Lectionary Commentaries for April 7, 2019
Fifth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 12:1-8

Lindsey S. Jodrey

The poor you always have with you.

As the Kairos center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice puts it:

We are experiencing unprecedented poverty in the midst of plenty; unnecessary abandonment in spite of unheard abundance.

The poor you always have with you.

At least 46.5 million people, including 1 of every 5 children, are living in poverty, an increase of more than 9 million since 2008. An additional 97.3 million people are officially designated as low-income. Taken together, this means that 48% of the U.S. population, nearly one in every two people, is poor or low income.

The poor you always have with you.

The top 1% of the population own 43% of the nation’s wealth; the top 5% own 72% of wealth and the bottom 80% are left with just 7% of wealth. At the same time, racial and gender inequality remains as deep as ever.1

The poor you always have with you.

Sometimes inequality feels like an indominable foe, especially when we recognize that we are fighting an entire network of systems — and we are not just fighting those systems, we are fighting the deep-set values that constructed the problem and continue to contribute to them.

What does it mean to fight against poverty, when we face the reality: The poor you always have with you?

Maybe we should start by considering where and how we’ve heard this phrase before. Maybe we should work to re-imagine its meaning. I for one have heard this phrase used to justify apathy or inaction in the face of poverty, to account for outrageous expenditures in luxurious church buildings, to criticize movements that work for systemic change.

If Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” — so the argument goes — we should attend to spiritual needs over, above, or instead of tangible needs. “Just a closer walk with Thee” instead of a march on Washington; thoughts and prayers as opposed to votes and legislation. Even at its best, this perspective promotes only individual acts of kindness but keeps the church out of the realm of policy making and community activism. But immediately this interpretation presents significant problems:

1. We can’t separate Jesus from the poor. Jesus brought good news in tangible ways to the oppressed and vulnerable. The Christological truth of who Jesus was is bound up with the theological reality that he challenged oppressive political and social systems. Even with his particular and short-lived mission, he recognized and responded to the tangible needs around him. John 12:1-8 shows us that even the poor, homeless, ragtag group of disciples kept a common purse and saved money to give to the poor. The other Gospels make even more explicit Jesus’ attention to tangible needs like hunger and illness.

Jesus’ actions and words consistently challenged the oppressive political system of his day. Right after this story in John, Jesus rides into Jerusalem as a new kind of king (12:12-19). Although the Empire promised peace and prosperity, it did so through systems that polarized the distribution of wealth, padding the pockets of the elite and leaving the majority impoverished. Sound familiar?

Jesus resisted these systems to the extent that he was executed as a rival of Ceasar and an enemy of the Roman Empire (John 19:12). To focus on Jesus is to focus on the poor; to work for the kind of kingdom that Jesus established is to challenge systems of oppression and to always side with the vulnerable.

2. We may be reading this wrong. There’s a funny thing in ancient Greek — sometimes the present indicative form of a word (which just indicates or states something — such as “you always have the poor with you”) matches the present imperative form of the word (which commands you to do something — see also “Have or keep the poor with you always). In this passage exete — which is translated “you will have” can be indicative or imperative … it looks exactly the same. So maybe we should read Jesus’ statement not as an indication of the way things are, but as a command: Have the poor with you always. Or Keep the poor among you always.2

With this in mind, let’s return to the story. The disciples and some close friends of Jesus are eating dinner. And Mary (friend of Jesus, sister to Lazarus) brings in a pound of expensive perfume (amounting to what a day laborer would make in an entire year). She pours this perfume on Jesus’ feet and his head. This is an anointing scene. Two big events in ancient Palestine would call for an anointing like this: a coronation and a burial. This scene shows that Jesus is a king, and it shows that he is about to die. He will be leaving soon. Even though he is leaving, his mission remains in the hands of those who follow him. “I am going away,” Jesus says, but the poor are always with you. Keep the poor among you always.

Perhaps this statement, which has been used to justify disregard for the poor is actually a direct command to always have Jesus’ mission for and among the poor at the forefront of our thoughts and actions. Keep the poor among you always.

3. John hints at a Jubilee. Jesus’ words about the poor here echo Deuteronomy 15:11: “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth.” The context of Deuteronomy 15 reads: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth…. I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” Deuteronomy 15 outlines the practice of a Sabbatical year in Israel’s tradition. Every seventh year, the people of Israel were instructed to forgive all debts. In light of the fact that they were also instructed to give generously in the years leading up to the Sabbatical year, this was an outrageous occurrence.

Every 50th year, after four Sabbatical cycles, they’d have a year of Jubilee — which had even greater generosity and debt forgiveness involving ownership of land and release for the enslaved. This context reminds us not to take Jesus’ words about the poor as a reality to be accepted but as a charge to hold up a different value system despite the failings of the system we are in. It reminds us to work toward systematic change in revolutionary ways.

The poor you always have with you.

Read in light of Jesus’s mission to overturn oppressive systems and viewed in the context of Israel’s practice of Sabbatical and Jubilee, this statement challenges us to live in the tension between the hope of an ideal world where no one suffers from poverty and the reality that poverty is part and parcel with the way our world works today. Our mission is to cultivate endurance even when it may look or feel like failure.

Keep the poor among you always.


  1. Excerpts from http://kairoscenter.org/poor-peoples-campaign-concept-paper/
  2. “Ending Poverty is Possible” by Liz Theoharis. First Presbyterian Church, New Canaan, CT. January 4, 2009. http://kairoscenter.org/ending-poverty-is-possible-sermon/

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 43:16-21

Samuel Giere

Consider this text within the catechumenal, baptismal trajectory of Lent, where the baptized is assured of their deliverance from bondage to sin and death.

Textual horizons

Emancipation is a primary thread that runs throughout Isaiah 43. The prophet’s vision of this liberation is rooted in the imagery of the deliverance from Egypt. Recall how Isaiah 43 begins:

Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.1

The key to this liberation is the faithfulness of the Lord who is king, who reigns,2 who delivers from bondage. Critical to the Lord’s kingship is this liberative movement. The Exodus is core to the Lord’s identity. This One, who reigns as king of the cosmos, is also the one who delivers from slavery.

This trajectory accentuated in today’s pericope, which has two clear parts: a formal introduction of the Speaker (verses 15-17) and Speaker’s promise (verses 18-21). Again, the identity of the Lord is rooted in the Lord’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt.

Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings forth chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick3

This deliverance is not a one-off deal. It is not an accident. It is essential to the identity of the Speaker. There is not dissonance with the Speaker’s identity at this point. Only consonance.4

What follows — the Speaker’s content — should be considered within the horizon of this consonance.

Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? 5

Lest it go by too quickly, notice that the Lord’s promise begins with a command not to remember the first things — the things of old. For the ancient addressees of this promise, the recollections of the exodus from Egypt are should not be merely sentimental reminiscences. It is not that the Lord nullifies what has been done. Rather, the Lord turns the collective gaze — the collective imagination of the people in exile toward hope. Toward the new emancipation that the Lord of emancipation is about to enact. “Don’t you see it?” asks the Lord, as if inviting the hearer to join their imagination with God’s. Then it pops in technicolor:

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
The wild beasts will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
that they might declare my praise.6

The Speaker helps the hearer imagine the promised new thing. The wilderness is transformed, becoming safe and lush. The nasty creatures that live in the wilderness honor the Lord. The water of life — literally — is abundant and available to all. Thirsts are quenched. The formerly dry mouths of the Lord’s people are now unfettered from dry-mouth to praise to the Lord. From danger and barrenness to assurance and fecundity.

Homiletical horizons

The images from Isaiah 43 inform the baptismal imagination. Water. Emancipation. Newness. Transformation. All of these images/themes are rife throughout the season and traditions of Lent. In the ancient church, by the fifth Sunday in Lent the catechumens are coming ever closer to the font of the Great Vigil, wherein the promise is realized in the glow of the paschal candle.

One might guess that Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians — or at least a portion thereof — echoes Isaiah 43:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.7

Behold! The New has come. While this newness remains veiled in darkness and death as we move into the end of the Lent and the journey of the Triduum, the dawn of a new day is coming, as the promised newness is already in Christ Jesus.


  1. Isaiah 43:1b-3 (RSV)
  2. Consider the common credo “the Lord reigns,” see also Exodus 15.18, Psalm 93.1, passim. Cf., John F.A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity (Cambridge, 1996) 190.
  3. Isaiah 43:16-17 (RSV)
  4. Unless you are serving in Pharaoh’s army, that is. This footnote is not intended to be taken as a tongue-in-cheek comment. Rather, this is a complication inherent in the narrative of the Exodus, that is difficult (if not impossible) to reconcile with the Lord’s identity as emancipator. Certainly, there is collateral damage inflicted upon innocent Egyptians, in particular with the death of the firstborn. See Exodus 11.4-6.
  5. Isaiah 43:18-19a (RSV)
  6. Isaiah 43:19b-21 (RSV)
  7. Corinthians 5:16-21 (RSV)


Commentary on Psalm 126

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 126 is the seventh psalm in the collection of psalms in Book Five of the Psalter designated “Songs of Ascents” (Psalms 120-134).

The frequent references to Jerusalem and Zion in the psalms (see Psalms 122:1, 6; 125:1, 2; 126:1; 128:5; 129:5; 132:13; 133:3; 134:3) may account for their collective identification. The Hebrew root of “ascents” is “go up,” and since Jerusalem sits on a hill, no matter where one comes from, one always “goes up” to Jerusalem. In 1 Kings 12:28, for instance, Jeroboam says to the Israelites, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough.” Isaiah 2:3 and Micah 4:2 envision a time when “Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord.’”

Some scholars suggest that the “ascents” referred to in Psalms 120-134 are the steps of the temple, which Ezekiel calls “ascents” (see Ezekiel 40:6). The Mishnah (a component of the Jewish Talmud) states, “fifteen steps led up within [the Court of the Women] to the Court of the Israelites, corresponding to the fifteen songs of the steps in the Psalms, and upon them the Levites used to sing.” And, “The Levites on harps, and on lyres, and with cymbals, and with trumpets and with other instruments of music without number upon the fifteen steps leading down from the Court of the Israelites to the Women’s Court, corresponding to ‘The Fifteen Songs of Ascent’ in the Psalms; upon them the Levites used to stand with musical instruments and sing hymns.”

Still others maintain that the superscription “Songs of Ascents” is a reflection of the very structure of the collection’s psalms. Within each psalm, and often as an inclusio around the verses of each psalm, the Songs of Ascents contain verbal “step” connections that move the reciter through the cola and strophes of the psalm, fashioned most likely as mnemonic devices.

Psalm 126 It is classified as a community lament, only one of two in the Songs of Ascents. One psalm scholar, James L. Mays, characterizes the psalm as “joy remembered and joy anticipated.” In the psalm, the gathered community of faith calls on God to come to its aid as it struggles through a difficult situation.

The psalm opens with the community remembering a time in its past when God restored them to Zion and did great things among them (verses 1-3) and then petitions God to once again restore the community (verse 4) so that it may in rejoice in God’s good provisions (verses 5-6). The community of faith recalled their restoration to the land after the exile, an event that brought about “laughter” and a “ringing cry of rejoicing” by the community of faith and awe by the “nations” at what God did on their behalf. Now, in some new difficult circumstance, the community once again calls on God to restore them.

The format of Psalm 126 is typical of the community psalms of lament in the Psalter.  The people find themselves in a distressful situation, and so they cry out to God for deliverance. But an essential element of that crying out, that asking for help, is the recollection of what God has done for them in the past — assurance that God is able and willing to come to the aid of God’s people once again. An interesting element of Psalm 126 is that the psalm singers repeat the words of verse one’s memory of past deliverance in verse four’s plea for help in the present circumstance.

Three powerful images bring Psalm 126 to life. First, we find a three-fold repetition of “ringing cry of rejoicing” (verses 2, 5, and 6). The Hebrew word used here suggests a loud and emotive celebration of God’s goodness. And this word is used in the book of Psalms to describe the actions of all of God’s creation, not just humanity. In Psalm 96:12, for example, we read, “then shall all the trees of the forest give a ringing cry of rejoicing,” and in Psalm 98:8, “let the hills give a ringing cry of rejoicing.” Thus, humanity, along with all creation, is encouraged to celebrate God’s care.

Second, water is a powerful imagery in Psalm 126, as it is in many other psalms — see especially Psalm 42. In Psalm 126, the water channels in verse 4, those seasonal wadis that fill with nourishing water in the rainy season in the desert of the Negev give way to the tears of the those sowing the arid fields in hopes of a good crop that will feed their households.

Third, the agricultural imagery that we find in verses 5-6 — that of sowing and reaping — is what those who analyze literary structures call a “merism.” The words “sow” and “reap,” indicating the beginning and the end of the farming process, are meant to be understood as representative of the whole season’s process. The planting, the watchful care, the weeding, and finally the harvest. God’s deliverance, God’s good care, may very well feel like refreshing water of the Negev turned to tears of struggle to plant a good crop. Psalm 126 tells us, though, that those tears will give way to the gift of a good crop to feed, nourish, and restore the people of God, and that, in the end, all creation can and will give a “ringing cry of rejoicing” to this good God.

The sowing and reaping imagery of Psalm 126 is a powerful reminder of the importance of “place,” because without “place,” somewhere to dwell and call home, the concepts of sowing and reaping, in whatever form they might manifest themselves, are simply not possible. Many people in the world today have been “displaced” and struggle to find a place to call their own. In a world thus so increasingly divided between the “haves” and the “have nots,” the “citizens” and the “immigrants,” the “insiders” and the “outsiders,” the words of Psalm 126 are a powerful reminder of the importance of “place.”

Without “place,” how can people grow and reap a good “crop”? Without “place,” how can people “dream and laugh and give a ringing cry of rejoicing”? Without “place,” how can parents provide for their children? The words of Psalm 126 remind us that God’s good provisions extend to and are available to all.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14

Edward Pillar

The Apostle Paul knows that one day he will die.

Most likely, in Paul’s mind at least, he thinks that he will die in a Roman prison having suffered for the sake of the gospel.

These circumstances may not reflect our own in their details, but the reality remains the same: we also will one day die. There’s no getting around this fact — whether we are rich or poor, young or old, educated or illiterate, free or imprisoned — we will one day die.

But, for Paul the key is that in life, for all of the time that he has left, he has one goal. And that goal is: “somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” As the season of Lent draws to its climax we have this valuable opportunity to reflect on both death and resurrection.

Paul has come to understand that salvation ultimately lies in the act of resurrection. That is: we learn from the writings of Paul (see also 1 Corinthians 15:19) the extraordinary reality that if God does not raise us from the dead then nothing else matters — there is no freedom from sin and his faith and trust in God is futile.

Paul begins this section by outlining everything about himself that might be considered of value and significance. All those things which will increase and maintain his self-esteem and status in the eyes of himself and others.

  • Paul lists his background and his heritage: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.”
  • He makes clear his education and training: “as to the law, a Pharisee.”
  • Then he boasts of his religious and political convictions and activism: “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.”
  • And finally, he notes his lifestyle: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

These are all gains, all plusses, all valuable in our life to achieve status and significance. Moreover, Paul emphasizes that whatever anyone else might claim, he is sure that his CV equals if not eclipses all the others. Paul has “made it!”

But, Paul then makes an extraordinary statement. He describes the value of all this within the value system of the kingdom of Christ Jesus his Lord — complete rubbish! Absolute trash!

So, let’s be clear: Paul is affirming a new reality where followers of the Lord Jesus Christ accept a new and radical value system where background and heritage, education and training, religious and political convictions and activism, and lifestyle matter not one jot compared the value of knowing Christ as Lord.

In order to understand the full extent of what is being expressed here we need to note several key perspectives that will help us understand what is going on.

  • First, we need to be aware that it is most likely that Paul was in prison in Rome (other locations have been debated, but the most recent scholarship affirms the capital city). The reference to the “imperial guard” in Philippians 1:13 is a reference to the elite soldiers who resided only in Rome and were the personal protection force for the Emperor.
  • Second, our passage speaks of Paul’s commitment to Christ as Lord. This is important because for a Jew to speak of someone as Christ is to speak of them as King and then this status is emphasized by the reference to Jesus as Lord. Paul has a commitment to an authority the he regards as higher than any earthly ruler — even the ruler of the world, the Emperor of the Roman Empire.
  • Third, Philippians 1:7 and 1:13-17 make clear that Paul’s “imprisonment is for Christ” (1:13). He is no ordinary prisoner, but he is where he is because he refuses to acknowledge the ultimate authority of the Roman Emperor.
  • Fourth, Paul is writing to a city that is ruled by the Imperial powers. Philippi had been a Roman colony for two hundred years by the time of Paul’s visit and was ruled by Roman law. And as Acts 6:21 makes clear the city was dominated by the people, values, and ethos of the Roman Empire: “advocating customs it is not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”

All of this matters because it reminds us that Paul writes his letter, and the Philippian disciples receive the letter, as islands of devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ in the midst of a vast ocean of religious, political, and economic devotion to the Empire of Rome.

The key to this passage lies in verses 10 and 11: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Paul understands that if he is to “attain the resurrection from the dead” then first he must share in the sufferings of Christ. The sufferings of Christ have been articulated in the beautiful hymn in Philippians 2, and specifically verses 7 and 8: He “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”

The salvation through resurrection to which Paul aspires requires:

  • The willingness to let go of status and significance in the eyes of the culture in which we live. Nothing we have been, nor that we have worked for previously is of value unless it is rooted in and built upon the foundation of love.
  • The willingness to be obedient to the values and ethos of the kingdom of God. These values are summed up in love. Note Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:9, “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more …”
  • The willingness to maintain love and loving even to death at the hands of the powerful, the unjust, and the corrupt. Love for the other; love for one’s enemies; love for the outcast.

“We press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”