The historical Jesus would have been stupefied to discover that one day some of his followers would look at him as the founder of a new religion; a faith independent of the Judaism he professed and taught.
The man who was our spiritual director during my three years of seminary philosophy studies embodied this belief. When someone asked why he never gave "points for meditation" from the Hebrew Scriptures, he informed us that the omission wasn't accidental. "We're Catholic Christians, not Jews," he angrily responded. "We follow the New Testament, not the Old. The only reason we have the Old Testament in our Bibles is because book publishers make more money when they sell thicker books!"
His answer certainly made sense to me at the time. It meant that for the rest of my life I could ignore 4/5 of the Bible. Who could argue with such a simplified path to salvation?
But 48 years later, after a ministerial life-time of studying and teaching Scripture, and after 36 years of those Hebrew Scriptures being restored to their rightful place in our weekend liturgies, I couldn't disagree more with his reasoning.
Jesus of Nazareth had a life-changing effect on his initial followers not because he introduced them to a new religion, but because he showed them how to live the faith they already professed in the way and to the depth Yahweh originally intended.
When we Christians boast that we participate in a "new" covenant with God through Jesus, while Jews still wallow in the "old," we're ignoring the words Yahweh proclaims through Jeremiah in today's first reading. The prophet clearly states that the new covenant will be made "with the house of Israel and the house of Judah," not with us Gentiles. It'll be an agreement which returns Yahweh's people to a time before the 613 laws of Moses were ratified on Mt. Sinai, to a time when the Chosen People were only expected to deepen their ties with Yahweh, to grow closer to the God who had started that relationship with them in the first place. Like all deep relationships, that kind of covenant can only be written on the hearts of the individuals who enter it. In such intimate situations, external regulations are doomed to fail.
The author of Hebrews presumes that kind of covenant is behind Jesus' actions. Otherwise he wouldn't speak of him as "learning obedience from what he suffered." Jesus endured pain not because he carried out some external, painful laws of Jewish behavior like circumcision or food restrictions, but because he was completely willing to carry out whatever his relationship with Yahweh demanded of him. One always suffers pain when one gives oneself to another.
It's against this background that our gospel pericope marks a significant stage in John's theology. "Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover feast came to Philip . . . and asked him, 'Sir, we would like to see Jesus.'"
The evangelist is telling us that that relationship-based Judaism which Jesus proclaims also stirs the interest of non-Jews. But, as Jesus' response to their inquiry demonstrates, they didn't want to meet him just because he taught a different interpretation of the 613 laws. They asked for the meeting because he took his followers back to a pre-law period, a time when Yahweh's followers attained life only by dying to themselves enough to achieve an intimate familiarity with the person who had given them life in the first place, a time when the double meaning of "lifted up" made sense.
It's no accident that most Scripture scholars have shelved the terms "Old and New Testament," and now refer to these two collections simply as the "Hebrew and Christian Scriptures." Always nice to know we're doing what Jesus expects us to do, no matter how thick the book.