Lectionary Commentaries for March 17, 2013
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Commentary on John 12:1-8
Commentary on Isaiah 43:16-21
The Old Testament reading for this week is taken from that portion of Isaiah that is often called “Second Isaiah.” Although very few traces of the prophet’s identity can be found in Isaiah 40-55, the period of Second Isaiah’s ministry is located with some confidence in the late sixth century, the time when Judah was suffering under Babylonian rule.
Some of the people had been taken into exile in Babylon while others remained in the land, but both groups suffered to varying degrees the debilitating effects of being a conquered people.
Physically, economically, culturally, and religiously, the people felt the might of Babylon, and it seems that one of the tasks of the prophet was to rebuild the people’s understanding of themselves as God’s own people and to reassure them that their god was fully capable of taking on the Babylonian superpower in order to save them.
Isaiah 43:16-21 begins with a formula familiar to any reader of the prophets: “Thus says the Lord.” These words are the traditional introduction to a prophetic oracle and occur in this chapter three times (verses 1, 14, 16). What follows the three instances of this expression in chapter 43, however, is not the expected divine oracle but a character reference of sorts for the god on whose behalf the prophet is speaking.
The god addressing the people is none other than the god who “makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse… they are extinguished, quenched like a wick!” (verse 16b). The image is stirring and visual and highlights the power of God over both the forces of nature and military might, a power to which the Exodus, the foundational story of the people of Israel, attests. The similarities between Isaiah 43:16-17 and the description of the miraculous rescue of the people at the sea in Exodus 14 and 15 strongly suggest that the prophet is invoking their cultural memory of that dramatic story of redemption from Egypt.
The foundational narrative of the people is an impressive story to bring into play, but it is hardly surprising to find a reference to this story of redemption in the context of Isaiah 43. In fact, there are references throughout this chapter to the history the people and God share. Verse 1 refers to God as the one who “created,” “formed,” “redeemed,” and “named” them. Verse 7 notes that the people were, in fact, named after their god and created for this god’s own glory (see also verse 21). Clearly, the prophet wants the people to see that their own identity as a people is intertwined with the identity of their god. They are indissolubly linked.
It is fascinating that the prophet, having gone to so much effort to invoke the past, continues in verse 18 with the injunction: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old!” The command is surprising and serves as an effective rhetorical device to get the people’s attention, for the prophet is not content to have the people wax nostalgic about the “good old days.”
It is not on the past as the past that the prophet wants the people to concentrate. The prophet aims to create an imaginative space in the minds of the people so that their conception of the past can transform their understanding of the present and, thus, the future: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” In a seemingly hopeless situation, the prophet calls on the people not to lose heart but to look with anticipation for the signs of God’s approaching redemption, for the “new thing” that is coming.
The “new thing” is described in non-specific language that seems to refer to the past even as it points to the future. Water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert in verses 19b-20 suggest a link between the Exodus journey and the return of Judah’s exiles from Babylon. The animals mentioned underscore the desolation of the land through which the people will travel on their way home and serve to remind the people of their ancestors’ journey out of Egypt and through the wilderness.
Ostriches and jackals are associated with the wild places, the uninhabited and uninhabitable land, and yet, the prophet assures the people that they need not fear such places. Even the wild animals that live there are amazed at the marvelous deeds of this god who “gives water in the wilderness.” A journey through the wilderness will be hard, but the grace and power of God prevailed in the past and will do so in the future. The past is, even now, repeating itself: “Do you not perceive it?” the prophet cries out, compelling the people to begin looking around them in hope.
I am struck in this text by the fact that the prophet’s description of the character of God refers to the past, while the words that are, apparently, the content of the divine speech look to the future. Verses 19-21 are written as direct discourse, spoken by a first person speaker. The divine injunction interrupts the prophet’s depiction of God’s deeds. “Do not remember…” is a divine command! Look around or you will miss the future being born!
Human families and communities are designed to create stability for their members. Churches are no different—perhaps sometimes they are much worse. Even in the midst of suffering, so often we humans cling to the old adage: “The evil you know is better than the evil you don’t know.” Isaiah 43 compels us to view our experience of God’s grace in the past as a springboard so that we view neither present nor future with fear but with expectation.
This is a wonderful and very necessary word for the Church to hear in this current age when there is so much change and upheaval. The character of our god has not changed. God’s grace and power have sustained us in the past, will see us through the present and guide us into the future. I am reminded of the poem “A Homecoming” by Wendell Berry:
…In the trust of old love, cultivation shows
a dark and graceful wilderness
at its heart. Wild
in that wilderness, we roam
the distance of our faith;
safe beyond the bounds
of what we know. O love,
open. Show me
my country. Take me home.1
“Safe beyond the bounds of what we know” is as apt a description of a faith journey as any I have heard. In times of uncertainty and fear, Isaiah 43 urges us to be alert for the signs of God’s continued presence, working to sustain and redeem even to this day.
1Wendell Barry, “A Homecoming,” in Country of Marriage (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1973).
Commentary on Psalm 126
Psalm 126 is a community song of trust or confidence that skillfully employs metaphor to proclaim God as the one who brings joy out of sorrow, laughter out of tears, and good out of evil.
To begin with, the opening idiom, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,” has caused problems in interpretation. The idiom, literally “to turn a turning” means “to restore/bring back” an earlier situation, as often in Jeremiah (29:14; 30:3, 18; 31:23; see Psalm 14:7; 53:6; Hosea 6:11). Older translations like the King James Version, however, took it to mean “bring back the captivity” (that is, the exiles in Babylon). But the post-exilic texts paint anything but a joyous return where economic hardship and disunity more commonly appear (Haggai 1:6-11; 2:16-19; Zechariah 7:8-14; Third Isaiah; Ezra-Nehemiah). Thus, verse 1 can refer to any of a number of possible “restorations.”
Our psalm is also part of a collection of psalms known as the “Songs of Ascents” (Psalms 120-134). Though this is the clearest example of a collection in the Psalter, due to their common superscription “a song of (Psalm 121: “for”) ascents,” and the only one that includes the constitutive psalms in a self-contained unit, the function of the collection as a whole continues to elude interpreters. The most likely proposals include:
- a prayer book for use on pilgrimages to the three prescribed annual festivals
- liturgical usage at specific Jewish festivals such as Booths
- the Mishnah’s suggestion of assigning one of the fifteen psalms to each of the fifteen steps in the Jerusalem temple (Ezekiel 40:26, 31) where the Levites supposedly stood to sing their praises.
Then again, perhaps the “steps” refer to a poetic trope often found in these psalms, anadiplosis, the staircase, terraced, or step-like repetition of words from previous verses (in our psalm “restore our fortunes” appears in verses 1 and 4, “the Lord has done great things for” and “then” (az) appear in verses 2 and 3, and “shouts of joy” appears in verses 2, 5 and 6; the trope also appears in Psalm 121; 122; 123; 127; 129; 130; 133). Others, noticing that in addition to “ascent,” or “step” ma’alah can also refer to the exiles’ journey back from captivity in Babylon (Ezra 2:1; 7:9), have drawn plausible connections to the exiles returning to Jerusalem. On the fifth Sunday in Lent, one’s imagination might even move in the direction of our Lenten journey.
In terms of structure the psalm falls into two stanzas (verses 1-3; 4-6) that mirror each other as alternating panels:
A Statement of Yahweh’s Past Restoration of Fortune verse 1a
B Comparison 1b
C Joy unmingled verse 2-3
A’ Prayer for Yahweh’s Future Restoration of Fortune verse 4a
B’ Comparison 4b
C’ Joy mingled with tears verses 5-6
A and A’ share references to the governing idiom “restore the fortunes” and “Yahweh.”
B and B’ are comparisons using the comparative kaph “like.”
C and C’ share references to “shouts of joy” (verses 2b, 5b, 6b).
C displays its own chiastic structure as well:
a gladness verse 2a
b great things verse 2b
b’ great things verse 3a
a’ gladness verse 3b
C’ on the other hand employs alternation like the rest of the psalm (though verse 5 chiastically arranges opposites: “sow : tears : joy : reap”):
a sowing in tears verse 5a
b reaping in joy verse 5b
a’ sowing in tears verse 6a
b’ reaping in joy verse 6b
Of interest, here, is the observation that C only contains references to joyful gladness. Israel’s mouth is filled with laughter, its tongue says nothing but shouts of joy, and both Israel and the nations acknowledge the “great things” that Yahweh has done. In C’, however, the pure joy of C is mingled with weeping.
Stanza One (verses 1-3) is further set off by the inclusio (hayiynu) “we were” (verses 1b, 3b).
These observations suggest that in Stanza One the community is looking back to a time when Yahweh had “turned the tide of Zion’s fortunes,” as the New English Bible rather colorfully puts it. Whether this was the return from Babylon or any of a number of other fortuitous events the community is overjoyed and gleefully ascribes their good fortune to the transforming power of God’s gracious activity on their behalf. Caught up in the unmingled joy of their situation they couldn’t believe it; it was a dream come true.
Stanza Two finds the community down the road but encouraged by their recollections to ask God to do it again. The mingling of joy and tears reminds us, as it must have reminded them that life is a mixture of joy and sorrow; but just as the parched Negev springs to life with the gully-washing grace of God’s winter rainfall, and as surely as the harvest follows the time of planting, God can be counted on to complete the good work already begun.
These themes seem to come together for those of us approaching the end of our Lenten journey in the relationship of sowing, death, resurrection, and fruit-bearing that Jesus shares in John 12:24: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
May the tears of repentance give way to the joy of Easter.
Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14
This passage invites us to reflect on what we value most.
A recent Reuters poll reveals that Americans value “time” first, with “career,” “success,” and “money” coming in as close seconds for certain groups of people. What we value most is likely demonstrated by how we spend our time and how we spend our resources.
At one point, the apostle Paul spent all his time and resources pursuing and persecuting Christians, establishing a successful career as a devout Pharisee. When he writes the letter to the Philippians, he has changed course so that he now spends all his time and resources pursuing Christ. His career success appears to be in shambles because he lands in prison for the sake of Christ.
However, what looks like a failed career contributes to the fulfillment of Paul’s calling as a minister to the Gentiles because he is able to communicate the gospel to the prison guards (2:12-18). Paul’s change of course demonstrates what he values most.
In our text, Paul argues against valuing the “flesh,” or what he calls “confidence in the flesh” (3:4b). Fitting our passage in context helps us to see what he means by this. Chapter 3 opens with Paul’s warning against false teachers who insist that a person must be circumcised in order to be a bona fide member of God’s people (verses 1-3). In other words, they insisted that a person must become a Jew in order to become a Christian. Their religion is directed by external rituals.
By contrast, Paul speaks of religion that is directed by the Spirit of God (verse 3). The point is not that external rituals are wrong, but that without the Spirit’s generating work, they are fruitless. Circumcision was a sign and seal of the covenant, but it was meant to point to an inward reality, the circumcision of the heart (see Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4; Ezekiel 44:7). It appears that these teachers have lost sight of what circumcision of the flesh signifies. When Paul writes about confidence in the flesh, he means valuing circumcision and other exterior rituals most.
To illustrate the confidence in the flesh against which he speaks, Paul uses himself as a negative example. He has more reason to boast in the flesh than anyone (4b), and lists seven advantages he could claim (verses 5-6). The first four advantages are inherited:
1) He is a full member of God’s covenant people (“circumcised on the eighth day”),
2) He is an Israelite by birth with all the rights and privileges that adhere (“a member of the people of Israel”),
3) He hails from one of the two tribes (Benjamin and Joseph) considered to be faithful to the covenant (“of the tribe of Benjamin”),
4) He is the son of Hebrew parents with no Gentile contamination, that is, he is not a “mud-blood” (“a Hebrew born of Hebrews”).
The last three are achievements:
5) He practices strict observance of the law (“a Pharisee of Pharisees”)
6) He exhibits avid devotion to God (“as to zeal, a persecutor of the church”)
7) He is above reproach according to a Pharisaic interpretation of the law (“as to righteousness under the law, blameless”).
Then Paul makes a big contrast with a little word: “But” (verse 7). He contrasts his old mindset and actions (verses 4-5) with new ones (verses 7-9), using the language of accounting (“gain” and “loss”). The end of a profit and loss statement shows the net loss or net income, indicating the extent to which a business, craft, or household is profitable.
Paul understands profitable living in the household of God terms of “attaining to the resurrection of the dead” (verses 11; see also 12, 14). In order to make a profit, he counts all his external advantages as “loss” and counts knowing Christ as “gain.” Earlier, Paul had written about giving up all rights and privileges for the sake of others (2:1-4). Now he speaks about giving up all rights and privileges for the sake of knowing Christ (verse 10).
Paul values knowing Christ because he has come to see that only in union with Christ, and not on account of his natural qualities or achievements, may he stand before God. Paul wants to be “found” in Christ. This is language of final judgment, when a person’s life is disclosed before his maker (see also 2 Peter 3:10, 14). Paul contrasts two kinds of righteousness for this disclosure: “having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law” versus “one that comes through faith in Christ” (verse 9).
He has described the righteousness from the law in verses 5-6. By contrast, the righteousness through faith in Christ likely refers to Jesus’ obedient death on the cross. Grammatically, the phrase translated “faith in Christ” may also be translated “the faithfulness of Christ.” This alternate translation makes the best sense of the contrast that Paul sets up: not the law versus human faith; but the law (its works do not give life) versus Jesus’ obedient death (by his work, he gives life; see also Romans 8:1-4).
Paul mixes accounting imagery with athletic imagery in order to portray the extent to which he values Christ. In verse 12, he says that he has not already obtained “all this,” probably referring to the full knowledge of Christ and the resurrection of the dead that is his ultimate goal. Because his values have changed, he exerts the energy with which he would strain to win a race into the pursuit of Christ. He does this by forgetting what lies behind (all those privileges and achievements he mentions in verses 5-6) and by straining forward to what lies ahead (sharing in Christ’s resurrection).
In light of this text, we may reflect on what we value most as individuals and as church communities. Perhaps we tend to value certain inherited qualities or achievements as “gains” that give us value before God. Lent is a time for examining our lives and our faith, so that we may count such gains as loss and deepen our reliance upon Jesus Christ.
Sometimes we tell a simple story of discipleship: believers are “in” and unbelievers are “out.”
Although the dichotomies of John’s Gospel can reinforce this notion for us (e.g., light and dark, above and below; see 3:20-21; 8:23), the characters of the Gospel may confound us because they do not fit neatly into these categories. Although briefly portrayed, the characters of John’s story of the anointing of Jesus are an opportunity to reflect on the nature of discipleship in the days leading up to Good Friday and Easter.
Mary is loved by Jesus and believes in him. She has seen him raise her brother from the dead. Her outpouring of this elaborate gift is undoubtedly an act of thanksgiving for the gift of life, but John’s language indicates that it is much more than that as well. The reader is never given any insight into Mary’s internal thoughts. We do not know what she intends by her actions, only what John suggests about their meaning.
John does not tell us what Mary means to do, but instead situates her actions so that they resonate with other parts of the story. Throughout the Gospel, John assumes that the reader knows the story that lies ahead. For example, John introduces Mary in chapter 11 as “the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair” (11:2), assuming the reader’s familiarity with the story he narrates afterward. Similarly, the reader familiar with the end of John’s Gospel may see that Mary’s actions anticipate later themes in Jesus’ teaching and his passion.
Mary’s anointing (12:3) is a prophetic act that is both a sign of Jesus’ kingship and its formal announcement. Anointing with oil or perfume had many purposes in antiquity. For kings and priests, anointing meant consecration for a specific purpose (see Exodus 40:15; 1 Samuel 16:12). The sick were anointed as a ritual of healing (e.g., Mark 6:13; James 5:14) and the dead anointed for burial (e.g., Mark 16:1). Theoretically, Mary’s act could have meant any of these things. However, in the trial scenes, John will go on to point repeatedly to Jesus’ kingship. Because of this literary context, Mary’s actions anticipate and enact the notion that Jesus is king.
Jesus’ response to Judas adds an additional layer to our understanding of Mary’s actions. She has anointed his body for burial. The wording of verse 7 is somewhat awkward. The Greek literally says, “Leave her alone so that she may keep it [the perfume] for the day of my burial.” But Mary seems already to have expended the perfume, so that the whole house is filled with its scent. Although some interpreters posit some remaining perfume, it may be better to assume that the awkward grammar reflects this strange situation: the “day of Jesus burial” begins now, even though he will not be buried for another week. Jesus has been pointing to the time of “his hour” throughout the Gospel (e.g., 2:4; 5; 25; 7:30).
And the first indication that the hour begins comes shortly after this point, with Jesus’ words, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23). Jesus announces the arrival of his hour, even though the crucifixion is still days off (cf. 13:1). In John, Jesus’ hour is the time of his death and exaltation, and both these are prefigured in Mary’s anointing of Jesus.
Mary’s actions also anticipate Jesus’ later teaching to the disciples. Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair, the same action he takes in the next chapter when he washes his disciples’ feet and wipes them with the towel tied around his body (13:5; the same Greek word, ekmasso, is used in each case). The foot washing is an example the disciples are to follow (13:14-15), something Mary has already done.
Martha’s actions also embody Jesus’ teachings about his followers. Martha is mentioned briefly: “They gave a dinner for him. Martha served…” (12:2). Many interpreters link Martha’s actions here to Luke’s description of her as “distracted by her many tasks” (Luke 10:40). Yet it is more useful to look within John’s Gospel for the meaning of Martha’s actions. Like Mary, Martha’s actions take on new meaning when reflected in Jesus’ teachings. Later in the chapter, Jesus points to service (the Greek word in 12:2, diakoneo): “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (John 12:26). Again, Martha’s consciousness of her actions is not available to the reader, but she is shown to be doing what Jesus expects disciples to do.
Although Judas is known to the reader already as a “devil,” one of the twelve, and one who would betray Jesus (John 6:70-71), he enters into the action of the story for the first time in these verses. Judas is a contradictory character: he is one of Jesus disciples, and he is about to betray him (12:4). Unlike the sisters’ intentions, Judas’s secret motivations are made known to the reader. His concern for the poor is merely a ruse to cover his own greed. John’s Gospel insists on this difficulty: Jesus is handed over not by an enemy or stranger but by one of his intimate associates. True loyalty and honesty are not prerequisites for discipleship. For Judas, who is seated at dinner with Jesus and his friends and has charge of the common purse, is a thief and betrayer.
The story of Mary’s anointing stands in contrast to the idea of many Christians today that what matters most is belief in Jesus — and by belief we mean conscious, doctrinal understanding of Jesus. Mary’s faithful action is different. John does not tell us what she believes, and it seems beyond human comprehension that she could understand all that will happen to Jesus, and all that her actions evoke. Yet we see her enact a faith that resonates deeply with what we know of Jesus’ kingship and his death.