Lectionary Commentaries for March 21, 2010
Fifth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 12:1-8

Matt Skinner

Extravagance. Pleasure. Effusiveness. Exuberance. These aren’t ideas that we usually associate with Lent and the overture to Jesus’ passion.

But Mary of Bethany understands differently.

John 12:1-8 in Its Context

Within the narrative world of John’s Gospel, this passage acquires a good deal of meaning through its connections to other scenes and themes. Mary’s gift, along with Judas’s stinginess, has greater significance because of how it participates in a series of developments.

  • Passover is near, and so too is Jesus’ “hour” (see 13:1). He spends time with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus soon after the pivotal scene of Lazarus’s revivification (11:1-44). That is the “sign” that brings many to believe in him (11:45; 12:9-11), many to flock to him (12:17-19), and others to plot his death (11:47-53). When Jesus mentions his burial in 12:7, this confirms that his end is coming. Yet Lazarus’s presence at the table confirms that death does not speak the final word.
  • Jesus forges the connection between the anointing and his burial in 12:7, a verse that has proved challenging to render into sensible English. The NRSV’s phrasing is not helpful in its implication that Mary purchased the perfume meaning to use it for Jesus’ burial. Rather, Jesus suggests that Mary’s keeping the perfume in her possession and using it on him now have consequently achieved a greater, more meaningful purpose that she perhaps intended: announcing the nearness of Jesus’ death and preparing for his burial.
  • The sweet smell of Mary’s perfume counters the stench of Lazarus’s tomb (11:39). Life and death, wholeness and corruption remain contrasted throughout both scenes.
  • Mary’s wiping of Jesus’ feet prefigures the time when he will wipe the feet of his disciples (13:5). This reveals her as a model disciple, for the washing and wiping of feet expresses a unity with Jesus (13:8) and reflects his command (13:14-15).
  • Readers know from 6:70-71 that Judas is “a devil,” but John chooses this point in the narrative to reveal him as a thief (compare 13:29). This creates a clear opposition between him and Mary. He is false; she is true. He is greedy and self-serving; she is generous and ebullient in devotion.

John 12:1-8 in Its Own Terms

While this passage helps us appreciate the structure and emphases of John’s Gospel, excessive focus on those dimensions can actually threaten, at least on this Sunday, to take our attention from Jesus, Mary, and the intensity of this particular episode.

Likewise, an opportunity would be wasted if a sermon focused only on Judas, his presumed motives, and his possible resemblance to other money managers who have made the news over the last year or two. Mary’s testimony and model offer valuable perspectives that deserve our attention.

Mary’s gift exceeds extravagance. She expends a pound of perfume valued at about the yearly income of a manual laborer (see 12:5 in the NIV).

Mary also exceeds good taste. Scholars cannot agree about whether the detail concerning Mary’s hair lends an erotic air to the event, although I think it is impossible to hear the story today without raising an eyebrow. At the very least, Mary’s hair imbues the act with profound intimacy, calling attention to the tactile element of the anointing. If the fragrance of her perfume fills the house, the gentle touch of her locks fills Jesus’ sensations. It is an expression of deep love that those watching would hardly ignore or find ordinary.

The whole scene offends at least one of the onlookers. Judas breaks in. Does he regret losing the chance to pilfer from the 300 denarii, or is Mary’s lavish love too disturbing to watch?

We can understand the economic and charitable logic beneath Judas’s criticism, but we should also recognize that it resembles a rigorous, unyielding piety that cannot stomach a wild love like Mary’s. Acts of true grace and love regularly get slandered as deviance.

Jesus’ response to Judas sounds surprisingly gentle, given all the other ways this passage sets up that disciple as the villain. Jesus speaks more to us, to those who wonder if Mary’s apparent recklessness sets a dangerous precedent. When he says, “You always have the poor with you,” he does not diminish the seriousness of poverty and the imperative for charity. Possibly he alludes to Deuteronomy 15:11, which commands generosity toward the poor precisely “since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth.” As punctuated by the anointing for burial, Jesus looks toward his death, contrasting his impending departure with the perennial opportunity to serve the poor. The specter of Jesus’ death makes a deed like Mary’s strangely appropriate, because it emanates from love and expresses understanding about Jesus and what he must do.

What Does Jesus Smell Like?

The vividly sensuous nature of this passage encourages preachers to invite congregations to think about the gospel in ways beyond words, speaking, and reading. Does grace have a scent? It can be worth the effort to reflect on Jesus and his work in terms of meaningful smells and sensations.

Rudyard Kipling wrote, “Smells are surer than sounds or sights / To make your heart-strings crack.”1

Most people have experienced a smell that floods the mind with arresting memories of a person, place, or event. Olfaction, emotion, and memory share closely networked real estate in the brain’s limbic system. Our sense of smell relates closely to how we experience life and process significant memories. I have had foul odors from an unseen dumpster literally stop me in my tracks because they conjure sights and sounds I experienced as a teenager on a life-changing visit to a Haitian slum. I cannot tell most perfumes apart until I’m in a crowd and I chance upon someone wearing the fragrance my wife wore when we were dating.

Mary’s gift emits an aroma that saturates the house and the minds of everyone in it. How does that passionate aroma persist even today? What real-life experiences does Jesus’ death forever define, like a scent we never forget?

The Sweet Aroma of Jesus’ Death

The pairing of Mary and Judas creates a rhetoric of contrast, which also might energize a sermon. Notice a variety of oppositions:

  • Mary and Judas contrast true and false discipleship, as well as true and false love.
  • The fragrance of the perfume strikes a contrast to Jesus’ death and burial. Our interpretation of the scene cannot ignore the gloom. Mary does not anoint Jesus as king or Messiah; she anoints a corpse. If the beautiful scent and ugly crucifixion seem incongruent, then we are onto John’s strange logic whereby Jesus is lifted up onto a cross so that he might attract all to himself (12:32).
  • Lavish devotion contrasts critical stinginess. This passage gives permission, so to speak, to honor Jesus in extravagant ways, perhaps even by giving a massive donation to the poor. It warns against mistaking discipline for discipleship. It embraces affection as part of a devotion to Jesus that is nothing less than the costly, precious gift of one’s whole self–down to every last strand of hair.


1 http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_licht.htm (In the original version of this commentary, I wrongly attributed the quote to Vladimir Nabokov. Thanks to Rachel Haxtema for correcting the error.)

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.

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, for those of us preaching in a post-Al Gore world, 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.


Commentary on Psalm 126

Paul S. Berge

Cyrus, a Persian emperor, ruled Babylonia from 538-530 B.C. His military victories put him in control of the largest empire of the world at that time.

His policy toward the conquered peoples was one of tolerance. His conquering of Babylonia and authorization of the return of the captive Israelites to rebuild the Jerusalem temple is an example of his enlightened rule. Isaiah calls Cyrus the anointed one of the Lord: “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him — and the gates shall not be closed” (Isaiah 45:1). And further: “I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight: he shall build my city and set my exiles free” (Isaiah 45:13).

This historical setting appears to be the context in which this Psalm was composed as the opening verse proclaims: “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (verse 1). Is it too good to be true that such an enlightened ruler like Cyrus of Persia could act for our deliverance from captivity in Babylon and from a people that does not know our God? Are we really free to return home and rebuild the house of our LORD on Mount Zion? This is all like a dream come true.

Expressions of joy continue by the Psalmist in an overflowing outpouring of joy: “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy” (verse 2a). The prospects of a captive people free to return to their homeland are overwhelming not only for those returning but for peoples of other nations: “Then it was said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them'” (verse 2b). In Cyrus of Persia have the people of the nations witnessed a deliverance of messianic expectation?

Not only has the Lord done “great things,” recognized by the peoples of the nations, but “The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced” (verse 3). What more can be a cause for rejoicing than being delivered from captivity in a foreign land? The generation of Israelites that was taken into Babylonian captivity has had to live through the years of oppression and slavery. Now enveloped in freedom there is laughter and joy.

Think of that which enslaves us, in whatever form that takes in our lives, and from which we too long for freedom. The LORD who delivered the Israelites is the same LORD who comes to us in grace offering us the gift of freedom in Christ as the apostle Paul proclaims: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

Upon returning to their homeland the Israelites once again face the reality of life on the land. The Negeb desert is semi-arid land to which they have returned. When the rains come on such dry land they create torrents of water, rivers that wash away the dry soil: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb” (verse 4). The plea of the newly settled people in their homeland is for planting and harvest seasons that will provide for the people.

If the sowing season finds rain that washes seed away rather than nourishing, then the people sow in tears. If the harvest time produces a bountiful crop then there will be a time of rejoicing: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy” (verse 5). The terrain may be different in your part of the country, but the concern of those who sow and reap remains the same. Praying for rain to sustain the growth and warmth to germinate the seed toward a rich harvest remain the same in any age.

The words of verse 5 are repeated in the concluding verse of the Psalm. “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (verse 6). The weeping, perhaps a sign of the anxiety of forthcoming rain, reflects that which accompanies the time of planting. For this time to be turned into shouts of joy must await the time of the abundance of harvest.

The concluding oracle in the book of Amos carries the same hope and trust in the LORD’s provision: “I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit” (Amos 9:14).

As the promise of God’s steadfast love remains through seed time and harvest, so also the people are called to live in the promise of God’s presence with them in the land to which they have been planted. As the oracle in Amos concludes: “I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the LORD your God” (Amos 9:15).

What are we to make of such promises? The reading from Isaiah 43:16-21 for this Sunday expresses that the God who delivers from captivity and who redeems in times of drought, is the LORD God who promises in all of this a “new thing” which is ultimately a fulfillment of the “great things” of this Psalm (verse 2-3): “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19).

The “new thing” is not another Cyrus of Persia, the one who fulfills the hope of Psalm 126, but one in whom the whole fullness of the LORD God abides. This is the hope centered in Jesus Christ, the anointed. Do you not perceive it? This is the promise of the God who keeps covenant with his people of old and new.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14

Holly Hearon

The season of Lent, with its inexorable movement towards the cross, offers us an opportunity to reflect on our journey through life, from the cradle to grave.

None of us knows just how long that journey will be, or what challenges will await us along the way. A great deal of what we encounter we will not be able to control. What Paul’s words, written from prison, remind us of is the importance of perspective. One of the ways we gain perspective is by engaging in reflection on our past, present, and future, and how they come together in any given moment.

The Past
The phrase “a person with a past” usually conjures up an image of someone who has a past that he would like to leave behind. Yet we all have a past. Whether we view it negatively or positively, our past contains the roots out of which the present grows.

Paul’s past, as presented here, is a boast which he is quickly going to deflate. But that does not mean it should be dismissed. Paul’s ‘boast’ is also an honest claim of who he is. Indeed, his boast would be hollow if the claims he makes were not true. In order to gain a true perspective on our journey through life, we have to be able to engage our past. Honest reflection involves recognizing those things of which we are ashamed, as well as those ways in which we have experienced privilege, or made significant achievements. All of these are present in Paul’s account. He does not shy away from stating that he persecuted the church to which he now belongs; yet he unhesitatingly lists those things in which he recognizes he can justifiably claim pride. The key is perspective.

The Present
Because Paul is engaged in a ‘boast’ in which he compares himself to opponents (either real or possibly ‘straw figures’ erected to strengthen group boundaries), he continues in a hyperbolic voice: whatever Paul has achieved in the past counts for nothing, it is dung. This is not the same thing as saying that Paul had no value as a person in the past. Rather, Paul is putting his life’s journey into perspective.

From the perspective of the present, Paul views his past differently. Paul recognizes that things which he valued in the past, which gave him status, are no longer important to him. Not that Paul has left the past completely behind. He still argues from scripture like a Pharisee (that is, as someone who is skilled in the study and use of scripture), he is still a member of the people Israel; he is still zealous in his behavior. What has changed for Paul is the standard by which he evaluates his life. For Paul, that standard is now his understanding of the life pattern established by Christ.

This standard is expressed more fully earlier in the letter in the so-called ‘Christ Hymn’ of Philippians 2:5-11. It is cited in short-hand here when Paul speaks of sharing in Christ’s sufferings by becoming like him in death. The pattern that Paul is seeking to conform his life to is that of one who does not count privilege as protection or an entitlement, but rather who sets aside all that privilege has entitled him to in order to serve. This theme resounds throughout the letter in phrases such as ‘let each of you look not to your own interest, but the interests of others’ (2:4), and in the examples of Timothy and Epaphroditus. It is expressed also in the language ‘the faith of Christ’ (3:9) which many scholars favor to ‘faith in Christ,’ although perhaps it is a little of both.

Faith is the language of trust, rather than intellectual assent. Paul recognizes that his ‘right standing’ is the result of the faithfulness exercised by Christ on his life journey; because of this faithfulness, Paul is able to trust (have faith) in Christ. It is living into the faithfulness of Christ that enables Paul to view his past differently. For Paul, that means not clinging to the benefits of privilege; for others, who have never experienced privilege, it might mean claiming a heightened sense of self as a result of knowing themselves as persons with and in whom Christ dwells (3:12).

The Future

How we view the future has as much impact on the present as does the past. Despair or loss of hope can make us feel as if we are trapped in a corner with our faces against the wall; in contrast, a sense of hope can give us courage to press on into the unknown. For Paul, the promise of life in Christ through the power of the resurrection not only sustains him in the present, but urges him forward into the future.

Paul is careful to distinguish between the present and the future. Resurrection is his hope; it is not his present reality. Overconfidence in some future promise, whether it is resurrection, a possible job, or a hoped for outcome in a relationship, can deceive us into thinking that the promise is already fulfilled. Believing that we have already attained what is still in the future can lead us to become careless, to not attend to the things that need doing now in order to build a foundation for the future. Paul cautions us to remember that our present moment is destined to become the past that holds the roots out of which the future present will grow.

Paul also does not let this prize give him a false sense of what life is like in the present: that is, the promise does not become a new kind of privilege that protects or entitles. Rather, it is through sharing in the sufferings of Christ that Paul says he will attain resurrection. This is not a call to martyrdom. Rather, it is a call to live into the faithfulness of Christ. How we respond to this call will grow out of our Lenten reflections on the past, present and future–of our individual lives and our life as a community.