Joseph Wiesenfarth’s Homily, March 22, 2015

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Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33


Recently I was surprised by a word.  Not so much surprised by the word itself but by the user of the word.  My granddaughter, age 3, wakes up early in the morning for her Day Care, but she’s not keen on getting dressed to go to it.  So recently she told her mother, “Mama, underwear is overrated.”  Eventually, I’m sure she’ll find out that it isn’t overrated, just overpriced.  But, I wonder, where does a three-year old get a four-syllable word?

We’ve got something of a similar sense of some words being overrated in today’s reading from Jeremiah, who says, “The days are surely coming, says the Most High, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”  Scripture scholars tell us that words like “says the Most High” are stock phrases among prophets.  For instance, Hananiah, “a representative of the Jerusalem religious establishment,” says the exact opposite of Jeremiah, and fortifies his prophecy, proclaiming, “Thus says the Lord.”  Now Jeremiah warns that Jerusalem will be destroyed, and Hananiah says no it won’t.  In 587/586 BCE the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem.  Jeremiah obviously—perhaps unhappily—had better communications with the Most High than Hananiah did.  No wonder that we read in the Oxford Companion to the Bible that Jeremiah “is a very human prophet committed to a vocation that tears him apart” (“Jeremiah,” p. 345).

Fortunately, in today’s reading from Jeremiah, we have a section of his text that is sometimes called the “book of consolation” and refers to a more hopeful time after the destruction of Jerusalem.  The reading from Hebrews and from the gospel of John are also—each in its own way—about that more hopeful time, but not one without significant tearings-apart of their own.  The principal theme of Hebrews is Jesus as Savior, as the Christ, through whom God speaks to his people.  And the message that Jesus brings as we know from reading the gospels is that there are “only two basic moral duties, love of God and love of . . . neighbor.”  Indeed, “love is the only law” (Garry Wills, What Paul Meant, p. 175):  “treating the poor, the thirsty, the hungry, the naked as if they were Jesus” (Wills, What Jesus Meant, p. 140)  This is the only way that Jesus can have “been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek,” for Melchizedek met Abram when Abram was returning from battle, and he “gave Abram bread and wine, and he blessed him by God Most High” (“Melchizedek,” Oxford Companion, p.511).  In no other sense was Jesus a priest because priests in his time were associated with the Temple to perform specific rites and duties.  Because they did not, Jesus cleansed the Temple calling it “a den of thieves” (Matthew 21:13).  He had no friends there.  And, of course, like Jeremiah, Jesus predicted its destruction (Mark 13:2), which took place in 70 AD.  Moreover, Jesus referred to himself as the temple:  “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:13).

I have one other word for us to think about today.  It comes from Malcolm Gladwell, who entitled one of his books Outliers.  And he indicated that “My wish with Outliers is that it makes us understand how much of a group project success is.”  Thus one of the individuals whom he writes about is Bill Gates.  Gates was born in October 1955 when computers used punch cards.  (Some among us may remember those days!)  He went to a school that allowed its students to experiment with devising computer codes.  He found free time in a computer lab at the University of Washington from 3:00 to 6:00 a.m. every morning to work with like-minded friends to devise ways of programming computers without punch cards.  He eventually found Harvard University too technologically disinterested to accommodate his interests.  By the time he got there, he’d already put in no less than 10,000 hours working on computer codes.  In short, he was born at the right time, he went to the right school, he had friends who, like himself, didn’t sleep through the night, he had his parents’ financial support, and he had one teacher who taught him programming until he could teach his teacher what he learned by his own relentless experimenting with codes.  Bill Gates eventually founded Microsoft and made himself a billionaire.  Bill Gates is an Outlier.

Now Jesus too is an Outlier; indeed, we might say the Outlier.  He prayed, as John tells us in today’s gospel, beginning with a question:  “And what should I say—‘Abba, save me from this hour?’”  Then he answered saying, “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Abba, glorify your name. . . .  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  Now like other Outliers, Jesus was not “lifted up” without the cooperation of others.  In “the words of Raymond Brown, ‘abandoned by his disciples, betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, accused of blasphemy by the priests, rejected in favor of a murderer by the crowd, mocked by the Sanhedrin and by Roman troops, and by all who came to the cross, surrounded by darkness, and seemingly forsaken by his God’” Jesus died (Garry Wills, What Jesus Meant, p. 114).  Those who acted thus have given us Good Friday.  But the one whom Jesus addressed as Abba did not abandon him.  Abba would allow no grave to hold the Son of Man.  God  restored Jesus to us, thereby giving us the Outlier above all Outliers.  Thus do we today confidently anticipate the celebration of Easter Sunday.

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