Lectionary Commentaries for March 13, 2016
Fifth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 12:1-8

Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez

Mediterranean culture dictated that slaves or women were in charge of washing and anointing the feast guests.

“Messiah” is a Hebrew word translated as “anointed.” In the proximity of the Passover independence celebration, Martha anointed the Anointed. In this passage, we see that the Gospel of John offers a radical view of the power that women hold. Whereas throughout much of Western history the pope (a male) crowned the king (another male) or vice-versa. Here Jesus is anointed (given power) by a woman from the countryside, from the working class, from the laity.

Mary anointed Jesus’ feet

In that time and place, it was taboo for a man to be touched by a woman. Still more, women’s loose hair was perceived as being sensual by men in Galilean culture, as it is still true in some segments of present-day society. The same Mary that anointed Jesus’ feet is the same one who sat at his feet to study.

This story reminds us of the woman that Jesus put in her place in Luke — when the woman in the crowd exclaimed “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” the Nazarene was bold in his response: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:27-28). For Jesus, women are more than sexual objects and children-rearing machines. That’s why Jesus does not have a problem with being touched by women, seeing them with their hair down, with women talking to men or being active with their bodies and alive in their senses. In short, in the Reign of God women are equal at the intellectual level, at the salary level, and at all levels.

Mary anointed Jesus with a costly perfume

According to Mark 14:5 the perfume price was 300 denarii, namely, a yearly salary; but Mary didn’t care. She put that recently coined money in its place: at Jesus’ feet. Golden heaven’s streets send precisely the same message: gold is to be stepped on, and not to be ruled by the worldly creed: “in gold we trust.” Time is not money; time is life. Furthermore, money is an idol made of gold and silver (Psalm 115:4-7).

The Gospel of John opens Jesus’ ministry with an expensive wine with bouquet (John 2:1-11) and confirms it with a “holy wasteful” anointing. Human beings were not created for slavery but for an abundant life (John 10:10). Life is more than counting calories and keeping track of pennies like the huge transnational corporations do. If celebrating a “quinceañera” (a coming-of-age celebration for Latina girls on their 15th birthday) means to be indebted for the following 15 years, it is none of your business. This doesn’t have to do with the heresy of prosperity, it is about the freedom we encounter in real life: grace happens!

The poor as a weapon

It’s okay to be very “emotional” like John (in John 12:5) and denounce injustices. He just couldn’t endure what he was reporting and cried: Do not use the poor as a means to an end. He saw how Judas was co-opting the language of solidarity with the least and the last. The same way “justification” has been reduced to jurisprudence and has been divorced from justice, economic justice has been shrunken to “philanthropy.” Politicians, rich folks, the powers-that-be have learned Judas’ pious language. Judas is killing Martha’s reputation; that’s why John stops him and calls the thing what it actually is, as we learned from Martin Luther in his Heidelberg Disputations # 21.

Soren Kierkegaard’s prophetic thunder against the presiding bishop of Denmark, Minster, put it this way:

Minster’s sermon “Meditation upon the fate of those to whom the usual capacities are denied” is not really preached for the comfort of such suffering people. On the contrary, it is for the pleasant relief of the fortunate, so that they may go home from church armed against the impression caused by those suffering people.1

Judas dismisses Martha whereas John sees in her a beloved disciple (see John 11:5) and, by anointing Jesus, she becomes the first preacher of the equalizing Reign of God and its justice, namely, the core of Jesus’s proclamation or kerygma.

Throughout history and currently on television, the poor have been “objects” of pity to do fund raising, to win heaven, to calm guilty consciousness, to get publicity, to deduct taxes, to get rid of superfluous things, to feed with food alien to their cultures. Judas was a saint compared to current cynicism of corporations, business or telethons asking people who barely make a living to donate to the poor.

Jesus’ farewell, not the fatalism of the impoverished

Treasonous translators from the dominant cultures did violence to the popular saying “open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your hand” (Deuteronomy 15:11), which is quite different from “The poor will always be with you.” Poverty is not a calamity; worse yet, it’s not God’s will. Jesus was on the side of the poor and against poverty. Selective forgetfulness omits the context of “the poor are out there at all times,” and the Divine imperative: “there will be no one in need among you.” (Deuteronomy 15:4). Jesus is not eternalizing poverty but eradicating it. To be sure: there is extreme poverty because there is extreme wealth. Wealth and poverty are but two sides of the coin.

Jesus is thinking of his farewell, his death is imminent: What you have to do for somebody do it now. In this sense the African-descent religions like Santería, Macumba, Candomblé and others preach the same: Be rich in good deeds in the here and now.

I pray our churches and societies will be filled with Martha’s fragrance of the blessed perfume.


1 To read the whole counter-sermon see Eliseo Pérez-Alvarez, A Vexing Gadfly: The Late Kierkegaard on Economic Matters, Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick Publications, 2009, 51.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 43:16-21

Mark Throntveit

Yesterday’s gospel is today’s law. We need to hear it afresh, every day.1

Today’s reading is the first stanza of a long salvation oracle running from Isaiah 43:14 through 44:5 which, in turn, is part of Second Isaiah’s amazing proclamation of deliverance to the Babylonian exiles (Isaiah 40-55). Whereas God had previously used Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian hordes to destroy Jerusalem and haul the fruit and flower of Judah into exile in Babylon in 587 and 582 BCE, Second Isaiah now dramatically announces that God is about to use Cyrus and his Persian forces to defeat Babylon and release captive Israel, allowing them to return to their homeland.

The passage has been structured as a true chiasmus, that is, ABB’A’:

A Yahweh delivered Israel in the Exodus (16-17)
        B Remember not the former things; things of old
          consider not (18)
        B’ I am about to do a new thing (19a)
A’ Yahweh will deliver Israel in the Return (19b-21)

Such a structure serves to highlight the movement from God’s past activity in the exodus from Egypt to God’s promise of present deliverance. As we shall see, the message of this prophetic announcement is all tied up with how Second Isaiah skillfully moves from the one to the other.

A (verses 16-17)
The text opens with a description of what Yahweh had done for Israel in the past. The verbal markers used, however, are a key factor in discerning what Second Isaiah is up to. These introductory verses are constructed as a pair of participial statements (aptly introduced by “who . . .” in the NRSV) that serve to identify who God is by what God does. The force of the participles is that not only has God “made (so NIV) a way in the sea” in the hoary past, but that the creator’s work is continuous, ongoing, or at least chock full of ramifications for the present: God “makes (so NRSV) a way . . .,” and “brings out chariot and horse . . .” Chariot and horse are then said to “lie down, they cannot rise” imperfects that move the description of God’s activity from continuous action to incomplete action in the present or future. The verbal series ends with a description of their demise in perfect verbs indicative of completed action (“extinguished, quenched”) that bring to a close the tale of the divine defeat of Pharaoh’s forces. Such a progression of tenses, while describing God’s activity in the past, at the same time places the reader squarely in their midst, and allows a narrative participation in the events of the exodus.

B (verse 18)
Since the days of Begrich, form critics have hunted for an oracle here; specifically, the oracle of salvation so frequently found in Second Isaiah’s proclamation. Most find it . . . and then lament the absence of “fear not,” the hallmark of the salvation oracle. Instead, we find an injunction to “remember not . . . consider not.” In Hebrew the word order is chiastic (remember not / the former things: things of old / consider not) mirroring the shape of the oracle as a whole. But, what’s up with “remember not”? Why would Second Isaiah so meticulously construct his introductory verses with that precise progression of tenses designed to draw Israel back to experiencing God’s deliverance at the Sea if they are now to . . . well, “fuggeddaboudit” à la Tony Soprano?

B’ (verse 19a)
The answer comes with the surprising announcement that God is “about to do a new thing.” Here, the force of yet one more participial construction, this time with hinneh, is on the immanent nature of what God is about to do. And what God is about to do will be another act of deliverance, just as it was at the Sea. The newness consists in the message that God is not limited to acting in the same old ways to accomplish new acts of salvation, and that Israel, and we, will be surprised at the contemporary relevance of God to our lives, here and now, if only we are attentive.

A’ (verse 19b-21)
In fact, God will accomplish the same act of deliverance through a reversal of the means of deliverance. In the past, at the time of the exodus, God had met the needs of his people by turning the sea into dry land. Now, faced with an impossible nine hundred mile trek back to their homeland, through inhospitable terrain, not just wilderness (midbar) but waterless desert (yeshimon), God promises to meet their needs once again; but this time it will be accomplished by turning the dry land into rivers (19b, 20a).

As an extra added bonus, it should be noted that Yahweh’s deliverance is not limited to bringing the exiles home. Before the oracle closes with Yahweh’s reason for deliverance: “that they might declare my praise” (21b), Second Isaiah cannot help but reprise his profound hope for a “greener” world in which even the jackal and ostrich will honor the ecological transformation wrought by God’s watering of the desert (20).

There is no need to limit God to past mercies. God is an ever present help, to quote the old hymn. The gospel needs to be heard every day. The life-giving word of forgiveness cannot be proclaimed in the past tense. It was wonderful when it was announced yesterday, but yesterday’s gospel is today’s law. We need to hear the gospel afresh, every day.


1. A version of this commentary was first published on this site on March 21, 2010.


Commentary on Psalm 126

Beth L. Tanner

As Lent moves toward Easter, Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem.

In the Gospel lesson this week, Mary anoints Jesus in an act that is not understood by the disciples but is understood to Mary and Jesus. The Epistle encourages believers to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).” Isaiah reminds us that God is “about to do a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it (43:19a)?” Psalm 126 joins in this chorus of movement toward Easter.

Psalm 126 is one of the Songs of Ascent, meaning literally “Songs of Going Up.” The Mishnah equates these 15 Psalms with the 15 steps to the Temple (The Mishnah m. Mid. 2:5, 1993). These are songs of going up to meet God, and these are the steps that Jesus will take soon. It is a psalm of preparation and anticipation. Like the Isaiah text, it speaks of restoration. What happened in the past is past, and now God is doing a new thing on behalf of the people.

The psalm begins in most English Bibles as “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream (NRSV).” But most scholars translate the first part of the line as either “When the LORD returned to Zion” or “When the LORD restored the returning ones to Zion.” All are possible and fit the context of the stanza. What is returning is either God or God is returning the people. This may be a reference to the returning exiles, but it can also reflect anytime that the people are free to worship God without any occupying force in place.

The rest of the stanza is a celebration (vv. 2-3) of this “new” thing God has done. There is laughter and shouting as they declare what God has done for Zion, and even the other nations will see it and declare, “God has done great things for them.” The people respond to the nations with the same words

It is here that the context of these psalms is important to remember. Judah/Israel were rarely allowed to direct their destiny after 598 BCE. This is a song from people who are part of an empire where they have no voice nor ability to impact imperial policies. The songs of ascent are songs centered on Zion and Jerusalem, but this does not translate to a theology of militant triumphalism. In this sense, this psalm is a dream. They lived in an empire that barely knew of their existence. Here restoration is not the same as world domination. God brings them home, but there is no evidence of a change in the world stage.

What follows in verse 3 is a bit puzzling. It is a petition to God for exactly what happened in vv. 1-2. Does this mean that these first verses were a memory of another restoration, and now the people are asking God to repeat God’s act? That is certainly possible. But it can also indicate the cyclic nature of our need for God’s action on our behalf. Narrative after narrative tells the story of the people’s need for restoration. As the hymn states, “born to wander, Lord I feel it, born to leave the God I love (Come Thy Font of Every Blessing).” We are who we are and thankfully so is God. The rest of the stanza continues the petition building on the image of a reversal of the past.

This psalm anticipates God’s acts that will reverse the fate of the people and by ending with a petition, it ends with that expectation hanging and waiting. The psalm is both memory and future hope. It stands in a place of waiting in the same ways that the other texts for this week stand in that same place. The psalm and the epistle wait for it, the Isaiah lesson promises it, and the Gospel lesson prepares for it.

We come from a culture that does not wait well. Technology has made our world one of instant answers, reservations, and Amazon boxes. This week leaves us waiting for what God will bring. We know that Easter comes every year, but what will be the content of the shouts of joy we are waiting to say? How will God return to us and/or restore us? We will follow the ascent to Jerusalem to discover what God has in store for us.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14

Sarah Henrich

Paul pictures himself as a man in the middle, a man who has literally changed his pursuits almost in midstride, and is jubilant.

Paul’s tells his own story in abbreviated and passionate terms. The story is framed on the verb dioko in Philippians 3:6, 12, and 14 and the verb teleioo in 3:12, the only use of that verb in Paul’s writings.

Paul has pursued the little “church” or assembly of believers, a behavior that was consistent with his exemplary life as a Jew. As best he could, he lived a life of devotion to God within the givens of his birth and then extended by his own eagerness to do the best he could. But there was a turn, a sharp turn, for Paul.

The eagerness with which he had embraced his heritage and his God became the eagerness with which he came to embrace Christ. Paul writes like a man in love, desperately desiring to have the joy of a full union with Christ. Listen to the language. Paul wants to “know” Christ Jesus who is Paul’s “Lord” (and Paul therefore, Christ’s slave). He wants to be found “in him” to such an extent that he shares Christ’s very trust in God. He wants to “know” the power of the resurrection. He wants to have commonality (koinonia) by sharing Christ’s death and sufferings. He wants to become “like him” in death so that he might share his resurrection life. As he tries to express his longing for future union and ongoing life in Christ (cf. 1:21-23), he repeats himself and the energy of the passage increases. This longing makes the past unimportant, easily able to be discarded. There is an echo here of the longing to be together of young lovers who leave behind family “to become one flesh.”

Then Paul acknowledges both that he is not already alive in that union to the fullest extent (Philippians 3:12) and that he has already been made Christ’s own. He pursues (v. 14) what he has, yearning for it more fully than he can describe. It is an “upward call” (3:20 and the citizenship of heaven), which presumably continues to summon Paul to greater and greater joy and love overflowing with knowledge and insight.

With all this longing and energy, Paul both shows the Philippians what it looks like to share among themselves the mind of Christ. Both the disregard for measures of value in the past and in the longing for the fullness that lies ahead, Paul imitates the Christ of the great hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 and shows the Philippians themselves a way to set aside the past in order to strain toward what lies ahead. Nothing on earth, including Paul’s imprisonment as described in chapter one, can distract him from the new and joyful pursuit of life in God by being Christ’s own.

In his book, The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis shows us a supremely active “heaven” in which those caught up in new life run together, tirelessly, further up and further in, into a new world that is reminiscent of the old, only better. The old world is left firmly behind and there is only one direction to go, in and up. As evocative as this image continues to be (for me, at least) and as evocative as Paul’s description is for the power of turning toward God’s love as part of a body in Christ, I wonder how one can preach this as powerfully in this time in the life of the world.

Perhaps the joy and hope of falling and/or being in love is the best we can do to come near to the emotion in this passage, emotion that is both human and also divine. Not only as couples discover love for one another that brooks no opposition, but also parents fall in love with newborns in ways that take them [mostly] joyfully away from their past lives into a relationship of self-giving, future-imagining love. Children come to love parents also, though they must grow into it, pressing onward for a love that is already theirs and has indeed brought them into being.

How we speak of this love of God and the life of a person caught up in its realization as Paul was, is not easy. The realization of how much we are loved, of how much God continues to long for and invite our growth in love, most of us don’t have time or take it to experience that. Our lives are grown up, mature, responsible. Our experiences are demanding, scientifically-grounded, and often not fruitful. Even our dearest relationships can be fraught with difficulties that wear us out rather than buoy us up. Surely this is true even within healthy communities of God’s own people.

This passage gives us a wonderful opportunity to reflect anew on God’s love for us. It also suggests splendidly how eagerly we take up the call of God as we know it in Christ Jesus, a call to life together for each other’s good. We are reminded that Paul wrote these words to strengthen and encourage a community he loved and who were already doing well in their life in Christ (see Philippians 1:3-11). They nevertheless seem to have been disheartened, even distanced, from their faith by Paul’s imprisonment. When love calls us, Paul seems to say in his section of his letter, “ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no river wide enough”1 to keep us from one another. In fact, mountains and rivers, imprisonment, the sufferings of the journey whatever they might be, were endured by Christ and even in those sufferings we draw closer to the one who gives us life.


“Aint no mountain high enough,” Marvin Gaye.