/works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ and Morihei Ueshiba (as well as the Kyoto School of philosophy), in light of Whiteheadian process thought.