Jesus Wept, James Tissot, 1886-1896, Brooklyn Museum.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 21, 2021
This week we once more have a choice of readings. Jeremiah will be read at the 9 AM Mass and Ezekiel at the 11:15 AM Mass. We will examine Jeremiah today and call attention to the commentary on Ezekiel from last year.
Jeremiah was a most fascinating and complex person. We can find his background in the commentary for Oct. 28, 2018. He was cursed to live in interesting times and in an interesting place. The kingdom of Judah with Jerusalem as its capital found herself between two great empires. Egypt was always at the south and the north passed between several powers in Judah’s 400-year history. Judah was able to maintain at least formal independence by playing one power off against the other. This required that the kings of Judah be nimble and lucky. As a young man, Jeremiah saw a political and religious renaissance but he lived to see the end of the Kingdom. This was death in slow motion from a fatal misjudgment of who really had power in 611 to the final destruction of Jerusalem in 586.
As we have seen many times, including last week, that destruction included the exile of the Jewish leadership to Babylon. They were too valuable to kill off and could be used in the Babylonian civil service. We must remember that, for the Jews of this time, sacrifice and the fullness of worship could only be celebrated in the temple in Jerusalem. The Jews had gone from the head of the clan functioning as a priest to a professional and hereditary priesthood and from an altar constructed at any place to the temple in Jerusalem alone. How could they be the Jewish people without the central act of Jewish worship?
Jeremiah had predicted that the kingdom was at an end for decades but when he was proven right, he told the people that this not the end of them as a people but their real beginning. This book is written by Jeremiah probably in exile in Egypt to those in exile in Babylon about 590 BC.
This itself is extraordinary both for the boldness of his thought and that he was proven correct. He tells the people that because of their iniquity they have been punished but they will be purified. Indeed, they will return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Yet as we see today, they will also rebuild their relationship with the LORD. That was the more radical transformation.
His almost contemporary Ezekiel expressed this as dry bones taking on life and flesh. No sensible person would have thought that this would be possible, yet it came to pass 50 years after Jeremiah predicted it.
This is the great miracle of Jewish history but not only because of the physical return but more importantly the spiritual change. It is this which we read about today.
Covenant, again as we have seen countless times, was a relationship between two parties in which life and love were shared. It is perhaps best understood as becoming members of the same family. Since Abraham, the LORD has invited the Jews to be his family. They were to show their acceptance of this by obeying the law and following his desires. They are now on the verge of extinction because they were unable to do so.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers(Je 31:32)
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.
They were to obey the law, but the law was outside of them. Now there would be a change:
But this is the covenant which I will make(Je 31:33)
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.
The LORD would make the law part of them.
We should first note that he is not changing the basic law of the people. This is still historical Judaism. The LORD is not choosing a new people but reforming the old by transforming their hearts. Note as well that he will bypass the elite who after all led them to disaster:
No longer will they have need to teach(Je 31:34)
their friends and kinsmen how to know the LORD.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me,
says the LORD.
The failure of leadership is a central theme of Ezekiel and Jeremiah. The Lord tells the leaders seen as shepherds.
You have scattered my sheep and driven them away.
You have not cared for them,
but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.
I myself will gather the remnant of my flock(Je 23:2–3)
from all the lands to which I have driven them and
bring them back to their meadow;
there they shall increase and multiply.
It will be the Lord who does this, and it begins with forgiveness: “I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.” (Je 34b)
The basic covenant, relationship, which bound them to the LORD will change. It will become more internal and, as we say, “from the heart.” Yet this remains unclear. Christians from the beginning saw that this was fulfilled in Jesus and that would be undeniable. Yet it was also really operating in the Jews. They were after all the recipients of the miracle.
This is the beginning of the understanding of Grace. How God changes us. It will take centuries to articulate but as if often the case we can learn much for the origins. It began here because it had to. Jeremiah did not know the details of the return, but he did know that things would be radically different after the exile than before. The law may be the same and they might be in Jerusalem again, but they would be starting out anew. They would need to draw out the plans from their hearts not from a book, even the Bible.
We are now returning from our COVID-19 exile. We have the same responsibilities as a Parish and luckily the same building. (Indeed, the building has been improved.) How have our hearts been changed? Can we rebuild and strengthen our relationships with God and each other to be his presence?
It must begin with the recognition of God’s forgiveness to us. It is his free gift— grace—and we must seek to find it in our lives and to give thanks for it. We remind everyone of Reconciliation Monday, March 29. Confessions will be held in the church from 4 PM to 8 PM.
Then rejuvenated we can ask what God wants us to do as individuals and as a community. We should thank him not only for his Grace but also for the Wisdom of Jeremiah: what we will do will be found written on our hearts.